"Blacklisted during Hollywood’s House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the 1940s and 50s and then vilified for naming names, Robert Rossen (1908 – 1966) has been largely neglected in the annals of critical and popular film – his legacy still hidden within the dark, embarrassing hole in Hollywood’s past.
Rossen’s parents were Russian Jewish immigrants who survived just above the poverty line in the battlegrounds of New York’s Lower East Side. As a youth, Rossen was surrounded by the very characters who would eventually inhabit his tangled worlds: gangsters, gamblers, bootleggers, hustlers, prostitutes. Inheriting an affinity for both writing and leftist politics from his Russian relatives, he was drawn to the Communist social protest drama which proliferated toward the end of the twenties and into the thirties. For Rossen, drama and politics were always intertwined – serving one another with the possibility of edifying and elevating all who struggled within an unjust structure – thus, shortly after signing up with the Hollywood studio system, he also joined the local Communist Party. In addition to deep disillusionment with the social and economic depressions of the thirties, he was impressed with the determination and hard work of like-minded Party members who also composed the most powerful portion of screenwriters in Hollywood.
With scripts cut out of the skin and bone of those on the outskirts of industrial society, he attributed his early screenwriting success to an “ability to articulate the silent cry that lay in the throats of so many people.” From the skeletons of Hollywood’s genre pictures, Rossen fleshed out unique human beings born from the dirt and dander of uncertain existence. Alcoholic, pathological gamblers of life emitting brusque, clever dialogue take surprising existential detours, their reflections tinged with a heavier moral gravity. Six scripts later, he was selected to add authenticity and grit to Raoul Walsh’s now-classic gangster film The Roaring Twenties (1939). This same corporeality would lend textured weight to his first directorial work of art, Body and Soul.
Rather than focusing on any central protagonist, he cast complex nets of characters linked by unusual, unclear relationships within the rigid boundaries of their economic and social environments. Often illustrated in dynamic visual arrangements, he respectfully treated men and women, predators and prey, with the same depth of development – even minor characters make indelible appearances in a Rossen film. Tormented by depravity, secrets, guilt and betrayal their complicated, unpredictable reactions are all part of a search for dignity, self and meaning in an illusory, materialistic world. Defensively withholding information from each other, from themselves and the audience, they flail with an ambiguous, yet driven pursuit of power and control. With no moral compass, once unleashed, it threatens to end in corrupt totalitarianism.
As his power in Hollywood escalated, the very forces Rossen described in his films ate away at the man himself. Rossen found the abstract ideals of politics – like stylized cinematic stereotypes – may not hold up to humanity’s unpredictable dips and swerves. He witnessed deception, disillusion, contradiction and paradox within the politics of studios, the Communist Party, the Screenwriters’ Guild, the US Government and Hollywood’s Left and Right. Feeling betrayed by his party while branded as one of the “Unfriendly Nineteen” by the government, he manifested the storm of external and internal politics through his dark triumph, All the King’s Men. Consolidating control as few had done before, he took over as writer, director and producer on the winding, documentary-like political exorcism, painfully shading every nuance of ethical compromise for the imagined greater good.
Needing to speak out against the Communist Party’s support of the violent Soviet dictatorship and feeling that providing a list of those in Hollywood with already publicized ties to Communism was a compromise that would enable him to keep making film, Rossen testified in 1953. During his European exile and after, Rossen continued asking questions and searching his soul through the cinema. Themes of courage, compromise and betrayal would echo mythically in Alexander the Great and resignedly in They Came to Cordura. Finally, after his most exquisite expressions of a tormented soul – The Hustler and Lilith – he died of a coronary occlusion at age 57.
If Rossen’s critics had listened to his films, they would have learned that one deed does not define a person. Within the silent resonance of the Red scare lies an earnest, thoughtful craftsman of complex diagrams of human nature under duress.
The Harvard Film Archive proudly presents all of the directed films and many of the screenwritten works by the overlooked artist Robert Rossen. — Brittany Gravely
The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School is hosting a talk after the screening of All the King’s Men on December 6 – discussing the film, how politics has or has not changed in the last six decades and the health of American democracy today. Special thanks: Tony Saich, Marty Mauzy, Melissa D'Anello – Ash Center.
Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely and Haden Guest
Directed by Robert Rossen. With Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason,
US 1961, 35mm, b/w, 135 min
Like Fast Eddie Felson, it seems that Robert Rossen’s journey to the depths of hell summoned all of his creative forces to align. Every element as precise and ambiguous as a physics puzzle, Rossen’s black-and-white Cinemascope screen mirrors the grungy, lonely glamour of the midwestern American pool halls where Fast Eddie displays as many confounding skills in his pool game as in his artful swindling. The scintillating performances of Paul Newman’s charming hustler, Piper Laurie’s troubled, perceptive Sarah and George C. Scott’s manipulative mastermind bounce off of one another in a high stakes game that aims beyond the shabby theatrics of the pool hall and into politics, filmmaking and the daily trafficking of the human spirit. The layers of masks and manipulation never fully peel away from the propaganda that all the “twisted, perverted, crippled” characters use to protect themselves and somehow “win.” Rossen’s search through night clubs, boxing rings, political parties and ancient Rome all seem to lead to Eddie’s chance to beat Minnesota Fats. At the end of a complex, tragic, gracefully executed game, exile may be the price of enlightenment. Print courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Directed by Lloyd Bacon. With Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart,
US 1937, 35mm, b/w, 96 min
Rossen’s second screenplay was based on the famous 1936 trial of “Lucky” Luciano – the prototypical mob boss who had violently monopolized New York’s liquor, gambling and prostitution rackets – and his conviction courtesy of popular “gangbuster” Thomas E. Dewey. In Marked Woman, the power and reputations of the maniacal patriarch and crusading hero ensnare a troupe of nightclub “hostesses” whose own dramas and relationships subversively override the standard gangster genre picture. Their brazen representative – played with charming precision by Bette Davis – leads the compromised women through Rossen’s requisite tragedies and soul-searching to finally “beat this racket” and serve as a – significantly all female – model for a multitude of disenfranchised ensembles Rossen would cinematically empower. Print courtesy of Warner Bros.
Directed by Robert Rossen. With John Garfield, Lilli Palmer, Hazel Brooks
US 1947, 35mm, b/w, 104 min
Twice denied the lead role of working class boxer in Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, Rossen’s longtime friend John Garfield slips into his customized character like a glove. Both former boxers, he and Rossen found themselves at home in the dodgy, grimy Prohibition-era New York of their youth where Charley Davis rises from the candy store counter to the world stage of an undefeated boxer – retaining an emotionally-pragmatic naiveté regarding the darker deals at play. Interlacing its larger moral questioning around a concerned ring of characters – including his slightly bohemian artist girlfriend, a dignified, principled mother and a loyal pal whose ethical maturation develops at the same rate that Charley’s declines – Body and Soul intricately details the physical and emotional casualties as Charley trades the economic binds of poverty for those of blind fortune. 35mm preservation print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive
Directed by Robert Rossen. With Dick Powell, Evelyn Keyes, Ellen Drew
US 1947, 35mm, b/w, 85 min
During a battle between director and producer over contracts, the film’s direction fell into the seasoned screenwriter’s lap and for his directorial debut, Rossen composed a spry, noirish murder mystery spun around a corrupt network of assorted characters whose connections to one another only gradually come into focus. The enigmatic man with the interesting name eludes definition – a casino boss who never gambles – and delicately dances around an ornate array of broken female companions and business partners – many of whom are likewise linked to each other by unsteady emotional and economic dependency. Cordially spurning attachment or purpose, O’Clock is finally jolted into existential action by the persistence of a clever detective and the murder victim’s beguiling sister. Print courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Directed by Robert Rossen. With Broderick Crawford, Joanne Dru,
US 1949, 35mm, b/w, 109 min
Fittingly, Rossen secured full reign of writer, director and producer for his translation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel about the rise of a populist despot. Created at the time when Communist blacklisting had just begun, All the King’s Men seems a pure, authentic eruption from the director’s conflicted, assaulted soul. Fueled in part by these very forces, Rossen worked more spontaneously and directly using actual locations, natural light and many non-actors. He boldly gazes into the socially stratified mirror of America, Hollywood, the press and his own demons in this potent, meticulous dissection of the deadly entanglement of personal and public politics. Doing good “at any price,” Willie Stark – played with manic fervor by Broderick Crawford – begins as a passionate, poignant Everyman exposing and dismantling a corrupt system. Amassing colorful legions of anguished characters on both sides of his homespun fence, Stark gradually stirs up dirt, disillusion and destruction on an unpredictable, persuasive campaign of deep betrayal. Print courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Tony Saich, Director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School will introduce the film and discuss how politics has or has not changed in the last six decades and on the health of American democracy today. The screening is part of “Challenges to Democracy,” a public dialogue series on the threats facing democracy in the United States hosted by the Ash Center in commemoration of its 10th anniversary.
