Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Centennial Tributes: Robert Ryan

By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
(Warning: Spoilers contained herein…)

Robert Bushnell Ryan was born 100 years ago on this date and he’s one of only a handful of actors who I’ll take the time to watch in anything. But since confession is good for the soul, I thought I’d start this essay out with an admission of guilt…

I used to get actors Robert Ryan and Sterling Hayden confused.

Thankfully, I don’t do that anymore. They’re both still favorites of mine, of course, but I’ve probably seen more Ryan films than those of Hayden’s. My preference for Ryan is due to the fact that the celebrated actor — a man who, off screen, was a pacifist, a tireless campaigner for civil rights and a dedicated foe of McCarthyism — excelled at portraying sadistic villains who were more often than not thoroughly despicable, possessing not the slightest shred of human decency.

And what’s more — he did these roles in such a way that made these “bad guys” oddly endearing…

Born to Timothy and Mabel Bushnell Ryan in 1909, young Robert’s dream was to become a playwright — but since that noble profession can sometimes lead to starvation, he decided to study acting in order to support himself. He had attended and graduated from Dartmouth in 1932, distinguishing himself as the school’s heavyweight boxing champion during all four years of his attendance. He then latched onto a series of odd jobs, including ship’s stoker, ranch hand (in Montana) and a stint with the WPA before signing up to study alongside the great Max Reinhardt. It was during his time with Reinhardt that he met his future wife Jessica Cadwalader, whom he wed in March of 1939 and stayed married until her death in 1972 (he died a year later).

Ryan’s big break on stage came when he was appearing alongside “Viennese Teardrop” Luise Rainer in A Kiss for Cinderella in 1941; her ex-husband Clifford Odets offered him the juvenile role of Joe Doyle alongside Tallulah Bankhead in Odets’ Clash by Night. (In 1952, Ryan would appear in the film version but because of his age was cast in the lead role of Earl Pfeiffer.) It was at this juncture that Ryan began getting small parts in films like The Ghost Breakers (1940) and Queen of the Mob (1940); he received his first screen credit in a B-quickie entitled Golden Gloves (1940), which capitalized on his boxing prowess. From then on, he began to get noticed for his roles in North West Mounted Police (1940), Bombardier (1943), The Sky's the Limit (1943) and Tender Comrade (1943). Upon signing a secure contract with R-K-O in January 1944, Ryan enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and served as a drill instructor there until 1947. It was while he was in the Corps that he took up painting and, hearkening back to his halcyon college days, won a boxing championship as well.

While in the Marines, Ryan befriended a writer (and future director) named Richard Brooks, who had written a novel that the actor very much admired entitled The Brick Foxhole. Back in Hollywood, R-K-O adapted Brooks’ novel into Crossfire (1947), a down-and-dirty film noir directed by Edward Dmytryk and produced by Adrian Scott (with an adapted screenplay by John Paxton). Ryan portrayed Montgomery, a recently demobilized American soldier who kills a fellow G.I. named Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene) simply because Samuels is Jewish; two other soldiers, Keeley (Robert Mitchum) and Finlay (Robert Young) investigate the murder and ultimately bring Montgomery to justice. Ryan’s portrayal of the anti-Semitic Montgomery was nothing short of astonishing; he literally oozed hatred and intolerance from every pore. The role earned him the only Oscar nomination he would ever receive (for best supporting actor) — but unfortunately typecast him as the silver screen’s resident bigot; he would play similar parts in films like Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).

Because roles like Black Rock’s Reno Smith and Odds’ Earle Slater were completely at odds with his real-life persona, Ryan accepted the fact that these parts presented to him as an actor a real challenge — but not one with which he was necessarily happy; he was quite reluctant to discuss Crossfire in later years because he thoroughly detested the Montgomery character. Indeed, Crossfire sort of scarred his film career — though he would get an occasion to be a “good guy” every now and then (Berlin Express [1948], The Boy with Green Hair [1948]), he continued to play the reliable “heavy” in films like Caught (1949), The Racket (1951), Beware, My Lovely (1952), House of Bamboo (1955), Billy Budd (1962) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). When he was once complimented on being one of the silver screen’s best heavies, Ryan remarked: “I guess they never saw me in most of my pictures. Still, I've never stopped working so I can't complain.”

But Ryan’s talent was such that even when he was required to be the "baddie" he was able to add subtle nuances to each character that made them three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood human beings. A good example of this is his portrayal of ex-POW Joe Parkson in Act of Violence (1949) — from the moment the movie gets underway he menacingly stalks his former commanding officer Frank Enley (Van Heflin), a seemingly nice middle-class businessman who’s completely flummoxed as to why the embittered Parkson is obsessed with meting out revenge. As the story unfolds, however, we learn that while Parkson’s elevator may not go all the way to the top it’s entirely the fault of Enley, who sold out his fellow soldiers during their internment in the POW camp.

