For our cover story on Robert Ryan, see J.R. Jones’s The Actor’s Letter: A reminiscence from film noir icon Robert Ryan, newly unearthed by his daughter, sheds light on his Chicago childhood – and his family’s connection to a tragic chapter in the city’s history. Ryan’s autobiographical letter is here.
Robert Ryan was greatly respected by directors, which may explain how he managed to accumulate such an impressive filmography: Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach (1947), Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express (1948), Joseph Losey’s The Boy With Green Hair (1948), Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence (1948), Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952), Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur (1953) and Men in War (1957), Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), Richard Brooks’s The Professionals (1966), Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967). Ryan probably never gave a bad performance, but the nine films (and one audio recording) listed below represent some of his greatest acting accomplishments.
In honor of what would have been Ryan’s 100th birthday, Turner Classic Movies has scheduled two marathons of his films, from 5 AM to 7 PM on Tuesday and Wednesday, November 10 and 11. Among them are a couple on my list; times below. —J.R. Jones
Crossfire (1948) Under contract to RKO, Ryan was usually cast as a young, heroic figure, but that changed with his chilling performance as Montgomery, the bullying, racist army sergeant in this socially conscious murder mystery by Edward Dmytryk. After a Jewish man is found dead in his own apartment, “Monty” turns up at the door, telling police that he’s looking for a missing friend; his cunning is evident in the way he seems to be defending the friend even as he directs suspicion toward him and away from himself. An eerie flashback to the night of the murder reveals Monty to be a hateful blowhard, ingratiating one moment, intimidating the next. The first American movie to deal explicitly with anti-Semitism, Crossfire was a box-office hit and earned Ryan his only Oscar nomination, for best supporting actor.
Caught (1949) Ryan may not have realized this at the time, but Smith Ohlrig, the controlling, egotistical millionaire he played in this noirish MGM romance, was based on his boss back at RKO—Howard Hughes. Director Max Ophuls had been walked on by Hughes while working for RKO, and he retaliated by adapting to the screen a novel by Libbie Block whose antagonist was a fictionalized version of the reclusive millionaire. Brilliant and decisive but deeply neurotic, Ohlrig marries a naive department store model to prove a point to his psychoanalyst, then keeps her a virtual prisoner in his palatial home. Ryan manages to make this misshapen man both repellent (check out the scene in which he sends a pool ball caroming around the table as he coolly calculates his wife’s motives and options) and pathetic (when she leaves him, he’s more vulnerable than ever).
The Set-Up (1949) When Lisa Ryan had a chance to meet Martin Scorsese in the late 70s, the director could barely contain his enthusiasm for her father’s work, and he’s cited this low-budget fight film by Robert Wise as the primary visual reference for Raging Bull (1980). Ryan, having played one of his brightest characters in Caught, followed that movie by playing one of his dimmest: Stoker Thompson, the two-bit boxer at the story’s center, has spent 20 years getting pummeled in bottom-of-the-card bouts, but he still dreams of getting a title shot, or maybe managing a young up-and-comer. The movie unfolds in real time on the night of a match, and as Stoker arrives at the locker room, watching younger fighters pulse with excitement and older ones suffer their punishment, he begins to understand the price he’s paid in the ring all these years.
On Dangerous Ground (1952) Ryan gave one of his most moving and complex performances in this Nicholas Ray drama, as a brutal big-city cop who falls in love with a blind woman. Jim Wilson, a lonely detective with more than a decade on the force, is sickened by the lowlifes surrounding him and wounded by the public’s contempt for policemen, and his rough treatment of witnesses has begun to spin out of control. “Why do you make me do it?” he sputters, hysteria rising in his voice, as one scumball goads him to violence. “You know you’re gonna talk! I always make you punks talk! Why do you make me do it? Why? Why?” Eager to get Wilson out of town, his boss assigns him to a murder case upstate, where his heart is melted by the killer’s blind sister (Ida Lupino). Unable to see and forced to trust everyone, she offers hope of redemption for a man who’s seen too much and trusts no one.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and House of Bamboo (1955) As the 50s wore on, Ryan found himself increasingly typecast as a villain, and though this frustrated him, he invested his bad guys with such depth and intelligence that he routinely stole scenes from the heroes. That’s certainly the case in Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo: as an American racketeer operating with impunity in postwar Tokyo, Ryan is jovial and sophisticated, so charismatic that foursquare Robert Stack, as an army investigator trying to get the goods on him, barely registers. Ryan had a worthier foil in John Sturges’s Bad Day at Black Rock: Spencer Tracy stars as a one-armed veteran of World War II who arrives in a tiny western town and begins to suspect that Ryan, the local boss man, murdered a Japanese farmer to retaliate for Pearl Harbor. Eventually this iron-willed thug begins to melt under Tracy’s fierce glare, but his steadily gathering fear makes him seem even more unpredictable and dangerous.
Billy Budd (1962) A Melville fanatic, Ryan personally lobbied director Peter Ustinov for the role of John Claggart, the cruel master-at-arms of a British warship. Claggart is a misanthrope and a sadist: his face registers grim satisfaction as he counts out the ten lashes of a sailor’s punishment, and a shadow of disappointment passes over it as he realizes the eleventh won’t come. But he meets his match in the angelic sailor Billy Budd (Terence Stamp in his screen debut), who sees good even in Claggart’s black soul. When Budd approaches Claggart above deck one night, noting the sea’s calmness, the master-at-arms replies, “Calm above, but below a world of gliding monsters, preying on their fellows.” Budd manages to breach the older man’s defenses, and they share a moment of common fellowship, but this is too much for Claggart and he pulls away, more harsh and vengeful than ever.
The Wild Bunch (1969) With his rugged looks and athletic ability, Ryan was a natural for westerns and starred in a dozen of them over the years. Most of them are forgettable, but one changed the genre forever: Sam Peckinpah’s violent tale of four aging bandits who can outrun the law but not the 20th century. Ryan didn’t get quite as much screen time as William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, or Warren Oates, but he may have nabbed the most interesting role: Deke Thornton, the captured gang member who cuts a deal with the law to track down his former partners in exchange for his freedom. This “Judas goat” is plagued by guilt over his bargain and haunted by the bloody carnage that ensues as he leads a posse of wastrels across the Mexican border in pursuit of his old friends. “We’re after men,” he tells his worthless crew. “And I wish to God I was with them.”
Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1971) and The Iceman Cometh (1973) Diagnosed with cancer in 1970, Ryan continued to work, and two subsequent revivals of Eugene O’Neill plays—one for the theater, the other for the screen—turned out to be his final artistic testament. James Tyrone, the hard-drinking Irish-American patriarch of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, was a role with considerable personal resonance for Ryan: a former matinee idol, Tyrone has made a fortune starring in a hit melodrama but has been typecast by it for much of his life, just as Ryan was typecast in sinister character roles. The 1971 off-Broadway production with Ryan, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Stacy Keach, and James Naughton was never filmed, but an audio recording, recently issued on CD, is available through the Chicago Public Library. Larry Slade, the barroom philosopher and disillusioned anarchist of The Iceman Cometh, may have cut even closer to the bone: suffering from a terminal illness, he confesses to one of his fellow drunks, “What’s before me is the fact that death is a fine, long sleep. And I’m damn tired.” Directed by John Frankenheimer for the American Film Theater series of the early 70s, the movie shows Ryan at his most honest and vulnerable. Few actors have so openly contemplated their own mortality on-screen, or ended their career with such an unqualified triumph. v