Robert Rossen was one of the more radical of American filmmakers (at least politically, if not aesthetically) and a New Yorker, so it cannot have been all that easy for him to settle down in Hollywood. But if there was one studio he could logically be a part of it would be Warner Bros, and during the 1930s and early 1940s he was part of their script writing elite. Among the films he wrote are They Won't Forget (Mervyn LeRoy 1937), three films directed by Lewis Milestone, Edge of Darkness (1943), A Walk in the Sun (1945) and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and Sea Wolf (Michael Curtiz 1941). In an interview he said that in the 1930s "I was writing films already very close to the neo-realism that I did not yet know". Then, after the war, he became independent and made his first film as writer and director, Johnny O'Clock (1947). It is his second film though which is where he really hit it off, Body and Soul (1947), co-written by Abraham Polonsky and with John Garfield in the lead. They were also radicals and part of a group of politically dedicated people around Rossen. Unfortunately he had to struggle a great deal as a filmmaker, partly because of his communist leanings (even though he had left the party in 1949) and partly because of his need for independence. He directed only 10 films, but at least half of them are remarkable.
His films are usually about people that are driven by passions, of a singular cause. Be they gangsters, boxers, pool sharks or politicians, they are caught up in their own need to prove themselves, and to conquer the world, and in doing so they are a threat to themselves and to their surroundings. If they succeed, it has been because they have been stepping over friends and foes alike, if they fail it is their own fault. But they are not necessarily aware of either, they suffer from tunnel vision. It is not far-fetched to think that Rossen himself felt close to these characters, and he had himself been both a boxer and a pool shark before he began making films. The populist politician Willie Stark (played by Broderick Crawford) in the All the Kings Men (1949) is the scariest example of this, in what is one of Rossen's most unsettling and powerful films. All the Kings Men was also the first film on which Rossen was director, writer as well as producer.
Stylistically Rossen was uneven. He claims to have been influenced by Roberto Rossellini but he feels more like a poor version of William Wyler in his staging of dialogue scenes and such. There is often a theatrical feel to scenes when people are interacting, as if Rossen was not sure how direct his actors and actresses. The influence of Rossellini is perhaps more seen in Rossen's angry engagement with the real world. In his later films he also let narrative take a backseat, and focused on characters, feelings and fleeting movements instead.
But what is Rossen's real strength is the locker room poetry of his films. He clearly knew his characters and the milieus in which they moved, and how they moved in them. The boxing sequences in Body and Soul and the pool hall sequences in The Hustler (1961) are simmering with atmosphere and rather brilliant. In fact, Body and Soul feels like two films, one that is concerned with boxing and which is a masterpiece, and one that deals with the private life of the boxer and his family and which is rather mediocre. The last two minutes of Body and Soul are also really bad, and completely unnecessary.* But a film like Mambo (1955) is also rich with passion and atmosphere, despite the contrived storyline of a woman torn between two men, while wanting to become a dancer. Rossen made Mambo in Italy when he had become an exile from the US due to his politics. He had on two occasions been asked to testify about his communist sympathies and both times he refused to cooperate. After the second time, in 1951, he was banned from making film, which is how he ended up doing a film in Italy. But he took the ban hard and in 1953 he asked to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and this time he cooperated and named other people who were members of the communist party. Now the ban was lifted.
When he came back to the US he made Alexander the Great (1956), with Richard Burton as Alexander. But the end of the 50s were lesser years for Rossen. The Hustler was when he was back too form, and not only back, but better than ever. Then there is Lilith (1964), Rossen's last film which is one of the lesser known sublimities of American cinema. It was made when he was sick, and in a way it is a desperate film made by a desperate man, about love and insanity, and set in a mental institution. Jean Seberg and Warren Beatty are playing the central couple and like all of Rossen's best films, it is filled with passion and atmosphere. It is also very moving, and uncomfortable. Rossen never regained his strength and died some 15 months after it was released.
The unevenness in Rossen's career makes me reluctant to say that he was a great filmmaker. It is telling to compare The Roaring Twenties (1939), directed by Raoul Walsh, to Rossen's early films as a writer/director. That film was written by Rossen (together with Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay, based an a story by Mark Hellinger) but unlike Rossen, Walsh was a natural when it came to directing and the film, as Walsh's films generally are, is wonderfully fluent and integrated. But Rossen's last two films, The Hustler and Lilith, are magnificent and unique, and two of his earlier films, Body and Soul and All the Kings Men, have more greatness than most films. Maybe if he had been left alone, and been more sure of himself as a director, he might have been the best filmmaker there ever was. Now, we will just have to contend ourselves with the fact that he made some of the best films ever made.
*Polonsky and Rossen were in disagreement about the ending of Body and Soul, with Polonsky winning the argument. The fault is that after Charely Davis has saved is soul, it should have been left more ambiguous as to whether he would manage to save his body. In short, it should have ended in the boxing ring. If you have seen the film you know what I mean (if you agree with me is a different matter).