“I have been in films pretty well everything I am dedicated to fighting against.”
The obvious precursor of demonish seventies actors like Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, not to mention Tim Roth, Gary Oldman and a host of others, Robert Ryan created a psychic space on screen where all dark human impulses could have free rein. He would scrunch up his creased, crumbling statue face into ever-craggier expressions of mistrust and touchy dismay, as if he expected the people around him to insult him at any moment but could never be fully prepared for the humiliation. Ryan’s tiny, black beady eyes would glow malevolently like hot coals in the dark of film noir shadows, and there were angry lines near the bridge of his nose that got deeper as he aged, while his truculent voice got raspier every time he eased his way into his habitual flights of detailed self-pity; he was always stirring the embers of his ruined pride and then tenderly masturbating his ego with the ashes. Ryan built a substantial film career even though he was missing many of the standard emotions actors need to come across on screen; he couldn’t do charm or love, only fear and sex, and he could never be totally sympathetic or likable, which was both his blessing and his curse. He doggedly pursued his own solitary themes as an artist, and at his best he was as harsh and intoxicating as whiskey belted straight from the bottle.
Born into a lace-curtain Irish family in Chicago, Ryan saw his father lose most of his money in the 1929 market crash. He attended a Jesuit high school, then went on to be a champion boxer at Dartmouth before bumming around for a few years in the lean 1930s. “I spent seven years of vagabonding,” he said, “working at this and that and not being very interested in anything I was doing.” This hard-knock education gave him a real-world knowledge in his face and body that most actors lack, so that he was never really a young-looking man on screen, even in his breakthrough, a queasy Ginger Rogers vehicle called Tender Comrade (1943) that later got its writer, Dalton Trumbo, in trouble for injecting “Communist propaganda” into the script (at one point Ginger says, “Share and share alike, that’s democracy.”). Ryan joined the army soon after and became a drill sergeant, which surely effected his later work as an actor, and he came out of the war as a man with pacifist leanings. These ideals were backed up by his marriage to Jungian scholar and novelist Jessica Cadwalader; together, they had three children and even started a progressive elementary school in Hollywood.
Ryan was a socially conscious liberal, but he had to swallow his principles a few times during his stint as a contract player at RKO, appearing in the dread 1949 Howard Hughes project I Married a Communist (later renamed The Woman on Pier 13) and several standard war movies where he looks distinctly uncomfortable mouthing pro-military sentiments. But in Crossfire (1947, right), a well-meaning, effective noir film about an anti-Semitic murder, Ryan resoundingly established himself as the screen’s pre-eminent player of dyed-in-the-wool bigots. As Montgomery, a chummy bully with a lust for discipline and an unreasoning hatred of Jews, Ryan sketches in the barroom stink of this man’s mind in odious detail, and he was so vivid in this part, which won him his only Oscar nomination, that he played periodic reprises of it for the rest of his life: as a gun-toting, small-town hater of the Japanese in Bad Day at Black Rock (1954), and then a truly awful hater of blacks in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). (Surely if he’d lived he would have played a hater and killer of gays, too.) A lifelong leftist and fighter for civil rights, Ryan was forever scourging right-wing intolerance in his best bigot roles, and surely playing these men full out cost him personally, at times. “I have been in films pretty well everything I am dedicated to fighting against,” he once said, a touch wearily.
“Well, let’s face it, I’m not well!” Ryan crows, shaking his head for emphasis, as a victim of shell shock in Jean Renoir’s strange The Woman on the Beach (1947), after he wakes up from a long nightmare. In this and other films, Ryan was the face of postwar crack-ups, rubbing our nose in the kind of war-made neurosis that the army and 1950s America wanted to sweep under the carpet. Surely poor Van Heflin would like to forget his wartime misdeeds in Act of Violence (1949), but Ryan limps into the normal life Heflin has made for himself and blows it apart, nursing his grudge against this reborn family man, even gloating over it, his paranoid’s eyes ready to narrow at any real or imagined slight. This is the classic “I could have been somebody” type that you meet in most bars, ready to defend his dark point of view to the death. Ryan took Clark Gable’s playful pre-war squint and made it into his most powerful acting weapon, as if he’s always thinking, “So what are you up to? I’m onto you, buddy.”
This all-pervasive “I’m onto you” mannerism was ideal for his dead-on skewering of his RKO boss, Howard Hughes, in Max Ophuls’ Caught (1949), but Ryan proved he could do a slightly softer man in The Set-Up (1949), a famous, fairly clichéd boxing film. As Stoker Thompson, a boxer past his prime, Ryan sits back in the locker room before a bout and lets fleeting emotions of pain, regret and hope invade his face like threatening weather, and in the authentic-looking fight scenes, he bends his tall frame over to avoid punches to the stomach. Ryan was 6′ 4”, which is tall even now but was very tall for the forties, and he wore this extra height uneasily. It was as if his tallness made him too conspicuous for his taste, and thus he was an easier mark for the world’s blows. And surely it also meant that he was too tall to kiss women on screen; he’d have to bend down too far, and that wasn’t for him, boy, no sir.
