Robert Rossen, whose 106th birthday would have been this week, was a victim of the blacklisting witch-hunt of the 1950s, an experience that apparently contributed to his early death at 57. Rossen had been a Communist Party member beginning with his move to Hollywood while still in his 20s. Like Elia Kazan, Rossen wound up naming names of other Party members, but, unlike Kazan, neither his career nor his health fully recovered. He had peaked with All the King’s Men (the 1949 Oscar-winner for Best Picture, adapted from Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel). The Hustler, with nine Oscar nominations, was a major comeback. (One of the two awards it won was for cinematographer Eugene Schuftan, who, as Eugen Schufftan, had been a central figure in Weimar Germany and pre–World War II France. The film is beautifully photographed and visually more striking than most of Rossen’s work.) An argument has been made that, in part, The Hustler is an autobiographical confession by Rossen, penance for an act of betrayal like that of Fast Eddie (Paul Newman) toward Sarah (Piper Laurie).
Rossen started out at Warner Brothers (making an enemy of Jack Warner through his writers’ union activities), scripting antihero roles for actors like John Garfield, James Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart. (We’ll be showing the Cagney-starring The Roaring Twenties on April 12, as part of The Aesthetics of Shadow, Part 2). In a sense, the Newman character is a successor, but a man reflective of a contemporary American malaise, with a bit of the twinkle embodied by the brand-new President Kennedy. Newman is close to perfect in the role, although he had to wait a quarter-century to get an Oscar for playing Fast Eddie—in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money.
The Hustler often seems slow paced, allowing the audience to savor the performances not just by Newman, but the other actors as well. This was Jackie Gleason’s first theatrical film. Of course, he generally did not play serious parts, and my personal view is that of all the television comedians of the period (or today), he came closest to the quality of the era of Chaplin and Keaton. The Hustler provided Piper Laurie with the opportunity to prove she could move beyond roles opposite swashbuckling Tony Curtis or Francis the Talking Mule. She received an Oscar nomination, and then retired for 15 years before coming back for another nomination with Brian De Palma’s Carrie. George C. Scott had made only two previous films, having established himself in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (he would soon help destroy the world as General Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, only to help repopulate it as Abraham in John Huston’s The Bible).
Rossen had previously directed Dick Powell in Johnny O’Clock, Garfield in Body and Soul, Broderick Crawford in All the King’s Men, Anthony Quinn in The Brave Bulls, Richard Burton in Alexander the Great, Harry Belafonte in the courageously miscegenation-tolerant Island in the Sun, showing himself to be a formidable director of actors. Although he also had success with actresses (Mercedes McCambridge in All the King’s Men, Joan Fontaine in Island in the Sun, Laurie), he had problems with Jean Seberg on his last film, made in declining health, the somewhat underrated Lilith.
All in all, Rossen’s career can be admired for its seriousness and intermittent success, though sadly, and hardly uniquely, it was blighted by his running afoul of America’s—and the film industry’s—politics.