1940s · classic film · favorite actors · film noir · Star of the Month · TCM

A month with Robert Ryan

I didn’t love Robert Ryan immediately. The first couple of his films that I watched were for his costars. After seeing The Dirty Dozen (1967), anything with his name caught my full attention. In his own quiet way, he was starting to grow on me.
Looks wise I didn’t think much of him, but now I find him really handsome, if not in the traditional leading man way. His face had a hard quality and he struck a towering figure at 6’4. And those piercing black eyes of his were always glinting, ominously and not. Add to that his consistently excellent performances onscreen and it’s not difficult to fall in love with him.

Watching Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Berlin Express (1948), On Dangerous Ground (1952), and Executive Action (1973) earlier this year made me take full notice of his immense range and talents. In each he’s a bigot, a hero, a basically good cop with violent tendencies, and a white supremacist who helps engineer JFK’s assassination (?!?!). (Executive Action is a film that lends some credence to the conspiracy theories surrounding the president’s murder and does handle the subject seriously despite the fact that it’s, you know, a conspiracy theory. Mr. Ryan is charming but subtly disturbing because of that charm).

Robert Ryan was typecast in villainous roles, but seeing him play against that type is always interesting. And I love seeing him as the bad guy because he’s never the same bad guy twice. He could fall at either end of the heroic-villainous spectrum, as well as the middle, where he wrestled with the light and darkness within him.

Naturally I’ve seen a lot of his movies as he was TCM’s star of the month for May. They aired a few of my favorites and others I’ve been eager to see or else didn’t even know about. Each film has led me to a deeper appreciation of his work and image. His performances lacked embellishment, and the films were so much more richer because of that.

Tender Comrade (1943) directed by Edward Dymtryk

Ginger Rogers later denounced this film for its perceived communist leanings. She’s one of four wives (Jo) who agrees to share a home and living expenses while their husbands are fighting in the war. It’s wonderfully heartwarming, even with the cloying “band together, this is the socialist American way!” message. But hooray for enterprising women. Jo’s longing for husband Chris (Ryan) is articulated with the greatest sincerity. We meet Chris through flashbacks. The love between Jo and Chris is still evident even amidst the petty fights and complaints. It’s a natural picture of marriage’s highs and lows. Ryan is a tough sweetheart, a far cry from the villains he would later play. Definitely would have loved to see him as the happily wedded husband more often.

Look at that tear glistening in the corner of his eye! I am not long for this world.
Beautifully dreamy and evocative shot that always accompanies a flashback. I love how they’re both framed next to the vast sky.

Crossfire (1947) directed by Edward Dymtryk
A brooding noir about the murder of a Jewish man, starring two other Roberts (Mitchum & Young). Ryan dominates each scene as an anti-Semitic soldier. He later lamented that this film led to his typecasting, and really for good reason. This was the first time I was afraid of him.

Something so haunting about him here. We’re his prey too, trembling beneath that stony glare.

Crossfire is just really excellent as both a noir and a biting social drama.

The Woman on Pier 13 (1947)
This one is just heavy handed anti-communist propaganda and I don’t necessarily recommend it, but Ryan plays the rare good guy. He’s just trying to make an honest living but he’s been cornered and blackmailed by the communist party. It’s because of him that the film is even remotely watchable.

Act of Violence (1948) directed by Fred Zinnemann


Bent on revenge, Ryan plays a crippled war veteran, Joe Parkson. His target is Frank Enley (Van Heflin), his old friend in a POW camp who once committed an act of cowardice/treachery. He’s since built a life with his wife Edith (Janet Leigh) and their young son in a quiet suburb, but Joe disturbs this quaint new picture. What works so well is his shuffling foot – its foreboding sound is right up there with the ominous clunks/footsteps often heard in mystery and horror thrillers. But peel back Joe’s murderous exterior and you find a man wounded both spiritually and physically.


The Set-Up (1949) directed by Robert Wise

Truth be told, I just don’t know what to say about this brutal, beautiful film. I guess I should start with Ryan’s performance as an aging boxer (Bill “Stoker” Thompson). His wife Julie (Audrey Totter) begs him to retire, but he won’t. Can’t. He’s supposed to lose a fight as part of a deal his manager made with a local gangster, but he won’t throw the fight. It’s a really well paced film that unwinds in real time in the boxing ring, where faded men reminisce over their glory days while the younger recruits bask in their winnings. As Stoker, Ryan is just phenomenal. It’s such a sensitive, well tuned performance, the kind that is overlooked for accolades but which stands up remarkably well years later.

