Left: Edward Dmytryk, Crossfire, 1947, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 86 minutes. Montgomery and Samuels (Robert Ryan and Sam Levene). Right: Nicholas Ray, On Dangerous Ground, 1952, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 82 minutes. Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan)


EVEN IF HE WINS—especially if he wins—he loses. That’s Robert Ryan in The Set-Up (1949), playing beaten-down boxer Stoker, who opts not to take a fall. The first half of Robert Wise’s boldly drawn film, set mostly in the ring’s warm-up room, captures in miniature Stoker’s life as a whole until that moment: one long wait for the fight that will change everything. And then it’s happening—success, or failure—in front of everyone choreographed by lank former university champ Ryan and enacted before a vividly realized avid crowd, the bout is edited into an exhausting sequence. By the end, we feel his experience in our own muscles. As noted film critic Samuel Fuller put it: “Bob caught all the nuances of guts and shattered hopes, and small-time aspirations of a never-was beating the hell out of the desperation of being a club fighter.”

Film Forum’s two-week series rolls out twenty-three features with Ryan. Whether he plays victim or villain, or a noir-esque mix of both, it’s easy to go along with his characters’ shifts in emotion and trains of thought. The violent rages of his cop in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952), at times full of pleading even as the aggressor, are abrupt, terrifying, and grounded in a fully inhabited psychology that also seems to represent a darker side to postwar masculinity. Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence (1948) and Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947) (the latter film provided Ryan’s first and only Oscar) see the actor portraying veterans determined to share their psychological wounds by inflicting new ones.

Ryan’s daunting intensity, which may have kept Ryan from headline-star status, could easily lend itself to scenarios of mania and extremity, such as the paranoid odd-jobber who traps Ida Lupino in Beware My Lovely (1952), or the cuckolded husband abandoned in the desert in an unusual experiment in crosscutting and voice-over, the 3-D Inferno (1953). (Anthony Mann’s 1958 God’s Little Acre finds the actor infusing a nutty bumpkin patriarch with downright weird energy.) By the time he joined the acclaimed 1973 American Film Theatre production of The Iceman Cometh (he died from lung cancer soon thereafter), Ryan, playing a former anarchist, could draw on the hard-won wisdom of what felt like several lifetimes of on-screen experience.

Robert Ryan” runs August 12–23 at Film Forum in New York.

Nicolas Rapold