Robert Ryan’s Quiet Furies
By MANOHLA DARGIS
BORN to play beautifully tortured, angry souls, the actor Robert Ryan was a familiar movie face for more than two decades in Hollywood’s classical years, his studio ups and downs, independent detours and outlier adventures paralleling the arc of American cinema as it went from a national pastime to near collapse. A little prettier and he might have been one of the golden boys of the golden age. But there could be something a touch menacing about his face (something open and sweet too), which bunched as tight as a fist, and his towering height (he stood 6 foot 4) at times loomed like a threat. The rage boiled up in him so quickly. It made him seem dangerous.
He was known for his villains, and it was the complexity of these characters, their emotional and psychological kinks, that elevated even his lesser roles. He never achieved the supernova stardom of a Gable or Bogart, and these days Ryan’s glower may be more familiar than his name. Yet he was the type of next-level star and B-movie stalwart that helped make old Hollywood great. He appeared in almost 100 films in a career that slowly sputtered to life in the silent era, gathered momentum in the 1940s and outlasted the old studio system, ending only in 1973 with his death at 63 from cancer. The two dozen features in a Film Forum series dedicated to Ryan and opening on Friday includes dazzlers, solid genre fare, some curiosities and a few duds. Most are better than anything playing now at the multiplex.
One of the paradoxes of Ryan’s career was that the brutish roles he played on screen — like the crude gangster in “The Racket” (1951) or the shopworn, desperate boxer in “The Set-Up” (1949) — didn’t jibe with his off-screen history and profile. Born in Chicago in 1909, he was the eldest and, after the death of his younger brother, only son of a couple whose fortunes improved so dramatically in the 1920s (his father was in construction) that Ryan went from sleeping in a Murphy bed in a one-room apartment to tooling around in his own car and fur coat before heading off to Dartmouth College. There he excelled, boxed his way to school championships and worked for a college magazine and against Prohibition.
He nurtured his social activism for most of his life, fighting for civil liberties and against nuclear armament (and helped start a prestigious Los Angeles-area school, the Oakwood), though it didn’t always materialize in the fawning press profiles. (The columnist Louella Parsons once cooed that Ryan might be a family man, but “don’t let me give you the idea that Bob is not 100 percent he-man.”) Early on, the publicity machine decided he didn’t look like an actor and found another hook in what he once called his vagabonding. A biography from RKO, where he was signed to a contract in 1941, mentioned college and acting classes with Max Reinhardt but added that Ryan had been a “sandhog, seaman, sewer builder, salesman, miner, cowboy, bodyguard-chauffeur to a mobster, photographer’s model, W.P.A. laborer and paving supervisor” — all apparently true.
“Most of his life,” the biography continued, “a Jack London-like urge for artistic expression battled with a big brawny body.”
RKO was the smallest of the five major studios and while it didn’t have the biggest stars, in the late 1940s and early ’50s it had a sterling lineup of tough guys and femmes fatales well known to lovers of classic noir. Robert Mitchum was at the studio with Ryan (they made several films together, including “The Racket”) alongside those great dames Ida Lupino and Gloria Grahame. At RKO Ryan broke out with his supporting turn in Edward Dmytryk’s “Crossfire” (1947) as Montgomery, an anti-Semitic soldier who, in a fit of hate, beats a Jewish man to death. Also along for the nasty ride: Mitchum, Grahame and Robert Young. (Ryan served as a drill sergeant in the Marines near the end of World War II.)
“Crossfire” leads with its do-gooder message, sometimes lugubriously, but is memorable largely because of the trembling force of Ryan’s performance. By turns outsized and restrained, his is a volcanic presence filled with equally unsettling quiet menace. You see the bully and the coward in Monty’s face, which Dmytryk at times turns into a hard mask with high-contrast lighting, using extreme camera angles to accentuate the actor’s height. Ryan said that he consulted with the director Jean Renoir on the role (they made “The Woman on the Beach” that same year), quizzing him about the Fascists he’d known in Europe. Renoir said that their main characteristic was a sense of inferiority, and perhaps this thought was running through Ryan’s head when his character’s bravado finally drains out, leaving just a shell behind.