Directed by Michael Curtiz. With Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino,
US 1941, 35mm, b/w, 98 min
The grotesque microcosm aboard The Ghost certainly contains allusions to the burgeoning power of fascism abroad, yet Rossen’s script – adapted from the Jack London novel – voyages more deeply into a timeless, mythic realm. At the helm is Edward G. Robinson’s masterfully rendered madman Captain Wolf Larsen, who relishes his reign in Hell by brute force and merciless manipulation. When fate washes three feisty outsiders aboard his “gallery of rogues,” the secretly erudite Captain is faced with defending his wicked empire to those whose consciences and intellects he has not yet battered into submission. Curtiz and Rossen’s turbulent parable presses the mass of humanity directly into an oversized, macabre ego – magnificently wrapping a noir fairy tale around an alarming reality. Print courtesy of Warner Bros.
Directed by Robert Rossen. With Silvana Mangano, Michael Rennie, Vittorio Gassman
US/Italy 1955, 35mm, b/w, 94 min. In Italian
Please note that this film will be presented in Italian,
The first film Rossen directed in an attempt to start over in Europe, the Italian-produced Mambo had passed through the hands of several writers before reaching him and would be subject to incessant studio interference. Producer Dino di Laurentiis placed his beautiful wife Silvana Mangano center stage as Giovanna, humiliated and trafficked by men who want to possess the fiercely sparkling jewel tucked within their narrow, impoverished streets. Although a traveling modern dance troupe hands her an escape route – and many engaging scenes with her ambitious, liberated teacher played by Shelley Winters – she stages a more curious dance around desires that have been confused by bitterness and self-absorption: “after all, the world owed me something.” By the time Giovanna experiences genuine love and a certain awareness, the twisting film has also attained its own kind of enchantment and pathos shaded by Neo-realistic candor. Print courtesy of Cineteca Nazionale.
Directed by Robert Rossen. With Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg,
US 1964, 35mm, b/w, 112 min
Rossen’s final film was his most internal, emotional and visually experimental depiction of the indefinite and unknowable recesses within the psyche. Deadpan, enigmatic Warren Beatty plays Vincent, one of Rossen’s well-intentioned soul searchers whose desire to simply “be of direct help to people” brings him from the bored angst of suburban middle America to a timeless, dreamlike asylum where dazed lulls are broken by absurd insights or paroxysms of emotion. And where he discovers Lilith, Jean Seaberg’s mesmerizing, sensual patient who resists definition or diagnosis. Resident of her own intricate chrysalis, she lures Vincent to a psychological crossroads where the mysterious, fluid nature of the mind, of perception, of love and sexuality finds shocking, unresolved expression. Print courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Directed by Robert Rossen. With James Mason, Joan Fontaine,
US 1957, 35mm, color, 119 min
Rossen was gradually re-entering the good graces of Hollywood with this “work-for-hire” for producer Darryl F. Zanuck. Wildly successful upon its release, the daring sun-drenched retreat to a British-colonized Caribbean island mingles the fascination and beauty of exotic otherness with that of stately British nobility. As a result, the romances of two pairs of interracial couples and those of two troubled upper class white couples melodramatically reflect and absorb the larger social inequalities and upheavals. An elaborately entertaining ensemble cast earnestly and ambitiously plays out 1950s hopes and fears surrounding race and colonialism despite the reverse of this picture postcard implicating Hollywood for its interest in those with darker skin only when they can be glamorously exploited. Print courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis. With Glenn Ford, Nina Foch,
US 1949, 35mm, b/w, 85 min
Rossen returned to the criminal underworld with this revisionist view of organized crime from the perspective of law enforcement. Made during a brief vogue for police procedural films, The Undercover Man is unusual for its exploration of the human side rather than the totalizing institutional vision offered in popular postwar films such as The Naked City and T-Men. The story of a hard-working accountant hired to find a chink in the armor of an untouchable mobster's vast financial operation, the film focuses with fascinating detail on the daily toil of the unsung and underpaid agents who work in cramped back rooms, their time measured in sweat stained undershirts and pencil stubs. Glenn Ford stars as another version of the Fifties’ Everyman pushed too far, here strained by the invincible menace of the mob and by his forced separation from his comely, understanding wife played by Nina Foch. Print courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Directed by Mervyn Le Roy. With Claude Rains, Gloria Dickson,
US 1937, 35mm, b/w, 90 min
Rossen delivered one of the angriest, most vociferous of the Thirties’ social problem films with his screenplay for They Won’t Forget, a bitter indictment of racial prejudice based on the infamous Leo Frank case in which a Jewish factory worker was framed by a dummy court and lynched by a vengeful mob in Georgia. Claude Rains adds extraordinary psychological nuance to his performance as a career-hungry District Attorney in the Deep South who fans the flames of injustice, essentially railroading a young teacher for murder despite his own personal and professional misgivings about the incendiary case. Print courtesy of Warner Bros.
