Robert Ryan may be best known for the heavies he played in Film Noir & Westerns, but his career was as rich & varied as most 'secondary stars' of the 40's and beyond. Because he was never a consistent leading man, although not for the lack of trying by Howard Hughes at RKO in films like Tender Comrade (1943), Ryan sometimes settled for the second or third lead, but more often than not was given the role of the racist, the crook, the abusive boyfriend or the outlaw. It was because he flourished in these role, making them dynamic enough to be interesting & brutal enough to be realistic, that Ryan was so identified with his more evil characters. In films where Ryan is the hero, however, he plays nobility, self-sacrifice & honesty as well as any actor of his generation. The Top10 list here, then, represents both sides of Ryan's genius.
The Set-Up tops the list primarily because I think it's the perfect blend of Ryan's skills, a razor sharp script (Art Cohn) & brilliant, illuminating direction (Robert Wise). Not only does Stoker Thompson allow Ryan to show off his championship boxing skills, but his yearning for something better, his his belief in himself and lack of cynicism in a cynical world allows Ryan to give his most nuanced and dynamic performance. The story of an over-the-hill boxer looking for one more shot at the championship, up against a crooked fixer is Noir gold. As Stoker listens to each of the boxers as they cycle through the dressing room while he waits for his fight, Ryan's face, his eyes, reflect all the emotions of a fighter looking back over his career, while still believing in a future that cannot be. The films tight 73 minute run time is captured in real time and Wise & Cohn squeeze every ounce of character, setting & motivation out of Paradise City, the boxing arena & particularly Stokers shabby hotel room.
Crossfire put Ryan on the map, but his performance was so convincing, that audiences often associated Ryan with the black-hearted racist Montgomery. In the mystery surrounding the murder of a Jewish civilian by members of the military, Ryan's character casts aspersions at the living and the dead, all the while attempting to implicate others in the crime. In an all-star cast that includes Robert Mitchum, Gloria Grahame & Robert Young it is Ryan who creates the lasting impression. In fact his characterization was so offensive that the Navy banned the showing of Crossfire altogether, while the Army would only allow showings in the states, for fear foreigners would see the portrayal of a racist soldier as reflective of U.S. servicemen in general. Aside from Ryan's portrayal lies a wonderful who done it, wrapped in the Noir ethos of dark theatres, shadowy streets and a pessimistic outlook on mankind.
I had never seen Billy Budd until a couple of weeks ago, but I can't recommend it more highly. Ryan plays John Claggart, the Masters of arms aboard a British Navy ship in 1797. Claggart has a mysterious past and a sadistic temperament that he meats out on the crew at every opportunity. When a young sailor named Billy Budd (Terrance Stamp) is plucked from a merchant vessel Rites of Man, Claggart sets about to destroy him, but Billy is too full of grace, innocence & charm to fall into Claggart's trap. When things go horribly wrong, however, both Claggart & Billy pay high costs! Ryan's performance is award worthy in it's cruel brilliance, highlighted by his nearly orgasmic enjoyment of a flogging. Again, Ryan uses his eyes to convey raw emotion, while reducing his overall performance to its essence, never allowing Claggart to tip into caricature. Stamp's performance, in a star making role, only enhances the overall brilliance of the film.
As in Crossfire, Hollywood turned to Ryan to play an overt racist in Bad Day at Black Rock. A self loathing bully, Ryan's Reno Smith vents his frustration on a Japanese farmer mere days after Pearl Harbor, then covers up the crime with the complicity of local sycophants. Only when Spencer Tracy's war veteran comes to town does the lie begin to unravel, but it is in the unwinding of history that allows Ryan to express his characters inner demons. Performed in his usual understated manner, Ryan allows Tracy to steal the picture, but he still exists at the rotten core of the story, allowing Tracy to orbit around his slowly dissolving veneer. Director John Sturges' (The Great Escape '63, Magnificent Seven '60) brilliantly builds suspense through long takes and slower movements, while the oppressive heat bakes everything in the sun.
On Dangerous Ground is more or less 2 films wrapped together, a tough & gritty Noir & a soapy melodrama. Thankfully, Ryan is able to adjust his performance to bridge both styles and anchor the film from the center. Ida Lupino gives a wonderful performance as the blind sister of the fugitive Ryan's detective hunts in the California wilderness. Ryan is his normal solid self, albeit this time a tortured cop who finds redemption only when he escapes the urban jungle of Noir. His performance is punctuated by the shift in the movie's tone as his violent cop, which is a performance similar in tone to The Racket's Nick Scanlon, is replaced by a softer, more tender man, freed from the darkness of the city.
The Naked Spur & The Wild Bunch are linked for Ryan only because they are Westerns on this list. His performances & characters are very different, but hold at their core the insecurity of a life poorly lived. Ben Vandergroat in The Naked Spur is an ornery cuss, who is not above exploiting anyone & anything in his quest for survival and escape from Jimmy Stewart's Howard Kemp. Janet Leigh is the pawn between the 2 men, both darkened by demons to numerous to name, in Anthony Mann's Noir/Western classic. Ryan adds depth to the performance through casual humor, insidious conniving & subtle menace. The Wild Bunch, made 16 years after The Naked Spur, shows a more world weary and weathered Ryan physically, but his acting chops are equally honed as he plays Deke Thorton, the turncoat leader of the pursuing posse. The angst & disgust evident in Deke throughout the film wonderfully foreshadows the film's ending.
What I like most about Robert Ryan is that he could convey complexity of character with a great deal of simplicity. These 10 films represent the best of what he routinely did in his performances, portray a variety of characters with conviction & honesty, whether they were morally repugnant, tragically heroic or just an ordinary friend. Reading about him makes his performances even more interesting in that so many of these characters radically differed from from the man he was. A devoted family man who was married to his wife for more than 33 years, Ryan was also very active in liberal causes and spoke out against the House Un-American Committee regularly.
Note & Quotes:
*Ryan was born in Chicago into a family deeply connected to ward politics in the city. His uncle was a powerful political boss for many years.
*Was nominated for just 1 Oscar, for Crossfire, but lost out to Edmund Gwynn, who played Chris Kringle in Miracle on 34th St.
*Fox studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck wanted Crossfire scrapped because he was preparing a much more lavish studio production dealing with Anti-Semitism, which became Gentlemen's Agreement starring Gregory Peck & John Garfield
*Had a long running affair with Merle Oberon while filming Berlin Express. Her husband at the time, Lucian Ballard, was the cinematographer on the picture & would go on to shoot 5 more of Ryan's films, including The Wild Bunch.
*Ryan thought that John Wayne wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed, while Wayne could never understand Ryan's liberal politics. The y did share a mutual respect, however.
*On the set The Dirty Dozen an inebriated Lee Marvin mistakenly hit on Ryan's 15 year old daughter as she visited the set. When Ryan called him out Marvin shot back "as if hit by a cattle prod" such was his respect for Ryan. Marvin often noted Ryan's assistance when shooting Bad Day at Black Rock as a benchmark for his career.
* When Howard Hughes bought RKO Studios he fired more than 1,900 of the 2,500 studio employees. Of those remaining on staff were only 6 contract actors, including Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum & Gloria Grahame.
*Link to story in NY Times from 2011 about a Ryan retrospective at the Film Forum: