Posted by Moira Finnie on November 4, 2009
In celebration of the 100th anniversary of actor Robert Ryan‘s birth on November 11th, 1909, the Movie Morlocks are initiating a blogathon devoted to the masterful actor, beginning today. This tribute will last through the coming week with contributions from each of the regular contributors to this blog. In addition to our words, TCM will be offering cinematic proof of the reasons for this event with two days of Robert Ryan movies on November 10th and 11th (a link to the complete rundown of upcoming movies is at the end of this blog).
From what the actor’s generous only daughter, Lisa Ryan, tells me, he might have been surprised and, in his rather shy way, perhaps a bit embarrassed by all the attention. Believing that her father probably didn’t know what this “Film Noir” thing was, Lisa once mentioned that her “mother told a hilarious story about being in Paris with my Dad in the early 70′s [after] being approached by a group of kids who turned out to be film students. They got down on their knees, on the sidewalk, in front of my Dad, bowing down to him as if he were some religious figure. My Dad’s comment reportedly was: “What the f—- is WRONG with these French people? Are they all INSANE?”
While I would have loved to see the expressions on the faces of those French cinephiles if they heard this outburst from their icon, maybe it’s a good thing Mr. Ryan isn’t around today to read the paeans his still fresh film performances are earning for him these days.
As the years lengthen between his life and our own time, the long shadow of this singular actor’s body of work has only deepened. The popularity of film noir, which provided Ryan with some of his most memorable roles in Crossfire (1947-Edward Dmytryk), Act of Violence (1948-Fred Zinnemann), and On Dangerous Ground (1952-Nicholas Ray), among others, is partly responsible for the lasting interest in his work, but his career encompassed much more. Appearing in everything from gritty urban dramas, heist films, psychological tales, westerns, war films, some pretty strange potboilers like The Love Machine and even, by a some all too rare fluke of casting, a few stories with a romantic touch. Perceptive viewers can sense something more in his work.
Over time, anguished roles as men painfully twisted by anger, grief and hate became almost stereotyped “Ryan parts”, beginning with his brilliant, strangely disarming part as a blindly Anti-Semitic soldier named “Montgomery” in Crossfire, for which he received a deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Based on a novel by screenwriter and eventually director Richard Brooks, (which was actually about a homosexual murder among a group of servicemen but deemed too “hot” a topic for film), this story of a the murder of a Jewish man barely known by a soldier has the earmark of one aspect of this actor’s style. While he is playing a man whose psychological problems might be expected to be enumerated by the denouement of the story in the Freudian Forties, we are instead left with a profound sense of mystery about his character. We never entirely know why he is a bigot, and are left looking at one of the darker, more inexplicable corners of the human soul. As Ryan develops his character, he uses the narrowing of his dark eyes, and a flat, affectless delivery of his polite replies to the police inquiries to counter our natural tendency to like his superficially appealing character. Ryan never caters to the audience’s longing for “someone to root for” in such a part, even though, as we can see in this clip, he is instinctively likable but has an unease he carries everywhere with him, fingering it like a rabbit’s foot:
His ability to play such individuals so well was apparently part of an obstinate adherence to an artistic standard that the actor developed out of his own beliefs and experiences. Few could emulate and, at times, few could understand how personally costly this might be. Ryan‘s friend and professional colleague John Houseman once explained that “Ryan is a disturbing mixture of anger and tenderness who had reached stardom by playing mostly brutal, neurotic roles that were at complete variance with his true nature.” Ryan, whose personal warmth and kindness was cited by those who knew and worked with him, was also a man whose political and social views were often 180 degrees opposite of the many bigots he played, from the murderous soldier in Crossfire to the virulent racists in Bad Day at Black Rock and Odds Against Tomorrow. In his private life, he and his wife Jessica were politically supportive of the Committee for the First Amendment, the ACLU, civil rights, the United Nations and SANE, an organization devoted to a serious discussion of the nuclear policies of the world. Ryan was later also a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and attended the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago as a delegate for Sen. Eugene McCarthy. “Most actors” Ryan would say, “play it safe and will only support bleeding heart charities and the American flag.” Living in Hollywood from the forties through the sixties, Ryan was, as he pointed out, remarkably free of interference from Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his minions, despite the actor’s outspoken support of those he felt were persecuted in the period of the blacklist. “I was involved in the things he was throwing rocks at but I was never a target” Ryan claimed publicly. “Looking back, I suspect my Irish name, my being a Catholic and an ex-Marine sort of softened the blow.”