Born to be Bad (1950) directed by Nicholas Ray

Who knew Joan Fontaine could play conniving so well, or that she’d be capable of driving Robert Ryan wild with desire and lust? Born to be Bad is a little difficult to classify; it’s not the best of Nicholas Ray’s films, the production was rife with problems, it’s film noir and cheap melodrama all rolled into one. Sign me up. I loved it a lot. Joan Fontaine is Cristobel Caine, a sweet, innocent girl who charms everyone around her while she schemes and manipulates her way into marriage with a rich man (Zachary Scott) that she stole from her cousin (Joan Leslie). Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan) is a writer who falls for Cristobel and he’s the only one who can see through her innocent act. But he wants her so bad anyway. Mel Ferrer as Gobby, a cynical and frustrated painter, nearly steals the show with his wry observations. It’s such a well acted performance from him, but Ryan and Leslie are also wonderful. Nick flirts with Cristobel in a way that’s insufferable if anybody else was doing it. But it’s Robert Ryan, so all is excused.


The Racket (1951) Directed by John Cromwell et al
A straightforward good cop vs bad guys crime drama. Robert Mitchum is Tom McQuigg, the good cop, a guy who absolutely refuses to do anything dishonest or dirty. A crime syndicate in the city has major politicians and lawmakers in its pocket, but McQuigg is determined to bring them down. Nick Scanlon (Ryan) is the gangster in league with the syndicate, but even he isn’t privy to their criss crossing machinations. Ryan and Mitchum are such perfect foils. The first time I watched this film, Nick Scanlon annoyed the hell out of me, but a repeat viewing made me appreciate Ryan’s performance as the stomping, unrestrained gangster.

Clash by Night (1952) directed by Fritz Lang

Fritz Lang always leaves me emotionally winded. This is a complicated, thorny film about marriage, relationships, and loneliness. Bitter Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) returns home to her California fishing town after a disastrous affair. She reconnects with Jerry (Paul Douglas), a gruff but kindhearted and shy man who clearly has a crush on her. He’s simple, she’s worldly. He’s so nervous about asking her on a date that he requests her brother Joe (Keith Andes) to do it for him. Mae accepts and the two begin seeing each other regularly. While Jerry is clearly over the moon, Mae isn’t. Enter Earl (Ryan), Jerry’s crass best friend. The attraction between he and Mae is electric, but Jerry is oblivious to it. Mae resists the married Earl’s advances, and later on, she marries Jerry for security, something that has eluded her. Mae gives birth to a daughter and it seems she’s resigned to her simple, meager existence. But when a newly divorced Earl arrives back in town, Mae doesn’t spurn his advances but allows herself to give into an affair that eventually threatens the life Mae and Jerry have built together.

Even with the code sanctioned (I’m guessing) hopeful conclusion, this is still a difficult film to process. Some may find the “happy ending” disingenuous, but I think it still offers up complicated questions, like how a marriage survives following an attack of infidelity. The film also features a young Marilyn Monroe as a feisty, unglamorous working girl and she’s wonderful.

Ryan’s performance is surprisingly layered. Earl is a brute, but one who yearns for love and companionship. He feels entitled to Mae’s love. Going after your best friend’s wife is not a good look, hombre. You feel sorry for Earl, but he’s still a bitter, selfish, unlikable man.

The Naked Spur (1953) directed by Anthony Mann

I tend to avoid westerns so I don’t know much about their structure or if most of them favor ambiguity over strict delineations between the good and bad guys. This is one western where the hero isn’t a hero at all, or else is just really conflicted and ends up behaving as badly as a bad guy. Bounty hunter Harvey Kemp (Jimmy Stewart) is pursuing killer Ben Vandergroat (Ryan) for the hefty price of $5,000. He reluctantly accepts the help of two other men who mistakenly believe he’s a sheriff. And you know, he goes along with it. But when Ben reveals that he’s not a sheriff, he begins playing mind games to turn them all against each other. And when that much money is involved? OOOH BOY. Who is better than Robert Ryan? No one. He emanates so much ease and charm in this role, I honestly was rooting for him over good ol’ Jimbo. But it was fine, because Jimmy wasn’t heroic.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) directed by John Sturges
This was another film that I had to watch for the second time to grasp it and Ryan’s greatness. (But it is way better than The Racket). John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) is a one armed WWII vet who stops off in the arid, desolate town of Black Rock in Arizona. The residents are suspicious of his arrival immediately. He comes on the train which hasn’t made a stop in years. Who is he and what does he want? They mask their hostilities passive aggressively before building up to more outright methods. Macreedy is looking for a Japanese man named Kamoko, whose son died saving Macreedy’s life in the war. He wants to give Kamoko his son’s medal. There’s a sinister air about the town and its people, and it becomes more pronounced as Macreedy pieces together details about Kamoko’s disappearance. No one will admit to anything, mainly because of their loyalty to Reno Smith (Robert Ryan). Ryan’s performance is a masterclass in subtlety, even when his bigotry and racism are thrust into the spotlight.

