Brow Beating

Nicholas Ray, On Dangerous Ground, 1951, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 82 minutes. Mary Malden and Jim Wilson (Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan).

THOUGH NEVER ONE OF HOLLYWOOD’S BIGGEST STARS or romantic leading men, Robert Ryan arguably gave more great performances, even in mediocre films, than showier, bigger name actors like Marlon Brando. Unlike the latter, whose public image often loomed larger than any he left on screen, and who barely concealed his disdain for the many banal projects he agreed to do, Ryan never flaunted a superior air, was committed to his profession, and consistently, without irony, embraced the tortured souls of his characters, etching his way into film history and the consciousness of viewers with a killer grin and every furrow of his brow.

According to L. R. Jones’s recent biography, Ryan was “smitten with movies” from an early age, but also had theater in his blood. “The first minute I got on the stage [at age twenty-eight], I thought, ‘Bing! This is it.’ ” He played the title roles in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Othello, and Antony and Cleopatra; James Tyrone, Sr. in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night; and Thomas Becket in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. It was in Hollywood movies, however, that he would carve his name more indelibly. From the 1940s to the ’70s, he worked with many of the best directors: Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, Nicholas Ray, Anthony Mann, Fritz Lang, Sam Fuller, Jacques Tourneur, Robert Aldrich, Raoul Walsh, Budd Boetticher, Robert Siodmak, Sam Peckinpah, and Andre de Toth.

In major studio films, his presence proved memorable—equal to if not overshadowing such star leads as John Wayne (in Flying Leathernecks [1951]), Burt Lancaster (in Lawman [1971]), Clark Gable (in The Tall Men [1955]), Spencer Tracy (in Bad Day at Black Rock [1955]), and James Stewart (in The Naked Spur [1953]). Not surprisingly, some of the best films in which Ryan’s name placed first were by directors whose sensibilities were more compatible with his peculiar blend of hard-boiled toughness and disillusionment: Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955), Mann’s Men in War (1956), and De Toth’s Day of the Outlaw (1959). In none of these, however, do we detect his capacity to project genuine evil, as he does in Billy Budd (1961).

From his unnerving incarnation of the sadistic but craven anti-Semite in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947, his fifteenth movie but the first to make an unforgettable impact) to the character of Larry Slade in the film version of O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh in 1973, easily a third of the sixty movies he made in that span are notable largely because of his work. An early example is The Set-Up (Robert Wise [1949]), in which Ryan’s forceful, gritty performance as a boxer who refuses to take a fall still packs a punch despite the film’s overly calculated “real-time” narrative structure.

No graphic caricature of Ryan’s face could miss the penetrating gaze or the squint that announces a mood swing; the thick eyebrows whose rise dramatically rearranges the forehead into five elongated creases, or the dimpled smile that animates strong grooves from midcheek to lower jaw—and the way this map could be radically redefined, as if from a sudden implosion. The countenance is nicely parodied in the wanted poster James Stewart carries around in The Naked Spur: a perfect likeness of our man well before he makes his appearance.

Every line of Ryan’s face traces the past, each one the mark of a story that has forged character. Tall and lean, with a slow but steady walk and a slightly nasal tone when he’s not moved to breathy delivery, one could almost imagine him as Abe Lincoln but for the hard and cynical demeanor that precludes delusions about the better angels of our nature. He was a natural as the heavy, the racketeer, or the corrupt businessman of film noir and westerns—but transcending the hallmarks of these types was an intellectual grasp not only of the game he was in and the limitations of the opposing players, but of the existential stakes of which the good guys had not a clue. One wonders if his cerebral clout and innate bitterness were the reasons Ryan was never directed by John Ford, for whom Wayne’s nonintellectual hero was a better fit.

Fred Zinnemann, Act of Violence, 1948, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 82 minutes.

The six films in the series at Anthology Film Archives (all but one shown in 35 mm)—all made between 1948 and 1958, the period in which Ryan honed his misanthropic persona—provide a taste of his range and a glimpse of his greatness. In Act of Violence (Fred Zinnemann [1949]), Ryan plays a crippled war veteran bent on revenge against the commanding officer (Van Heflin), who informed the Nazis about a prison escape that resulted in the deaths of his buddies. Even before the title appears, it is Ryan’s limping shadow across the New York night and his grasp of a gun before boarding a train to LA that grabs our attention. Despite this strong opening, the film is driven by Heflin’s transition from “model” citizen to tortured conscience, a journey that leads to his ultimate redemption. Not for the last time, Ryan functions as the catalyst, the disruptive force that exposes the hypocrisy of middle-class conventions.

Playing against type had mixed results; he was best when a role fused the cynic with the guy who’d like to believe in goodness but has no evidence it exists. If his animal magnetism is all but suppressed as Shirley Booth’s “companion” in About Mrs. Leslie (1954), it’s partly because the best-selling novel’s adulterous affair between a wealthy manufacturer and a nightclub singer resulted, thanks to Hollywood’s Production Code, in something with all the pizzazz of a glass of warm milk. The sexless relationship, recounted in flashbacks by “Mrs. Leslie,” first seems a foil to the anxious lives of the characters in her boardinghouse, but then yields to her parting advice to a young couple to “have it all—marriage, kids, the works. It took me a lifetime to find that out.” The line falls as flat as the irony of the film’s title, which, though intended to stress the truer, though illegitimate bond she had with the man married to someone else, now lacks any resonance of a secret passion lived in earnest.

Nicholas Ray elicited both sides of Ryan’s persona—as he did Humphrey Bogart’s in In a Lonely Place (1950). In Flying Leathernecks, he cast Ryan as the empathic Captain Griffin because (quotes Jones) “he was the only actor in Hollywood who could kick the shit out of [costar] John Wayne.” We see that brute side in the first scenes of On Dangerous Ground, in which Ryan plays a sadistic cop so out of control that he is sent to a small upstate town to cool down. While assisting a search for the murderer of a young girl, he confronts his mirror image in the victim’s enraged father (Ward Bond), and is moved by the murderer’s blind sister Mary (Ida Lupino) trying to protect her retarded brother. Both encounters change his life. The chase ends as Bond, having caught his dead prey, remarks, “he’s just a kid.” Prefiguring the climax in The Searchers (1956), when John Wayne sweeps up Natalie Wood and speaks the line that dissolves his thirst for vengeance, the moment in Ray’s film frees Bond from his rage but transforms Ryan as well. Its understated effect kicks in when, driving back to New York, he suddenly turns around—literally reversing the doomed path he’s been on—and which the film’s traveling shots express. Entering Mary’s house, he simply calls her name, to which, unsurprisingly, she responds. It’s one of Hollywood cinema’s most transcendent moments and one of Ryan’s most affecting, understated performances—as close to finding redemption as he ever will.

In more familiar territory in The Naked Spur he plays the murderer James Stewart hunts to collect the reward money needed to buy back the ranch he lost while serving in the Civil War. From the get-go, Ryan is all toothy grin and mocking laughs, provoking Stewart’s dark, neurotic side and working to undermine the pact the latter makes with an ex–army lieutenant (Ralph Meeker) and an old prospector (Millard Mitchell) to help him bring Ryan in for a share of the reward. As both taunting conscience pricker and demonic philosopher, he all but steals the show.

None of these incarnations foreshadows Ryan’s masterful turn as the affable, eccentric patriarch Ty Ty in Mann’s God’s Little Acre (1958). True to the character in Erskine Caldwell’s novel, there’s not a trace of the meanness he can so easily tap. In place of the deprecating scowl is a twinkling eye and generosity of spirit. At once comic and serious, Ryan effortlessly embodies both uncanny wisdom and genuine innocence—without once condescending to the character’s Southern gothic behaviorisms—even when Ty Ty has his private talks with the Lord. Trying valiantly to hold his family together—to repair one son’s marriage while oblivious to his young daughter’s errant ways with men—we first see him amid a slew of dugout craters sprawled across his acre like so many giant anthills, the result of the last fifteen years he has spent searching for the gold he’s certain his pappy buried long ago. In his bio, Jones claims that Ryan’s character in About Mrs. Leslie is closest to his real self. But I’d like to think that the man waited a long time to play the homespun philosopher, unyielding dreamer, and loving family man that the role of Ty Ty allowed him, finally, to embrace.

“Robert Ryan: An Actor’s Actor” plays September 4–10 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.