Tuesday, May 20

Robert Ryan

It's always been said that off screen Robert Ryan was a very nice man but let's be clear... he could portray some of the meanest, most low-down, unsavory characters when the part called for it.  In fact, when I first saw his work when I was a young kid, he rather scared me.  I wouldn't call him a character actor exactly.  As a younger actor, he often had lead roles and sympathetic parts, but more often than not, he was a sinister second lead.  As he aged, he certainly fit comfortably into good-guy character roles.

He was also a good fit into film noirs and he made several of the best.  Film noir certainly needed a bad guy.  His face was hardened; he often looked pissed off.  He reminded me of a longshoreman and some times like a prizefighter who'd been on a losing streak.  The lines in his face were deeply etched.  It was a face that looked unaccustomed to laughing.  You rarely saw Robert Ryan smile.  He made few comedies because that mug didn't look like it was having fun. 

The first time I recall seeing him was on one of those double bills that were so popular when I first trotted off to the movies.  He was in both films and both were westerns.  (Oh really?)  One was called Horizons West, where he was Rock Hudson's older brother.  What I remember the most was that Ryan was killed and he was the top-billed star.  For some reason my young wiring telegraphed to me that the top-billed stars didn't die.  I can't explain that, but then it was only a year or so earlier that I thought all the action was taking place behind the screen (and one day checked it out and was dumbstruck that all I saw was mops and brooms and buckets and broken theater seats).

The other film was The Naked Spur, a hard-bitten western where he is the villain and running from the law with his girl, Janet Leigh.  James Stewart is a bounty hunter hot on their trail along with Ralph Meeker and Millard Mitchell tagging along.  I found myself impressed with Ryan and it never changed.

He was born into an Irish clan in 1910 Chicago.  His younger brother's death at six greatly affected the family.  Ryan experienced in his family the great highs and lows that often accompany Irish temperaments, often punctuated with black moods and marathon drinking.  He excelled in football, boxing, debate and had a fondness for reading, particularly Shakespeare.  As a young man he developed an empathy for those who were less fortunate.  As an adult he would become what he called a fighting liberal. 

The 6'4" Ryan attended Dartmouth College where he was the boxing champ for his entire four years.  After college he worked for a spell on a ship and also as a cowpoke in Montana.  Getting restless to get into something permanent and more creative, he decided he wanted to be a playwright.  He didn't have the funds to simply sit home and peck at a typewriter so he hightailed it to Hollywood to see if he could pick up some bucks as an actor.

In 1939 he married Jessica Cadwalader who wrote children's stories and a few mystery novels.  She shared her husband's passion for liberal politics and drink and would eventually give him two sons and a daughter and would be his only spouse.

He trodded the boards in some plays but was quickly signed by RKO and if ever there was the perfect marriage of studio and actor, this was it.  While Ryan would bring a steely authority to war films and ride tall in many a saddle, he was perfection itself in RKO's many film noirs.  But before he could really get started, his patriotic spirit kicked in and he joined the Marines and became a drill sergeant.  I tremble just thinking about him in that role.

He first garnered some real attention as Ginger Rogers' love interest in 1943's Tender Comrade, although the picture clearly belonged to Rogers.  In 1947 he starred in Jean Renoir's The Woman on the Beach, a moody piece in which Ryan plays "the other man," romancing Joan Bennett, a role for which he was oddly suited and would play several more times.  The same year came a film for which he is arguably best-remembered, that of the psycho army sergeant in Edward Dmytryk's exquisite Crossfire.  He is chilling as a racist who murders a Jew.  It would become a template for many villainous roles to follow.  He received an Oscar nomination for this brilliant role but sadly never received another.

