HOW DO YOU LIVE with yourself?” Robert Ryan spits out in disgust, looking as if he were choking on his own bitterness. “I don’t,” comes the unfazed reply. “I live with other people.”
The exchange is from Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952) but the underlying conflict reappears throughout Ryan’s on-screen career. Living with other people is what so many of his characters just can’t do. The Hollywood actor is best known for a handful of performances in which he inhabited, with flayed honesty and piercing insight, bigots of all stripes: an anti-semitic soldier in Crossfire (1947), a redneck tyrant in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), a racist ex-con in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). But Ryan’s tormented inability to achieve ease or intimacy with others was as much existential as sociological. As a 1963 article in Coronet Magazine put it, “He seems essentially as much removed from his audience as they are from him. [His] talent remains exceptional but mysterious and solitary.”
Close to half the titles in Film Forum’s tribute to Ryan fall under the banner of film noir, and a case can be made for Ryan as the quintessential noir actor. The key is his isolation. Film noir distilled a vision of the world where everyone is out for himself and no one can be trusted, where people grab blindly at quick fixes for lifetimes of disappointment and loneliness. Ryan put on film some of the bleakest, fiercest images of solitude that exist. Eating dinner alone in his cheerless apartment in On Dangerous Ground, he shuffles through mug shots to memorize the faces of killers, pimps and pickpockets he despises. Fleeing a murder scene in Beware, My Lovely (1952), he sits hunched on a freight train, utterly alone in his delirious shock, his face silently but eloquently revealing a private world of pain and terror. Stalking like a ghost through his palatial mansion in Caught (1948), Ryan’s icy, neurotic millionaire spends the wee hours of the night in a cavernous room playing lonely games of pinball.
Robert Ryan in Max Ophuls’ elegantly merciless melodrama Caught (1948)
Like other actors who specialized in flamboyant vileness (see Richard Widmark, Dan Duryea), Robert Ryan was a quiet family man and a conscientious progressive. He was by all accounts shy and introspective, a highly sensitive individual who carefully guarded his emotions. A heavy drinker rather than a full-fledged alcoholic, he actively struggled against the pull of liquor, but when he drank “you could see the anger fizzing,” said his friend Lamont Johnson, “the steam coming out his ears as the booze went down.” Soaked in liquor and steeped in Catholic guilt, he retreated into black moods and bouts of Irish brooding.
He was unusual among noir actors in that he didn’t wear the hard-boiled mask of a “tough guy.” Ryan had none of Humphrey Bogart’s dry insolence or Robert Mitchum’s Zen detachment, none of the preening pugnacity of small men like James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson. He was always clenched and seething, sparking like a frayed wire, ready to snap like an overwound spring. When he finally exploded into violence it seemed to leave him as bruised and beaten as his victims. His too-small eyes, black and glistening like pools of oil, squinted desolately out of a handsome but harrowed face. His trademark expression suggested an inner life of roiling hatred and knotted self-loathing.
When he played ogres he was at once scary and pitiable, grasping clumsily at companionship before angrily swatting it away, every slight and rejection stinging his lacerated pride, every violent release further isolating him. More shocking than the brutality or sadism of Ryan’s performances is the naked emotional need he could reveal on screen. There’s an almost unbearable rawness to his hoarse, strangled plea in Clash By Night (1952): “Help me! I’m dying of loneliness!”
Robert Ryan in Vincent J. Donehue’s Nathaniel West adaptation Lonelyhearts (1958)
RYAN WAS BORN into an upwardly mobile Irish family in Chicago in 1909, the only surviving child after a younger brother died of pneumonia (Robert was 8). He was bookish and well-educated, attending a Jesuit academy and then Dartmouth, where he was a heavyweight boxing champ and developed a love of writing. After graduating in 1931, he set off for New York to become a newspaper reporter but couldn’t even get a job as a copy-boy. So for the next seven years he was a vagabond: sweating in the engine rooms of Africa-bound freighters, punching cattle across the prairies of Montana, tunneling subways on sandhogging jobs in Chicago. Frustrated by this aimless succession of menial jobs, he finally found his way to acting and soon headed for Hollywood, where he enrolled in Max Reinhardt’s Actors’ Workshop.
His teacher there was Vladimir Sokoloff. Sokoloff was a student of the Method but advised using “action, not memory of emotion.” Ryan, like other postwar stars, brought a new naturalism, vulnerability and rawness to film acting, but he always retained a traditional respect for technique. He disdained young actors so absorbed in their performances that they forgot to play to the audience. Ryan honed his craft churning out B-movies after RKO signed him to a contract in 1943 (a producer had seen him on stage, playing Joe Doyle in Odets’s Clash by Night.) During the war he was rarely out of uniform, and RKO saw him merely as a clean-cut, gung-ho G.I.
Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
THE FIRST ROLE that mined his disturbingly obsessive streak and talent for tooth-grinding anguish was in Jean Renoir’s last American film, Woman on the Beach (not in the Forum series.) That film sank like a stone, but in the same year, 1947, he set his course by seeking out the role of Montgomery, the vicious, unstable hater of Jews in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire—a film that successfully submerges its improving lesson about tolerance in a sour, seedy, almost nihilistic noir atmosphere. “To nothing,” B-girl Gloria Grahame lisps as she raises her glass.
