(McFarland Press, 284 pages, $45)
By Alan Casty
During the late 1940s, director Robert Rossen was a director of such creative tenacity that even the notorious Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn granted him complete control over his work. Intensely personal films such as Body and Soul (1947) and All the King’s Men (for which Rossen won the DGA Award in 1949) made him one of the most compelling—and celebrated—directors of his day. But Rossen’s ties to the Communist Party, of which he had previously been a member, landed him on the blacklist during Hollywood’s mid-century crucible, and Columbia broke its contract with him in 1951.
After two years without work, Rossen recanted and testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He would go on to make other films, including The Hustler (1961) and Lilith (1964), but his reputation would never regain its luster. Consequently, his legacy has been largely forgotten. This is the first serious attempt to understand Rossen’s controversial career and assess his films.
Author Alan Casty tackles the often frustrating paradoxes of a man whose fundamentally American films possess a darkness that, upon close inspection, reveal the complex ideology of their volatile director. Lulled by the idealistic overtures of Communism in the early 1930s, Rossen became disillusioned by the party’s corruption and by the early ’40s, denounced his membership—that cynicism remaining visible throughout his oeuvre. Casty provides exhaustive synopses of the 10 films Rossen directed, as well as the 12 others he wrote, and analyzes how Rossen’s complicated political ideas were expressed thematically in his work.
On the matter of Rossen naming names to HUAC, Casty is deeply probing, and challenges readers to question conventional wisdom on the very nature of the infamous proceedings. Rossen is portrayed as a man whose restless drive to keep working, and his inexhaustible hunger for control, led him to testify, and Casty suggests that he did so with a sincere spirit to support America.
Knowing he’d be met with animosity from his fellow filmmakers, Rossen did not return to Hollywood until The Hustler. It would be his next-to-last film, and while it is highly regarded by critics, its director remains but a footnote. Casty’s passionate crusade to shine a light on Rossen’s life and work is balanced, convincing, and like his best films, thought provoking.
Review written by Carley Johnson