- On Casty’s Robert Rossen: The Films and Politics of a Blacklisted Idealist
Alan Casty is on a mission—an important (if not particularly Jewish) one, in more ways than he may have been aware. Casty’s declared purpose in Robert Rossen: The Films and Politics of a Blacklisted Idealist is twofold: first, to raise writer-director Rossen from comparative cinematic obscurity to the pinnacle of the auteurist Pantheon; and second, more controversially, to reassign the brunt of moral turpitude from those who, like Rossen, named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to those who denounced cooperation with the HUAC yet remained silent about the far graver depredations of the Soviet Union. Along the way, Casty also manages to enhance our understanding of the creative process during the classical Hollywood period.
The revising upward of Rossen’s filmmaking reputation is a bit of a stretch—not because his work is not worthy of major accolades but because it has not been denied them to the extent that Casty claims. Casty himself quotes glowing reviews of several Rossen films and cites Cahiers du cinema’s posthumous dedication in 1966 (he died earlier that year) of a “special issue to Rossen’s work” (213). Nor is Casty’s complaint that such praise was limited to Europe borne out by even a cursory gloss of the literature. In regard to the post–World War II “change in style and content that would be as radical as the economic and social dislocations of [End Page 217] the changeover to sound,” Louis Giannetti and Scott Eyman assert in Flashback: A Brief History of Film (1986), “No single film demonstrated this change in attitude quite as succinctly as Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul .”1 Thomas Schatz, in Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s (1999), calls Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949) “a stylistic tour de force” that “injected a new energy and social awareness into the American cinema.”2 Thomas W. Bohn and Richard L. Stromgren’s Light and Shadows: A History of Motion Pictures (1983) includes Rossen in a select group that “influenced and set the tone for American film of the sixties.”3 And Paul Monaco’s History of American Cinema: The Sixties (2001) singles out Rossen’s The Hustler (1961) for challenging “the best of the French New Wave films.”4
Casty’s alleging “more than a half century of the denial of [Rossen’s] legacy” (11) is thus clearly overstated, and his claiming that Rossen created “the most complete realization in cinematographic form of the indefinable” is hagiographic to the extreme. It is true, however, that no one other than Casty has written a full-length study of Rossen’s oeuvre, first with a short monograph for New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1969 and now with this extremely comprehensive and perceptive analysis. His treatment here, of Rossen’s body of work in relation to his life experiences, is especially impressive, fully justifying his contention that “the creative inter-action between [Rossen’s] life—and particularly his political beliefs and conflicts—and his films was (and remains) unique among American directors” (8).
Casty compellingly demonstrates that leftist ideals course through Rossen’s work from his earliest New York stage writing and directing in the 1930s, and that disillusionment with the American Communist Party (CPUSA), which began in the late 1940s after more than a decade’s active membership and climaxed with his 1953 HUAC testimony, colored his remaining corpus to an uncommon degree. Though not Rossen’s first or only film to confront the HUAC controversy, The Hustler crystallized it in the archetypal titular figure, who embodied the idealistic betrayal that Rossen attributed to the CPUSA and for which he himself was (and continues to be) blamed by the political left.
Casty’s most explosive sections deal with the HUAC period (1947–1955). Though he has no truck with the committee and the blacklist that followed on its heels, he...