In The Woman on Pier 13 (1950, a.k.a. I Married a Communist), Ryan plays a former stevedore who’s just starting to make good in his company when his past comes back to haunt him in the form of Communist agitators eager to exploit his former affiliation with the Party. Though the film presents the Commies as little more than “gangsters,” Ryan’s Brad Collins character is actually played in a sympathetic fashion; a tragic noir hero whose fate cannot be altered because of his youthful indiscretion. Another noir from that period, On Dangerous Ground (1952), features Ryan on the right side of the law — but as big city cop Jim Wilson, he’s often no better than the “garbage” he deals with on a day-to-day basis…roughing up suspects and seeming on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Assigned by his commander (Ed Begley) to assist locals in a murder investigation in a small town upstate, he comes face-to-face with his doppelganger (Ward Bond) and is redeemed by the love of the murderer’s blind sister (Ida Lupino).

As I stated in the opening lines of this essay, I am such a huge fan of Robert Ryan that I’ll watch anything he’s in…and admittedly, there are a large number of his movies that I can easily pick out as favorites. But the film I keep coming back to — and the one that I personally feel contains his finest performance onscreen — is The Set-Up (1949); a short-and-sweet boxing saga (written by Art Cohn and directed by Robert Wise) that stars Ryan as a worn and faded pugilist named “Stoker” Thompson who’s scheduled for just another bout in his thirty-five years participating in “the sweet science.” Stoker is washed up, a has-been — and his crooked manager Tiny (George Tobias) is so certain that Stoker is going to tank that he takes money from mobster Little Boy (Alan Curtis) for his man to “take a dive”…but decides not to clue Stoker in on the deal, in order to keep more of the kitty for himself.

Stoker is definitely mismatched: he’s fighting the much younger and heavily favored “Tiger” Nelson (Hal Baylor), but somehow has a feeling that he’s “just one punch away” from reversing his misfortune in the ring. His ever-patient wife Julie (Audrey Totter) has heard this all before, and vows to herself that she won’t be at his bout that evening because she can’t bear to see him take another beating. (She later changes her mind.) But the angel who looks after fools, drunks and children is in Stoker’s corner that evening; Stoker’s actually giving Nelson a good scrap — and even when Tiny finally tells him about the fix, he refuses to give up. He soundly beats Nelson to a pulp, and emerges victorious — but Little Boy has the final say when his goons break Stoker’s right hand, taking him out of the fight game forever.

The Set-Up runs a total of 72 minutes and takes place in “real time” — and Ryan is nothing short of sensational. His early career as a boxer no doubt helped in this role, but Ryan clearly has the chops to convince the viewer that he is that washed-up pug who daydreams of a comeback and gets that one-in-a-million opportunity to show that he “could have been a contendah.” The haunting finale of the film — where an anguished Stoker cries out to Julie “I can’t fight no more” — is both heart-breaking and bittersweet; Totter’s performance as the supportive spouse will convince you that although Stoker’s career has ended due to tragedy, she is just the woman who can inspire him to carry on.

One thing that has always fascinated me about Robert Ryan is how he managed to emerge unscathed from the period of paranoia prevalent in the 1950s despite his defiant liberalism; when the House Un-American Activities Committee was discovering “subversives” under every bush and many actors and actress who had even the tiniest tinge of “pink” (read liberal) in their politics found themselves out of work. Ryan once commented: “I was involved in the things he [McCarthy] was throwing rocks at but I was never a target. Looking back, I suspect my Irish name, my being a Catholic and an ex-Marine sort of softened the blow.” Ryan walked the walk and talked the talk (he intensely disliked his Flying Leathernecks co-star John Wayne because the Duke was in favor of the blacklist): he was an extremely vocal supporter of the group known as “The Hollywood Ten” and donated his time and money to groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, American Friends Service Committee, and United World Federalists. He also founded the Hollywood chapter (along with entertainer Steve Allen) of The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy in September of 1959. In the 1960s, he volunteered to serve in the cultural division of the Committee to Defend Martin Luther King and with other actors like Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier, founded the short-lived Artists Help All Blacks. He even became a vociferous supporter for Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s quixotic Presidential campaign in 1968.

Toward the end of his life, Ryan continued to do outstanding work in films, including The Professionals (1966), The Wild Bunch (1969), Lawman (1971) — he even went out with a winner in his last film, The Iceman Cometh (1973), in which he played the terminally ill political activist Larry Slade. Ironically, Ryan was himself was diagnosed at the same time with lung cancer, a condition that he publicly denounced (in the manner of actor William Talman) as being caused by his heavy use of cigarettes. He died on July 11, 1973.

(Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. blogs at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, where Robert Ryan is often referred to as “one of the most delectable rat bastards of the silver screen”…and in all honesty is meant to be a compliment.)

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Ryan always made whatever he was in better. He was good right up to the end in The Iceman Cometh.
A brilliant tribute to a truly underrated but ultimately, great actor - one of my favourites too.

The film, Clash by Night (1952) was the film that introduced me to him, years ago, and made me seek-out his films.
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