Ryan made “The Set-Up,” one of his favorites and most indelible films, two years later. Directed by Robert Wise (who had edited “Citizen Kane”), “The Set-Up” is a tight, intensely moving, pocket-size masterwork about Stoker Thompson, a washed-up, 35-year-old heavyweight who believes he’s just “one punch away” from changing his lousy luck. Part redemption story, part romance (his wife is played by Audrey Totter), the film unfolds in close to real time and takes place in the cruelly named Paradise City. Ryan, all muscle, sinew and heart-rending longing, slugs through one punishing round after another — look for the photographer Weegee hitting the bell as the timekeeper — creating a portrait of a man who endures ghastly physical punishment on his way to redemption.
“The Set-Up” almost didn’t happen, having been canceled by Howard Hughes, who had bought a controlling interest in RKO in 1948. Oddly, that same year Ryan starred in “Caught,” a non-RKO thriller directed by Max Ophuls about a naïf (Barbara Bel Geddes) who dreams of money and is punished for her yearning with a marriage to a millionaire psychopath (Ryan), modeled on Hughes, and rewarded with the love of a kind doctor (James Mason). Though based on a novel, the movie turned into a veiled story of Hughes because, as its screenwriter, Arthur Laurents, claimed in his memoir, Ophuls hated Hughes. “Make him an idiot,” Ophuls demanded of Laurents. “Kill him off.” While melodramatic, the movie is a fascinating dark look at desire and power as is Ryan’s sexually charged take on a man whose savagery wounds himself as much as everyone else.
There were other quality movies at RKO for Ryan and among some of those in the Film Forum series are Jacques Tourneur’s fine post-World War II thriller, “Berlin Express” (1948); Fritz Lang’s emotionally charged 1952 version of “Clash by Night” (Ryan had been in the original Broadway production); and Nicholas Ray’s “Born to Be Bad” (from 1950, with a deliciously devious Joan Fontaine). Ray also directed Ryan in the even better “On Dangerous Ground,” also released in 1952, one of the actor’s banner years. This time he plays a frighteningly misanthropic cop nearly undone by hate who leaves the city to hunt a murderer in the mountains. There he finds a blind woman (a sublime Lupino), who helps him become human again in a love story that shows Ryan was capable of great delicacy and tenderness.
In an earlier Hollywood age he might have had a more nuanced career and been able, like Bogart before him, to move away from playing so many heavies. But in 1948 old Hollywood was dealt a death blow when the Supreme Court forced the studios out of the exhibition business, changing everything. Among other things, actors, Ryan included, became independent contractors rather than contracted chattel. There were opportunities, certainly, and he made superb films in the 1950s, including several with Anthony Mann : “The Naked Spur” (1953), which is in the Film Forum series, and “Men in War” (1957), which isn’t. But the 1950s and thereafter were uncertain times for Hollywood and Ryan, and there were forgettable films, too, including “Lonelyhearts” (1958).
“Bob Ryan is a marvelous person,” Renoir said decades after they worked together. “But he was unlucky in happening on a period in which the American cinema was in full cry after war epics — all of them highly successful.” In a 1971 interview Ryan reflected on the Hollywood he had known. The conformity of the material was a problem, true. But the old system had virtues, he said: studios “would gamble once in a while on an offbeat picture.” As important, they were a training ground for young actors. “We all had to go to film school, and we worked in hordes of pictures — B pictures — which were shot very fast” and were, he said, an “amazing experience.”
And what about the new system, the interviewer asked. “Speaking from the actor’s point of view,” Ryan said, “it’s not anywhere near as enduring. A kid will make a hit in a couple of movies and then you may not hear of him again.” Nonetheless he believed the movies had gotten better and a few years earlier had starred in one of his best, “The Wild Bunch” (1969), as a terribly sad, worn-out former outlaw hunting his old partner (William Holden). Every young actor, Ryan said in that 1971 interview, “assumes that his mere presence is God’s gift to humanity and he finds out over the years that this isn’t the case, but that the acquisition of the skills is equally important.” Acting is hard and the more you practice, he said, “you find out that the essence of it is simplification.” He thought it could take a lifetime to find. He was wrong.