"It killed him not to work. He was torn between his desire to work and his desire not to talk, and he didn't know what to do. What I think he wanted to know was, what would I think of him if he talked? He didn't say it in that way, though. Then he explained to me the politics of it—how the studios were in on it, and there was never any chance of his working. He was under pressure, he was sick, his diabetes was bad, and he was drinking. By this time I understood that he had refused to talk before and had done his time, from my point of view. What could any kid say at that point? You say, 'I love you and I'm behind you.' "
Robert Rosen was born on March 16, 1908, and raised on the Lower East Side of New York City. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants and his father was a rabbi. As a youth Rossen attended New York University, hustled pool and fought some prizefights. - the latter two providing crucial background for his two greatest films, Body and Soul and The Hustler, respectively.
Farber noted the strong female characters of the 1930s and 1940s, and laments their replacing by all-male relationships from the 1950s onwards. For the earlier pattern Farber cited Rossen's 1946 script The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which was over melodramatic but portrayed a woman consumed by power, money and success. Lilith created one of the few strong women in the 1960s. Rossen generally destroyed the main character.
In 1936 Rossen married Susan Siegal; the couple had three children.
Rossen was one of the Directors who developed film gris (French for "grey film"). In his films for Warner Brothers' between 1937 and 1944, consistent themes were the conditions of working people, the portrayal of Gangsters and racketeers, and opposition to fascism. After Dust Be My Destiny, written by Rossen and released in 1939, Frank Nugent, who regularly reviewed for The New York Times, complained about Warner Brothers' long line of melodramas about boys from poor neighbourhoods. Unlike filmmakers such as John Ford and Howard Hawks, Rossen was willing to explain his aims as a director: "The element Common to many of my films is the Desire for success, ambition, which is an important element in American life. It is an important element, and has become increasingly more important in what is known as Western Civilization." Polonsky commented that "Rossen's talent is force applied everywhere without let-up." Neve acknowledged that social concerns were central in most of Rossen's works, but commented that Lilith was different from Rossen's earlier films as it emphasized mood rather than narrative and examined through pictures and silences the nature of maladjustment and madness.
Dust Be My Destiny, co-written in 1939 by Rossen, is the story of a fugitive from justice who is eventually acquitted with help from an attorney and a Journalist, the latter arguing that "a million boys all over the country" were in a similar plight. Warner Bros. then ordered Producer Lou Edelman to cut the script, adding that "This is the story of two people – not a group. It is an individual Problem – not a national one." Rossen was one of three Writers on the gangster melodrama The Roaring Twenties, released in 1939. A remake of the 1932 play and film Life Begins was written in 1939 by Rossen and released in 1940 as A Child Is Born. The plot recounted the experiences of six expectant mothers, and there was little scope to modify the original.
After the Attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Screen Writers Guild set up on December 8, 1941, the Hollywood Writers Mobilization, a body to organize Writers for the war effort. Rossen served as the body's chairman until 1944 and advocated the opening of a Second Front to support West European resistance against the Nazis. His earnings were much greater than in 1937. However, his work for Hollywood Writers Mobilization and for the Communist Party forced him to abandon some partly developed film projects, including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which John Huston eventually directed in 1948.
After the end of World War II in 1945, the rightwing elements who had resisted the US entry into World War II because of their pro-Fascist isolationism, continued their attempts to control and punish the left-leaning entertainment professionals who fought the spread of Fascism in Europe during the 1930s while the United States was technically neutral. In 1946, the Republicans gained an overwhelming majority in the Congressional elections. and used this power to re-invigorate committees there that had failed to stop anti-Fascist artists before the war. The Communist victory of China in 1949 and the start of the Korean War in 1950 reinforced the anti-Communist hysteria being whipped up at the time.
Rossen was one of 19 "unfriendly witnesses" subpoenaed in October 1947 by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during the second Red Scare but was one of eight not called to testify. In 1951, Rossen was named as a Communist by several HUAC witnesses and he appeared before HUAC for the first time in June 1951. He exercised his rights under the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination, taking what came to be known as the "augmented Fifth". He testified that he was not a member of the Communist Party and that he disagreed with the aims of the party, but when asked to state whether he had ever been a member of the party, Rossen refused to answer. He was placed on the unofficial blacklist by the Hollywood studios, and Columbia broke its production contract with him.
All the King's Men (1949) was based on the novel of the same name by Robert Penn Warren, which in turn was based on the career of the Louisiana Politician Huey Long. Rossen introduced a new concept, that the defenders of the ordinary people can in turn become the new exploiters. As a requirement for his participation in the film, Rossen had to write to Columbia's Harry Cohn saying that he was no longer a Communist Party member. Cohn's critiques of the draft of Rossen's script included scrapping a framing structure that was difficult for audiences to follow and several improvements in the relationships and motivations of characters. A meeting of the Communist Party in Los Angeles severely criticized the film, and Rossen severed all relations with the Party. All the King's Men won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Broderick Crawford won the award for Best Actor and Mercedes McCambridge was honored as Best Supporting Actress. Rossen was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director but lost to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for A Letter to Three Wives. Rossen won a Golden Globe for Best Director and the film won the Golden Globe for Best Picture. His next film, The Brave Bulls, was directed in 1950 and released in 1951. This was Rossen's last work before the studios blacklisted him. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called this "the best film on bull-fighting yet."
All of Rossen's playscripts were adaptions except Marked Woman, Racket Buster and Alexander the Great, which were based on real events. Before he was blacklisted in 1951, only two of Rossen's adaptions were of serious novels, and Rossen's early drafts of the script for All the King's Men received serious criticisms within Columbia.
From 1952 to 1953, Rossen wrote Mambo, trying to repair his finances after almost two years without work following the 1951 HUAC hearing. He had to produce the film in Italy, and it was premiered in Italy in 1954 and the USA in 1955. Rossen later said "Mambo was to be for fun only," but he "took it seriously, and it didn't come off." Critics dismissed the film. However, in 2001, Dorothea Fischer-Hornung concluded that the film achieved more than Rossen and contemporary critics realized. The female lead resolves her own conflicts by devoting herself to dance. Katherine Dunham's choreography highlights this process; and innovative cinematography intensifies the dance scenes.
In an unconstitutional though widespread practice during the Communist witchhunts, the U.S. State Department refused to renew Rossen's passport. This, and his inability to find work, brought Rossen, like his friend, ex-Communist Elia Kazan, back to the committee in May 1953, where he named 57 people as Communists. He explained to the committee why he chose to testify: "I don't think, after two years of thinking, that any one individual can indulge himself in the luxury of personal morality or pit it against what I feel today very strongly is the security and safety of this nation." Stephen Rossen later shed light on his father's decision:
Rossen hoped Alexander the Great (1956) would be a blockbuster, but the majority of the reviews criticized the film for failing to keep the audience's interest. However, the review from The New York Times wrote that "its moments of boredom are rare ... an overlong but thoughtful and spectacular entertainment."
Rossen produced, directed and co-wrote The Hustler in 1961. At the time Variety praised the cast, complained about the "sordid aspects" of the story and felt the film was far too long. The New Republic praised the cast and Rossen's "sure, economical" direction, but thought the script "strains hard to give an air of menace and criminality." The film won two Academy Awards and was nominated for another seven, was nominated in four of the Golden Globes' categories, and gained many other awards and nominations.
Rossen was already ill when he started on his final film, Lilith (1964), and it was poorly received in the United States. After it Rossen lost interest in directing, reportedly because of conflicts with the film's star, Warren Beatty. The filmmaker said, "It isn't worth that kind of grief. I won't take it any more. I have nothing to say on the screen right now. Even if I never make another picture, I've got The Hustler on my record. I'm content to let that one stand for me." However, at the time of his death Rossen was planning Cocoa Beach, a script he conceived in 1962, showing the hopes and struggles of transients in a local community and contrasting this with nearby Cape Canaveral, which Neve described as a "symbol of America's imperial reach".
In 1966 Stephen Farber used "Gothic" to describe Lilith and a few other American films of the early 1960s based on psychological horror, and regarded Lilith's female protagonist as a demonic temptress. Nina Leibman regarded Lilith as the most extreme of the American film industry's applications, or rather misapplications, of psychoanalytic concepts, as the patient is already psychotic and has a track record of previous conquests. In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film David Thomson describes Lilith as "an oddity, the only one of [Rossen's] films that seems passionate, mysterious and truly personal. The other films will look increasingly dated and self-contained, but Lilith may grow."
In 1997 the National Film Registry preserved The Hustler as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." In 2002 Roger Ebert described the film as one "where scenes have such psychic weight that they grow in our memories" and praised Rossen's decision to develop all four main characters, and James Berardinelli listed the film in his All Time Top 100 for similar reasons. Ebert also praised Rossen's decision to shoot the film in the "stygian gloom of the billiard parlor" created by black-and-white. Other accolades appeared in the 2000s (decade).
All the King's Men was one of the last of the social "message" films, as they were eclipsed as America turned conservative. Thomas Schatz regarded All the King's Men as possibly the best of the genre, as it examined alcoholism, adultery, political corruption and the influence of journalism. In 2001 the United States National Film Registry preserved the film as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
While head of production at Warner, Hal Wallis considered that some of his best films – including The Roaring Twenties, Marked Woman and The Sea Wolf – were written by Rossen. Wallis was very pleased with Rossen's script in 1946 for The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, which was produced by Wallis own company. However, Rossen turned down Wallis's next two films. Both Wallis as Producer and Rossen as writer-director wanted to operate as independents, rather than under the control of a studio.