He was downright creepy as an embittered POW who stalks his former commanding officer in Fred Zinnemann's 1948's Act of Violence.  He took a rare good guy role in the same year's The Boy With the Green Hair but the following year was back to his delicious evil as an insane husband to Barbara Bel Geddes in 1949's edgy noir, Caught.  He especially stood out that same year as a has- been boxer who refuses to take a fall in Robert Wise's excellent The Setup.  I'm not much for boxing films but have to admit this is one of the best of that genre.  He was a vicious crime boss in the gritty 1951 film noir, The Racket, with Robert Mitchum and Lizabeth Scott.

While I first discovered him in 1952 in the aforementioned Horizons West, he made two much better films the same year.  The first was Nicholas Ray's film noir, On Dangerous Ground, in which he gave a multi-layered performance as a brutish big-city cop who falls in love with a blind country girl (Ida Lupino).  My favorite Ryan role is another other man part in Fritz Lang's noirish romance, Clash by Night.  He and Barbara Stanwyck sizzle as illicit lovers in a Clifford Odets' story that is as thoughtful as it is amoral.  An interesting sidebar is that Ryan was in the Broadway version of this work but in a different role.

With Barbara Stanwyck in "Clash by Night"

He made seven B-flicks and the excellent Naked Spur between Clash by Night and 1955's highly-touted Bad Day at Black Rock, with a glittering cast of character actors and headed by Ryan and Spencer Tracy.  The latter arrives in a small town to speak with a war veteran who has apparently been killed by Ryan.  It was an intelligent cat and mouse piece directed by the esteemed John Sturges.

Back to Eternity (1956) is unlikely to be remembered as one of his premier pictures, but I liked the John Farrow-directed piece about a plane crash in headhunter country.  It was a remake of the earlier Five Came Back.  Ryan had a good-guy role as a pilot trying to keep order while trying to get out.  Likewise, 1958's Lonelyhearts may not have set the world on fire but Ryan was mesmerizing as a mean-spirited newspaper editor who berates his alcoholic wife (Myrna Loy) while playing mind games with a new columnist (Montgomery Clift).

Around this time he began appearing on television but primarily in anthology series and other highly-regarded productions.  But he still made films.  One of those was again working for Robert Wise in 1959's Odds Against Tomorrow, costarring his good friend, Harry Belafonte, in which Ryan was again a hate-filled bigot. In 1961 he would again work for Nicholas Ray in King of Kings, portraying John the Baptist.  It is a film that is more famous than good. 

Ryan was an unabashed Herman Melville fan and lobbied for the part of the cruel master-of-arms in 1962's Billy Budd.  I hated him for being so mean to that yummy-looking Terrence Stamp.  Oh, that would be for another posting.  By now, Ryan was sliding into older man parts, but he was no less impressive, always adding a touch of class to any film he was in.

He would appear in big-budgeted war epics such as The Longest Day, The Battle of the Bulge, The Dirty Dozen and Anzio.  In 1966 and 1969 he would costar in two of my favorite westerns, Richard Brooks' The Professionals, as one of several men selected to retrieve a rich man's kidnapped wife, and The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah's about four aging bandits who may be able to outrun the law but not the changing times.  Ryan was stoic and tough as the leader of the lawmen pursuing the outlaws.  His craggy looks fit perfectly in a saddle.  The Wild Bunch was a film that would forever change the western and violence in movies.

One of my favorite westerns, "The Professionals"

Ryan was also a big fan of playwright Eugene O'Neill, their dark Irish roots likely playing a role here.  It was fortuitous then that the actor's final role was in O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh.  It provided an acting feast with Ryan, Fredric March, Lee Marvin and Jeff Bridges in a drama about anguished, tortured men living in a flophouse above a bar.

I think Robert Ryan had a triumphant career, appearing in many quality films.  Even his so-so efforts reveal that he never gave less than his best.  It was hard to watch anyone else when he was on the screen.  He was a lifelong proponent of civil rights and it is to his immense credit that he could shed a light on those abusing such rights by playing such despicable characters.

My beloved film noir can thank Robert Ryan for his vivid characterizations in that genre but in general the movies were damned lucky to have him.

He died from lung cancer at age 63 in 1973 in New York City.

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