Back From Eternity (1956) directed by John Farrow

Ryan plays Bill Lonagan, the hard drinking, world weary pilot whose plane is forced to crash land on an island of cannibals. The good news: they’re able to repair the plane. The bad news: of the nine passengers, only five can return to civilization. Rod Steiger plays the contemplative and remorseful political assassin who reveals his long buried humanity. It’s a great role/performance, but I also really enjoyed Ryan’s. Something tells me that he’s the kind of cool, level headed, but still grizzled pilot you’d want if you ever found yourself in such a harrowing situation as this one, forced to confront some brutal reflections on the value of human life and heroic sacrifice. “Ooh that Ekberg!” is emblazoned on the posters, capitalizing on the role of its blonde bombshell, Anita Ekberg. It’s definitely misleading since she turns in a credible, moving performance too.

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) directed by Robert Wise

This unflinching noir was produced by the film’s star, Harry Belafonte. He and Ryan are petty criminals who are recruited by an ex cop (Ed Begley) for a bank robbery. The only flaw in this perfectly executed plan is that Earl Slater (Ryan) is a racist and Johnny Ingram (Belafonte) is a black man who won’t kowtow to him. What’s so potent about this film is the fact that these two men are forced to work together, but not for a noble cause. It fits firmly in the noir tradition, actually. If this genre of film set out to expose the carefully hidden aspects of American life, pushing its anti-heroes and femme fatales into fatal consequences, then Odds Against Tomorrow is one fine, but little known example of that. Only this time, anti blackness is at the center, and you can’t explain it away. Even when committing a crime, Slater still thinks Johnny is beneath him. And as always, Ryan is scarily convincing.

Most people might read the film as an indictment of the hatred between blacks and whites, but you need to probe a little deeper than that. Sure their mutual hatred was meaningless, but where did it come from? Johnny does express hostility towards whites, but it’s born out of frustration at the way they’ve rigged the game. Slater, however, causes aggressive tension because of his racist views. It’s a fascinating idea to explore in film noir. It makes me wonder about a film centered on the black experience in 1940s/50s America, in which the black protagonist attempts to reach the American dream, only to be thwarted like so many other hardened white men.

Also, Harry Belafonte plays dark/brooding extremely well.

Offscreen, Robert Ryan was a tireless campaigner for civil rights. And it was his friendship with Harry Belafonte that led him into the movement. The malicious bigots and racists that he played were so anathema to what he actually believed and I can’t help but find that admirable. Did he take on those roles in order to force people to face these evils squarely?

I’ve seen 16 of his films this year, which is probably the most of any given actor in any year for me. I’m glad I’ve been able to see such variety in his filmography and that he is recognized for his great ability, even if he’s not as iconic or well known as some of his contemporaries.


Recommended reading:
The Actor Who Knew Too Much by Ty Burr
The Dark Shadings of Robert Ryan by J.R. Jones
Robert Ryan’s Quiet Furies by Manohla Dargis


3 thoughts on “A month with Robert Ryan

  1. “I love seeing him as the bad guy because he's never the same bad guy twice.” You're so right about this, and that's one of the reasons why I admire him so much as an actor (and as person too since he was the opposite of those roles in real life). Your post wonderfully illustrates what a reliable actor he was, no matter the quality of the movie.

    Also, I'm totally with you on finding him handsome despite not having the conventional leading man looks. Born to Be Bad was one of the first movies I saw him in and I immediately fell in love with him even though that type of character would normally annoy me. And I love that screenshot of him tearing up in Tender Comrade; I would've loved to see him in more romantic leading roles like that.


  2. Thank you for reading, as always. 🙂

    I'm just surprised that he was versatile even though he's known for playing a specific type. Reliable is a great way to describe him.


  3. Robert Ryan is one of my favorite actors ever. There is so much going on behind his eyes. I envy you your marathon. I just might have to do one myself one of these days. Love The Set-Up but Act of Violence has both Ryan AND Van Heflin at their absolute peaks so that might win out.


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