A fine way to test the quality of a self-proclaimed classic film fan`s devotion is to ask him to recite his personal litany of favorite actors and actresses. If the acquaintance with film is still casual, you will probably receive such standard answers as “Humphrey Bogart,” “Jimmy Stewart,” “Elizabeth Taylor,” or “Marilyn Monroe.” Not that there is anything wrong with any of these actors; on the contrary, choosing them as one’s favorites may sometimes be the sign of an experienced viewer with extensive knowledge of film. Yet it is worth persisting in one’s questioning, for a truly avid film fan will soon admit that he also harbors affection or esteem or interest or a combination thereof for less famous yet consistently good actors. One actor whose name often and deservedly arises in this connection among devotees of old Hollywood is Robert Ryan (1909-1973).
From his early days in Ginger Rogers pictures (Tender Comrade, 1943) to his turn in taboo-breaking Peckinpah Westerns (The Wild Bunch, 1969), Ryan provided a series of intelligent, nuanced, highly memorable performances. He resists easy classification, since he fell neither into the strictly “leading man” nor into the strictly “supporting character” category; instead, he alternated between roles which fell between the two classifications, thereby resisting typecasting and achieving a high degree of professional success, although some may argue that this technique explains his failure to achieve major stardom.
Still, Ryan may have sacrificed the temporary glory of Hollywood stardom for a more lasting kind of fame, since his wide range of performances and his resistance to easy classification ensured him a place in many worthy and memorable films. There was an unspoken rule, largely in force from the mid-Thirties through the mid-Fifties, that big stars could never play straight-out villains or shady characters; immediately evident or ultimate goodness was the fate of leading men and stars until the rise of the troubled “bad boy” in the Fifties, although it may be more accurate to call this a revival rather than a new phenomenon, since the morally ambiguous or morally flexible hero of the Pre-Code era shares a great deal with Dean, Brando, and their like. Clark Gable, perhaps the ultimate bad boy with a heart of gold and an eye for the ladies, started out his film career as a villain, transitioned to a dynamic heel in the Thirties, cemented that image in 1939 by playing Rhett Butler, and continued to create variations on that theme until the late 1950s, when he began to play solid, perhaps more complex, character parts. There were a few other actors who were permitted, for varying reasons, to have a similar, if not wider, range of characters available–James Mason, Dana Andrews, and Paul Douglas are three names which come to mind.
And Robert Ryan may also fall into that class more than into any other. One never knows, going into a Ryan picture, exactly what he will do, how he will turn out, if he will punch his antagonist or shoot him, if he will marry the girl or lead her off the straight and narrow path. So many people have written about the bitterness, the sense of lost hopes and missed opportunities, the coiled violence (to be dramatic about it) which lurks beneath the surface of Ryan’s characters. As a matter of fact, “lurks beneath the surface” is a phrase which peppers at least ninety percent of the material written about Ryan; unlike more showy actors, who telegraph every thought and emotion, Ryan merely suggests them, hints at them, looks them. There’s a precious but almost indescribable quality which some actors have, an ability to do much with very little; the closest I can come to putting it into words is “intelligence,” but I think it must have something to do with the extent of the actor’s understanding of the world and his grasp of the complexity that can underlie a single human psyche. Some actors know they are playing, in the most basic sense of the word, and so there is a kind of glee about their performances, an invitation to the audience to come play with them. Other actors embody a role as though they’re enacting a poem; there are only a certain amount of lines and actions allotted to them, but they manage to endow them with a dazzling range and depth of meanings and significances. Ryan, at his best, was one of this latter kind.
So here, without further ado, is a list of ten notable Robert Ryan performances, in no particular order. It’s not exhaustive by any means; please feel free to list other favorites in the comments below!
Odd Against Tomorrow (1959)–Robert Ryan plays an aging, bitter, bigoted man with a taste for violence and crime. This film noir indictment of racism, directed by Robert Wise, also stars Harry Belafonte, Shelley Winters, and, in a brief but notable scene, the inimitable Gloria Grahame.
Born to Be Bad (1950)–In this early Nicholas Ray film, Joan Fontaine plays the scheming Christabel Caine (note that name!) who has set her sights on wealth and position since her impoverished girlhood. Ryan plays a novelist who is fascinated both professionally and romantically with Christabel, aware of her duplicity from the start but hoping to win her anyways. Ryan invests what could be a cliché part with his trademark “depth,” and contributes generously to the film’s appeal.
Clash by Night (1952)–Barbara Stanwyck marries Paul Douglas in the hopes of settling down and finding purpose after a life of extensive failures. Then she meets Robert Ryan, a projectionist at the local movie theater and Douglas’s best friend. Directed by Fritz Lang, with Marilyn Monroe in a small early role, and an evocative small-town feel.
Caught (1949)–Ryan plays a brutal millionaire highly reminiscent of Howard Hughes. Barbara Bel Geddes is the girl who marries him too quickly, and James Mason is the kind, understanding doctor she meets too late. There’s a lot left unsaid in the film, but it may be the more powerful for that.
The Naked Spur (1953)–Anthony Mann directed this short, tight, morally complex Western starring James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Ralph Meeker, and our man Ryan. The latter plays an unconventional villain with great style and gusto.
Lonelyhearts (1958)—Based on the searing Nathanael West novel, this film stars Montgomery Clift, Dolores Hart, Myrna Loy, and Maureen Stapleton, with Robert Ryan as embittered newspaper editor William Shrike. Critics have claimed that much of the book’s power is eroded by the cleaned-up film treatment , but if the film is accepted on its own terms, it emerges as a largely well-written, unusual, and highly powerful picture, with top-notch performances all-round (although Dolores Hart’s part suffers from poor writing).
Act of Violence (1948)–This noir stars Van Heflin as a peaceful, domestic father and husband whose dark wartime past comes to haunt him when Robert Ryan, a former fellow-soldier and POW, re-enters his life athirst for revenge. Fred Zinneman directs this small but hard-hitting picture, which has all the best qualities of noir while coming at them from an unusual angle. Mary Astor, Phyllis Thaxter, and Janet Leigh lend able support.
On Dangerous Ground (1952)–Another Nicholas Ray-directed noir, with Ryan as a sadistic cop, Ida Lupino as a blind woman, and a vivid shift from city streets to snowy countryside halfway through.
About Mrs. Leslie (1954)–A real mid-century curiosity, this picture stars Shirley Booth as a middle-aged woman who runs a boarding-house and has had one memorable romance with a mysterious stranger who swept her away to a seaside cottage for two weeks each year. The film is oddly constructed, and the story is pure woman’s magazine material (there are heavy echoes of Fannie Hurst and Back Street) , but there are some amusing moments (both intentional and unintentional) and even a few touching ones. Ryan brings enough dignity and edge to the mysterious businessman to keep the film from sinking stickily in its own juices.
The Set-Up (1949)–Ryan stars in this compact Robert Wise film as a battered, aging boxer who comes face to face with the tougher side of the boxing industry. Audrey Totter is his quite understandably concerned wife.