My own acquaintance with Ryan‘s movies began with one of his gentlest early roles during a childhood viewing of The Boy With Green Hair (1948-Joseph Losey). From an adult perspective, this movie is part didactic moral tale about tolerance and partly a symbolic story about a war orphan whose startling tonsorial look arouses the violent disdain of his peers and the puzzlement of many of the conformist adults around him. Starring one of the most natural of child actors, Dean Stockwell, the movie may seem a bit heavy handed today, but Stockwell‘s plight is intelligently conveyed by the boy, who is a living argument for tolerance as he demonstrates the often trivial causes of war and relates to the adult characters such as Gramp, played by Pat O’Brien in a realistic way. More significantly for this viewer as a child, one of the sympathetic adults who appeared in this fantasy was a calm, quietly attentive Robert Ryan, who played a small part as a doctor trying to counsel Stockwell. Though I was hardly neglected as a kid, the idea of a grown man with patience, who would listen to a child’s explanation of his concerns, was pretty radical in my admittedly narrow experience at the time. Maybe this guy bore watching. Having seen many of Robert Ryan’s movies since then, the dichotomy between my first impression of the actor in this Losey film, and my own evolving understanding of his later nuanced “bad guys”, as well as everything in between intrigues me even more now.
If, as I suspect, each creative person’s life has formative stage. The experiences and impressions from this time may continue to inform their work and often their life. In Robert Ryan‘s case, it may be that some of his background, along with the twin catalysts of the Depression and the Second World War may have helped to mold him. Those of us who celebrate his contributions to cinema and who are still learning about human nature every time we see his work, have been wondering about what has been making this guy tick for a long time.
A TCM Message Board friend named April wrote recently that her growing appreciation of this actor led her to “consider Robert Ryan the real ‘Quiet Man’ because behind a body of work that contains some of the most hurtful characters in classic cinema, lay a consummate professionalism that never drew attention to the intensely private man of, perhaps to many,surprisingly generous and tolerant convictions.” The noted Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin described an individual he knew who may never have been a natural for the Hollywood scene. Observing him at a film industry event one time, Champlin wrote that he observed Ryan when “he arrived late for the cocktail party in his honor and he stood unobtrusively at its edges for quite a while, taking in the scene–the vivid, ambitious ladies and the circling men–with what seemed an amused, affectionate detachment.” Others believe that Ryan is still seriously underrated. Steve-o, the astute driving force behind the well written Film Noir of the Week, asserts that “along with guys like John Garfield – Robert Ryan has been forgotten by film watchers today. Ryan should be remembered as one of the greats of film noir. Film fans usually think of Bogart and Mitchum. Ryan was a key figure in noir.” Steve recommends that film fans should “[c]heck him out in Crossfire and The Racket.” In Steve‘s opinion, “ Ryan walks in and steals both films from the laconic Robert Mitchum.”
For those who find Robert Ryan a good actor with a uniquely intense and pensive presence in movies from the forties through the seventies, the recent discovery of a letter written by the actor describing his Chicago roots for his three children, Cheyney, Walker (formerly Tim) and Lisa Ryan, was a particularly good piece of news. The Ryan family’s decision to allow writer J. R. Jones to publish a fine piece in the Chicago Reader describing Robert Ryan‘s formative years in that city offered evidence of a person whose attraction to the somewhat esoteric world of acting hardly seemed pre-ordained by his background.