Directed by Anatole Litvak. With John Garfield, Ida Lupino,
US 1941, 35mm, b/w, 85 min
Rossen was assigned with giving Irwin Shaw’s anti-fascist allegory for the stage a softer, happier, less Leftist and less Jewish cinematic treatment. John Garfield appears in his most merciless role as a small time Brooklyn gangster extorting money from fishermen in exchange for “protection.” Playing the restless daughter of one of his quarry, Garfield’s Sea Wolf co-star Ida Lupino is seduced by his volatile energy and promises of an exotic escape from her claustrophobic routines while unwittingly becoming a useful accomplice. Within the obscuring atmosphere enhanced by master cinematographer James Wong Howe and an oddly comic chord in the darkest moments, the film imparts an unusual amount of familial warmth to the noir fog. Print from the collection of George Eastman House.
Directed by Robert Rossen. With Mel Ferrer, Miroslava, Anthony Quinn
US 1951, 16mm, b/w, 106 min
Retreating to Mexico to escape the vehement anti-Communist showdown, Rossen took full advantage of the relocation by directing and producing a film set in Mexico with Mexican stars using actual locations. As a perfect model of the blurry economic and emotional bonds tying people to one another, Rossen’s signature star-and-manager relationship appears here in the form of famous matador Juan Bello and his agent Raoul, overseer of Juan’s profession and his life. Introducing the story as if an educational film, the documentary style – and incorporation of newsreel footage – adds a blunt edge and menacing suspense to the fear, tension and tragedy Juan experiences in and out of the bullring. At a time when Rossen had just achieved great financial and creative power in Hollywood, his entire career was suddenly in jeopardy. Like Juan Bello, he kept entering the brutal public arena to apprehend the glory of courage over the fear of death.
Directed by Lewis Milestone. With Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin,
US 1946, 35mm, b/w, 116 min
Barbara Stanwyck effortlessly flourishes in the role of an unusual femme fatale born into totalitarian privilege, her ambition fortified by cynicism, guilt and revenge. Bound together by a contract of fear, she and her anxious, alcoholic husband – played with prickling desperation by Kirk Douglas in his debut – have spawned a dictatorship of sorts in the small town of Iverston, only to be startled by the sudden intrusion of a freewheeling shadow from their past, Martha's childhood love. Rossen's torn characters all bear varying degrees of allegiance to illusory symbols – money, power, freedom – and long for meaningful connections yet can barely recognize them within the distortions of a morally confusing world. Thus, even the most unscrupulous act – and the film's disquieting ending – is counterbalanced by a discreet sympathy for all of industrial society's misshapen victims. Print courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Directed by Robert Rossen. With Richard Burton, Fredric March,
US/Spain 1956, 35mm, color, 141 min
A commanding, epic dispatch from a half-exiled Rossen to Hollywood, the film presents a fascinating overlay of his humanely rendered obsessions with purpose and power onto a lavish Cinemascope production. With Shakespearean bearing, Richard Burton abundantly fills the title roll as the prophesized god of men who wins hearts and conquers nations while fighting conspiracies boiling between his mystical mother and “barbarian” father Philip of Macedonia. Like Willie Stark or Charley Davis, the iconic legend falls prey to ill-defined desires, impulsive instinct and internal anguish. Aspiring to rise above the crude rule of his forebears and create a new, unified civilization, he is vaingloriously, unconscionably caught up in his own spectacular waves of victory. Alexander’s totalitarian idealism mirrors that of Rossen who was again in control of writing, direction and production, yet fighting studio battles all along the way as he attempted to regain his stature upon Hollywood’s world stage.
Directed by Robert Rossen. With Gary Cooper, Rita Hayworth, Van Heflin
US 1959, 35mm, color, 123 min
On Rossen’s path back into Hollywood’s fold after his blacklist-imposed exile, he tackled the themes of courage and treachery in an unusual Western. After the US cavalry wins a major battle against Pancho Villa’s men, Major Thorne awards a handful of soldiers medals for their uncommon acts of bravery. Played by a weary Gary Cooper in one of his final roles, Thorne embarks on a strange mission accompanying the motley band – plus Rita Hayworth’s treasonous rebel – through uneven, dangerous psychological terrain to Cordura where the soldiers will be publicly feted. As Thorne searches for the nature of bravery, he instead beholds the gamut of depravity from the deteriorating soldiers – finally discovering what he was looking for in the unlikeliest of places. Print courtesy of Sony Pictures.