Ryan made four films for Nicholas Ray. In the first, he had “just a sex attraction” with a brittle Joan Fontaine in Born to Be Bad (1950), but the next year, in On Dangerous Ground (1951), Ray zeroed in on Ryan and exposed him totally, but gently, as was his wont. Playing a burned-out moralist cop in the first scenes, Ryan is as dangerous and animalistic as De Niro’s Travis Bickle, or Keitel’s bad lieutenant for Abel Ferrara. No other actor of the time could have dared mingle excitement and dismay together so seamlessly as Ryan does in the scene where a masochistic informer goads him into violence; this was an actor with access to undreamed-of demons, fatal knowledge. On screen, Ryan lives in Hell, sending out dispatches of varying degrees of intensity from inside the furnace of his own terrible grief and rage. This is a man without hope, which is why the last part of On Dangerous Ground, where he is supposedly redeemed by a blind Ida Lupino, doesn’t quite gel; it’s more D. W. Griffith than Taxi Driver (1976), and Ryan is always pushing the American consciousness further, not back.
In 1952, Ryan played a demented handyman terrorizing Lupino in Beware, My Lovely, a modest suspense film that cannot contain the outsized psychotic depths Ryan unleashes; if there’s a more convincing, scarier lunatic on film, I haven’t seen it. Fleeing the scene of one of his crimes early on, Ryan hops a freight train, and I could swear the camera flinches from his completely tormented face. He’s totally possessed in this close-up by some very specific demon, and a moment like this is so uncanny that it’s impossible not to wonder what Ryan is channeling to access this type of emotion. He was a bit of a mystery as a person, even to those closest to him; in a recent podcast interview, his daughter said that Ryan was often aloof, unless he had a few drinks to loosen him up, and that he kept his black Irish moods to himself. Maybe he was hinting at his own problems when he said, “The myth about the actor being one thing and portraying another is not true. He may play a part which has nothing to do with his own life, but his size as a person shows through no matter what he does.”
“Didn’t you ever want to cut up a beautiful dame?” Ryan brazenly asks, as Earl, an asshole film projectionist married to an unseen burlesque queen in Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952). Earl is irresistible to a certain kind of trouble-seeking woman, so that it comes as no surprise when a young Marilyn Monroe finds him exciting, even as the “I should know better” Barbara Stanwyck eyes him warily. Earl does a hideous “Chinese” imitation (it’s as if Ryan is determined to leave no racial prejudice unexplored in his career), and he needs to mock teddy-bearish Paul Douglas constantly in order to allay his all-consuming self-loathing. Ryan’s Earl is about as romantic as a blowtorch, but he is sexy in his nasty way as he grapples in his undershirt with Stanwyck over a kitchen sink. In Stanwyck, Ryan found the only actress who could really stand up to him in a two-shot, and their meeting is one of the most ferociously bitter man/woman battles ever put on film (Barbara Bel Geddes can’t begin to protect herself from Ryan in Caught, nor can battered Myrna Loy in Lonelyhearts ; even Gloria Grahame gets in over her head with him in their blistering Odds Against Tomorrow scenes).
In Inferno (1953), Ryan confirmed his own solitary self-sufficiency by playing most of the film alone, in the desert, with a broken leg, his voice-over thoughts soothing him through the ordeal of getting out of the wilderness alive. As a homosexual criminal kingpin in Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955), Ryan daintily crosses his legs at the knee and looks after his men with a gruesome kind of tenderness; his performance is layered and full of disturbing subtleties of meaning bouncing off the monolith that is Robert Stack, the film’s lead. Fuller frames Ryan as the center of each composition, and he commands the space with his containment; he has the ability to suggest a whole sly state of mind while standing perfectly still. There were lesser films in between and after these additions to Ryan’s gallery of hurt, sick and cynical men, and he eventually started playing roles on stage to sate his ambitions; he did Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in the theater, and also did a fascinating-sounding Antony to Katharine Hepburn’s Cleopatra.
Ryan had the technique for the classics, and he had his greatest triumph in a classic part that he was born to play, Herman Melville’s twisted master-at-arms Claggart in a film of Billy Budd (1962). Wearing a tall black hat with a buckle and long black boots, Ryan goes for broke here, laying out the full spectrum of sexual sadomasochism only hinted at in his fifties films. He casts knowing glances on the men he has chosen to be his shipboard slaves, and right away he looks worried by the comeliness and obvious purity of Billy (Terence Stamp). He lets loose with a frank little smile of pleasure as he presides over the pointless flogging of one of his men, then dares to glance at Billy to see his reaction. Punishment of his men is all Claggart lives for, and he turns his ship as far into an S/M dungeon as the law allows. This is a man so miserably evil that he fervently wants to be killed, and it’s all highly sexual, but Ryan manages to get far beyond Claggart’s repressed homosexuality and into something more ambiguous, more elemental.
There were a lot of movies after the summit he reached in Billy Budd, most of them not remotely worthy of Ryan, but that seems to be the story with so many of our best actors. They go as far as they can and give us too much of their soul, and then they wind up in trash. Yes, Ryan had a good part in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), but it was sad to see him turn up in junk like The Love Machine (1971), based on a Jacqueline Susann book. Thankfully, though, there would be one more hurrah. Ryan knew he had cancer when he made his last movie, a full-length version of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1973), and in it he laid bare his whole artistic life. He looks exactly like photographs of the gloomy, tall O’Neill, and he speaks the playwright’s flowery dialogue with total authority and exhausted sincerity. Sitting in the dark of a bar, Ryan sneers at pipe dreams while he drinks his bad liquor; no one has ever seemed so tired on screen, and this tiredness gives Ryan a pinpoint precision when he assails his various targets. As he presides over the massive, four-hour film, Ryan unhesitatingly joins hands with O’Neill’s distinctly Irish “I should never have been born” keening and squinches up his little eyes one more time for us, as if he’s saying, “Believe the worst in people and screw them before they screw you. It’s the only way to live.”