The only surviving child of a successful Irish-American building contractor and a mother of English descent, Robert Ryan grew up to be a bit of a loner after the death of his younger brother John died in 1917. The memory of that loss was one that the actor would still be trying to comprehend when, in a candid moment of reflection in 1972. Though Ryan had recently lost his wife of over three decades, Jessica Cadwalader Ryan, to cancer, and had been engaged in his own struggle with lymphoma, he mused about his relative good luck, asking reporter Mary Murphy “So what the hell do I have to complain about? My brother died at the age of 6 and I’ve thought about it my whole life. He never even got started.”
Growing up to receive an education at a Jesuit high school and Dartmouth College, he chose that faraway Ivy League school in part because he was eager to get away from his home by the end of high school. Ryan wrote that he hoped his mother “didn’t know how much I wanted to go. You cannot know the difficulties that attend an only child. Two big grown-ups are beaming in on him all the time—even when he isn’t there. It is a feeling of being watched that lingers throughout life. And the feeling it engenders is escape.” Academically bright and athletically gifted, at college Ryan majored in English, played football, and established a remarkable record of undefeated victory as a boxer. Though the actor would later tell interviewers that he “had enough of athletics in college”, that dedication and understanding of the sweet science would eventually lead him to his role as the aging “Stoker Thompson” in The Set-Up (1949-Robert Wise), one of the best depictions of the sordidness and nobility that jostle closely for the upper hand in that sport.
Graduating from college just as the Great Depression blanketed the country in an economically chilling miasma, Ryan‘s restless career path included time attending to the family business back in Chicago, working as a sandhog and ditch digger, but it also took him to sea on a tanker plying the seas to Africa and back, a time as a cow hand in Montana, and a series of disheartening stints as a department store model, a bodyguard, a job working for a cemetery selling grave sites, a bill collector, and–thanks to his mother’s influence, a maddeningly dull desk job handing out school supplies for the city. Having toyed with writing plays in college, he began to try this endeavor again around this time, becoming involved in community theater. The writing never panned out professionally, and Ryan would later comment that “I’m no playwright”. Still, it did lead him to acting, and a move to Hollywood, where Ryan would study his craft under famed Max Reinhardt, with instructor and Stanislavski trained character actor Vladimir Sokoloff taking a particular interest in his talent. The pair of European sophisticates responded to their eager student’s wholesome American boyishness by encouraging him with the comment that “You do things with gusto–you are never shy!” Some of us might question this assessment a little, though clearly, Robert Ryan‘s impressive appearance and self confident manner in many of his roles made his future more promising.
As Lisa Ryan points out, the discovery of acting at this stage of her father’s life may have been quite liberating. “He looked good, had been a star athlete at Dartmouth, so acting must have seemed like a logical path to follow (after determining that selling cemetery plots, among other things, might NOT be his ultimate calling in life!) He was fortunate enough to start experiencing some success pretty quickly, and he must have also had the giddy experience early on of being able to come out of his introverted shell when he was acting.”
Gaining credits in some films in between his enlistment in the Marines in World War Two and his signing a contract with RKO studios, some of Robert Ryan‘s earliest films ranged from a slightly sheepish appearance in a Fred Astaire musical, The Sky’s the Limit (1943) to the role of a gangly American boxer named Lefty O’Doyle (an early attempt at typecasting?) in the interesting propaganda film Behind the Rising Sun (1943).
Another film that marked a real step forward for the neophyte actor was
Seen today, I was struck by the relevancy of the characters’ wartime experiences to our own time. Longing, loneliness, concerns for the safety of an absent spouse, the reality of money issues and the need for real sacrifice add to the usual tensions of a new born marriage between a very young Ryan and Ginger Rogers, who played high school sweethearts separated by the war.
