How can a director with two absolutely essential films on his resume remain so wholeheartedly under-celebrated? It’s a question without a definitive answer, but it’s one that could certainly be asked of the late Stuart Rosenberg, the man who directed 1967’s Cool Hand Luke and 1984’s The Pope Of Greenwich Village. Perhaps these two dangerously-close-to-masterpieces are so resolutely connected to the on-screen work of their stunningly glittering stars (Paul Newman and Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts, respectively) that the contribution of their director has historically been deemed secondary. Or perhaps Stuart Rosenberg’s journeyman-style genre-jumping has prevented appraisals that could have located the undeniable through-line of his work. Either way, Stuart Rosenberg was a truly fascinating filmmaker, and that is beyond question.
Stuart Rosenberg was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1927, and studied Irish literature at New York University, before changing tack to take on work as an apprentice film editor while in graduate school. After much editing work, Rosenberg graduated to directing, and helmed episodes of several TV series (The Big Story, Decoy, The Lineup, The Detectives, Deadline) before taking on his first big screen directorial effort with 1960’s Murder Inc., a tough, gritty crime potboiler which documented the rise and fall of the eponymous crime syndicate, led by Louis “Lepke” Buchalter (David J. Stewart) and hitman Abe Reles (Peter Falk in an Oscar nominated performance).
Rosenberg loaded up his resume with more television (Rawhide, The Defenders, The Doctors And The Nurses, Espionage) as well as 1961’s little seen US-German feature film co-production Question 7 before making his first key film with 1967’s Cool Hand Luke. Rosenberg had discovered Donn Pearce’s novel and developed the film through actor Jack Lemmon’s production company. With a wonderful script in place from Pearce and Frank Pierson (Cat Ballou), Rosenberg then made a host of casting masterstrokes, placing Paul Newman into the title role and then surrounding him with character acting giants George Kennedy, Strother Martin, Clifton James, Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton and Luke Askew.
A rebel classic and a real slice of late 1960s non-conformist rabble-rousing, Cool Hand Luke stars Paul Newman (who’d been sizzling along beautifully in towering masterworks like The Hustler, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, The Left-Handed Gun and Hud) as the charismatic and wonderfully obstinate Luke, a prisoner in a 1950s Florida prison camp who refuses to be bowed by his captors and the system at large. The film is filled with indelible scenes (you won’t be able to eat an egg for weeks after watching it), unforgettable dialogue (“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”), great characters, and equally great performances (George Kennedy won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and Newman was nominated). In 2005, The United States Library Of Congress selected the film for preservation in The National Film Registry, considering it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Yet, Stuart Rosenberg was never truly heralded for directing it.
Rosenberg helmed two messy, not-quite-on-point comedies (1969’s The April Fools, starring Jack Lemmon and Catherine Deneuve, in her first American film; and 1970’s Move with Elliott Gould) before reuniting with Paul Newman for three far superior efforts: 1970’s WUSA (a punchy and still relevant meditation on right wing ideology and the media), 1972’s Pocket Money (a loose shaggy dog tale come buddy movie co-starring Lee Marvin) and 1975’s The Drowning Pool (an excellent adaptation of Ross McDonald’s private eye novel). Wedged in among the Newman films was the superb 1973 thriller The Laughing Policeman, starring Walter Matthau on the trail of a killer who has gunned down the passengers on a late night bus.
A film on a much larger scale came next with the 1976 studio epic Voyage Of The Damned. The kind of big budget “serious issue” film popular at the time (the film follows the tragic 1939 voyage of the SS St. Louis, which carried hundreds of German Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany), the movie is overloaded with characters (played by the distinguished likes of Faye Dunaway, Oskar Werner, Lee Grant, Orson Welles, Max Von Sydow, James Mason and Katherine Ross) and never really takes flight. It also lacked the grit and loose humour that had characterised Rosenberg’s previous work, as did his next effort, the underwhelming 1979 Charles Bronson-Jill Ireland thriller romance Love And Bullets.
Rosenberg’s next film was even more out of character. While none of his previous work had suggested that Rosenberg had a feel for the horror genre, the director was tapped by producer Samuel Z. Arkoff at indie exploitation production company American International Pictures to direct 1979’s The Amityville Horror, a haunted house flick based on apparently true events. Starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder, the film was a modest fright-fest, but it surprisingly went on to become a smash hit, raking it in at the box office and inspiring both a crap sequel (1983’s Amityville 3D) and an equally crap remake (2005’s The Amityville Horror with Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George). Again, Stuart Rosenberg’s name is rarely even raised in any discussions surrounding the slightly above average horror favourite.
After the curious detour of The Amityville Horror, Rosenberg returned to far more familiar territory with 1980’s Brubaker, which starred an on-form Robert Redford as a reformist prison warden on an Arkansas prison farm. Another humanist non-conformist tale, the film is tough, uncompromising and thoughtful, and rates as Rosenberg’s best work outside of Cool Hand Luke and his next film, 1984’s The Pope Of Greenwich Village. Filled with rich, vividly drawn characters, the film sings with a rare kind of streetwise poetry, and boasts bold-as-brass, career-best work from Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts as two Italian kinda-sorta cousins who get caught up in an ill-advised heist. “Stuart Rosenberg is a genius,” Mickey Rourke said during production on the film. “I want to do ten movies with him. I knew that it would be hard to work on another film, because I’ve never liked anything as much as The Pope Of Greenwich Village.”
While The Pope Of Greenwich Village has amassed a considerable cult following (it’s amusingly referenced on the TV series Entourage), Rosenberg’s final two films saw his career close out with a distinct whimper. Though an entertaining, well-made and well-cast (any film that teams Robert Duvall with The Eagles’ Glenn Frey is worth a look, right?) action flick, Rosenberg had his name removed from 1986’s Let’s Get Harry when the film’s producers leaned on him to bump up the small role of the then hot Mark Harmon, now most famous for appearing on 2,500 seasons of NCIS.
Rosenberg’s final film was 1991’s My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, an earnest, warm-hearted neo-western family drama starring Scott Glenn, Ben Johnson, Balthazar Getty, Tess Harper, Kate Capshaw, Gary Busey and Mickey Rooney. Now almost completely forgotten, the film boasts ample charm and showcases Rosenberg’s facility for getting the best out of his actors. The director retired from filmmaking after this low key drama, but went on to become a teacher at The American Film Institute, guiding the careers of future major players like Todd Field (In The Bedroom, Little Children), Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler), Mark Waters (Mean Girls), and Scott Silver (co-writer of Joker). Rosenberg passed away in 2007 from a heart attack, leaving behind a body work dotted with near masterpieces that rightly should have seen him regularly and loudly showered with praise.
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