Life lessons from film noir history | Our Corner

Robert Rossen hooked me for a couple of hours Sunday.

Robert Rossen hooked me for a couple of hours Sunday.

I came across the 1947 movie “Johnny O’Clock” starring Dick Powell, Lee J. Cobb, Evelyn Keyes and Nina Foch.

It has one of my favorite lines in film noir history, uttered by Johnny, played by Powell.

“I do not know what’s going on, and I don’t like it when I don’t know what’s going on.”

That sums up Rossen’s dialogue and life in many ways.

Rossen was one of the great dialogue writers and directors of his day. “Johnny O’Clock” was his first job as a director. He was promoted after the original director left, I think King Vidor.

(Someone on Facebook just noted it was Charles Vidor and I had written William Powell and it should have been Dick Powell.)

Rossen directed three of my favorite pictures, “All the King’s Men,” “Body and Soul” and, in 1961, “Hustler,” with Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason and George C.. Scott.

There are few moments in film like the end of “Hustler” when Scott growls across the pool hall at Newman, “I want my money.”

Rossen is an interesting character. He was one of the best at writing story and dialogue. His film talk lives well after the picture has ended.

But in 1951 it was Rossen not talking, then finally talking, that got him into the trouble that plagued him until his death in 1966 at the age of 57.

The House Un-American Activities Committee named him a communist in 1951. Rossen refused to name names the first time the committee brought him before the members, but two years later he named 57.

I became interested in that period of American history when I did a story about Alger Hiss, who went to jail for perjury after Whittaker Chambers named him as a communist.

Like almost all stories I have done over the years, once you peel back the basic layer of facts, beneath is a team story of conflict, confusion and contradiction. The truth of a story is never as simple as most would like it to appear. The truth winds its way through half steps of what appears to be facts. The Hiss story was an example and his guilt and innocence it argued to this day.

Rossen’s career is a fascinating study in the conflict of what we do and say. His films are filled with warp and woof of words.

Rossen could write great dialog, but couldn’t find the right words at the right time to keep himself out of trouble with friends and foes.

“I do not know what’s going on, and I don’t like it when I don’t know what’s going on.”

See ya, Johnny.

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