Ryan, whose co-star was leery of his size and supposed meanness, only agreed to his casting after meeting the journeyman actor. Seen briefly at the beginning of the movie in a sensitively played visit to his wife just before shipping out, and throughout the rest of the film in flashbacks, Ryan has a quiet, remarkably sure presence despite the fact that his realism and raw youthfulness sometimes makes it seem as though he was acting on another planet from his co-star. Aside from her series of sublime musicals with Fred Astaire, as an actress Rogers had showed that she was capable of lacing her sassy, glamorous exterior with unexpected threads of feeling in dramatic roles such as Kitty Foyle (1940). Unfortunately, sometimes her character in this wartime film looks like a glossy photograph of a defense worker more than the real thing, and she is saddled with some of the loftier dialogue and pompous attitudes in her scenes with the other women in this movie, who include Patricia Collinge, Ruth Hussey, and Kim Hunter, along with Jane Darwell. Since most of the movie was centered around these women and their experiences and dialogue are a blend of some seriously overwrought passages penned by Trumbo and reflect the Office of War Information‘s guiding (if leaden) influence. Despite some of these issues, Ryan received some of the best reviews for this flawed film, citing “the delightfully tender and amusing scenes between Rogers and her young husband.” For many of us, it is a pleasure to see Ryan as just a nice guy, keeping his head well above the sudsier dialogue and ideological silliness. Throughout his career, parts in films that were essentially male ensembles came his way much more readily than movies with some opportunities for powerful scenes opposite the ladies. As his work in Tender Comrade indicated, when given a chance, Ryan was capable of informing romantic moments opposite such actresses as Rogers, Ida Lupino, Myrna Loy, and Shirley Booth with an unusual, quixotic tenderness, an endearing diffidence and even, when warranted, an honest need. Disparate films such as About Mrs. Leslie, On Dangerous Ground and Lonelyhearts might not be conventional women’s pictures, but, as April has mentioned, “[they] should be more widely appreciated. She was particularly fond of the rarely seen About Mrs Leslie, which offered “one of the few, if only times, I ever saw Ryan get to play a lover…just that, only a lover…and do so with touching simplicity.”
Steve of Film Noir of the Week expressed an unexpected appreciation for this vein in Ryan’s work when he described how his discovery of On Dangerous Ground altered his perception of Robert Ryan: “I think it was the quiet moments in On Dangerous Ground [that] really show how good an actor he was. He knew he didn’t have Clark Gable looks and had to work harder to be lovable on screen. Seeing him – silently – fall in love with Ida Lupino and then having him go out and kill her brother is absolutely heart breaking. Nicholas Ray‘s bleak winter tale brought out the most amazing performance of Ryan‘s career. My perception of Ryan changed after seeing On Dangerous Ground for the first time. Previously I only considered him a stock heavy in noirs and action films but also was the romantic lead in a surprising number of films including the noir-tinged Clash By Night (he gets all sweaty with Barbara Stanwyck) and Born to Be Bad. Of course he’s known today for being a great bad guy ” but these surprisingly effective films revealed something unexpected in an American leading man.
Perhaps the continual stripping away of that solitary inwardness is part of what gives Ryan‘s characters such power in his most memorable roles in this vein. This quality is particularly evident in two of my favorite movies in his later career, in On Dangerous Ground (1951) and a film that I’ve discussed at length previously, Billy Budd (1962).
Ryan is rarely showy in a conventional actor’s way, though he is frequently riveting. He often seemed to be playing characters who were not entirely comfortable in their own skin as he often did, particularly in these earlier films. At 6’4″, he was very tall for any time, but for underfed audiences raised in the Depression era his size, darkly handsome Black Irish looks, and suggestion of some secret inner life–even in some of the early roles mentioned above, may have made him a likely star in that era. Robert Ryan‘s later creations, particularly those with what Manny Farber once called a “disturbing mixture of anger and sadness” were uniquely his own, as we will see next week as part two of this appreciation continues.
Deepest thanks to Lisa Ryan, April of the TCM Message Board, and Steve-o of Film Noir of the Week for their contributions to this blog.
Please click here for a list of upcoming Robert Ryan movies on TCM.
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