In a very noirish irony, the performance that made him a star and earned him an Oscar nomination also condemned him to repetitive typecasting as a racist. Perhaps the fact that he came to hate playing such roles only made him better at it, as his bitterness and frustration fermented into an ever more potent brew. Ryan burrowed into the insecurity that fuels prejudice and bullying; he dissected the overbearing faux-geniality of white patriarchs, the self-hatred lurking under the bloated but fragile egos of bigots. (You couldn’t hire a racist to play a racist: he would want to come off as a decent, reasonable person.) Samuel Fuller recalled how he had once been sent to interview a group of Klansmen in Little Rock, and declared, “Ryan wore their faces.”
Robert Ryan sobs on the shoulder of Shelley Winters in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
Earl Slater, in Robert Wise’s stylish, end-of-an-era heist film Odds Against Tomorrow, is the most nuanced and fully developed of Ryan’s bigots. He wrings out every last drop of bile and pathos in this aging, violent character, a two-time loser whose frumpy girlfriend pays the bills, a man desperate to “make it” for once, before it’s too late. He lets us feel how threatened and humiliated Earl is by the presence of the smoothly handsome Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), an elegantly dressed and proudly intelligent young black man. Earl is constantly scrabbling for a superior footing: by calling Johnny “boy,” by beating up bratty kids in bars, by crudely mocking his faithful girlfriend for her sexual needs. (When he smirkingly asks what she’ll do when he gets old, Shelley Winters hits back with savage truth: “You are old NOW!”) His hollowness collapses in on itself; near the end, alone in the winter dusk, he finds he can’t bring himself to shoot a rabbit. The film’s bleached, emptied-out settings befit its frozen souls, drifting in self-inflicted alienation toward inevitable collision.
In reality, Ryan was himself a victim of bigotry: his liberal activism (for causes like nuclear disarmament, civil rights and the labor movement) led to bomb threats against his family from the John Birch Society, and swastikas painted on the doors of the Progressive private school he and his wife founded. With his cultured urban background, Ryan always yearned to play sophisticated Cary Grant roles, and lamented that he was “fated to work in faraway, desolate places…in deserts with a dirty shirt and a two-day growth of beard.” In Bad Day at Black Rock he’s the supreme redneck tyrant, a rancher who lords it over a parched, dead-end town in the middle of nowhere, a power-crazed bully with a front of drawling affability. He was ecstatic to be acting opposite his idol, Spencer Tracy, whose style of low-key naturalism Ryan could match, and used skillfully to accentuate the crescendos in his performances.
Robert Ryan in Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur (1953)
RYAN FIT SNUGLY into the films of Anthony Mann, with their focus on men pushed to torturous extremes in craggy, eruptive landscapes. They made three films together (the somber Men in War is not in the Forum series), and both stepped out of character for the raucous, steamy slapstick-melodrama God’s Little Acre (1958). Ryan’s patriarch, Ty Ty Walden, is another of Mann’s Lear figures, watching his family disintegrate under the strains of his own delusional solipsism. Despite his stubborn, thick-headed faith in buried treasure, he reveals himself as a peacemaker who grasps the fundamental virtues of tolerance and forgiveness, as well as an earthy pillar of the life force.
Ryan brought the same ferocious energy to Mann’s magnificent The Naked Spur, a film which took the convoluted interiority of chamber drama into the dwarfing grandeur of the Western wilderness. As a wily outlaw captured by a bounty hunter (Jimmy Stewart), Ryan grins and cackles with delight at his own malicious cunning, reveling in the tortured guilt of Stewart’s ambiguous antihero. With his wrists tied, perched ridiculously on a small donkey, Ryan still finds ways to exert power, because he has X-ray vision for other people’s weaknesses—and is stone-blind to his own failings. Ryan rarely portrayed men who enjoy their villainy, and he was never a heavy you “love to hate.” Some actors have a gift for portraying evil that is pure, elemental, inexplicable, so that there’s a guiltless satisfaction in hating them. Ryan, by contrast, revealed the inner workings of sadists and bigots, the all too recognizable ingredients of self-pity, resentment, rage, and sheer sickness of being inside one’s own skin. There’s a strange, harsh beauty about his willingness to inhabit these ugly souls, condemning himself to a kind of moral quarantine.
Robert Ryan is down for the count in Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949)
RYAN DID PLAY his share of sympathetic characters, though even when he’s a good guy he’s rarely a happy one. He could make a righteous man as disturbing as an amoral brute. In director Fred Zinneman’s gripping and ambiguous Act of Violence (1948), he’s a decent man whose long-nursed obsession with vengeance has turned him into a monster, dragging his lame leg as he pursues Van Heflin with ghoulish single-mindedness. He’s a Dark Secret personified, turning Heflin’s idyll of postwar domesticity into a shadowy, suffocating jail. He’s also a damaged survivor, desperate to fire the bullet he believes will lay his ghosts to rest. But even after the revelation of his motive reverses the moral equation of persecutor and victim, he remains viscerally repulsive. Warped by unbearable suffering, he has become a drained cipher, as though his near-death was a real death, transforming him into an unstoppable zombie.
Playing a washed-up boxer who won’t accept defeat in The Set-Up (1949), his naïve confidence makes him tragic. It’s astonishing that a man so physically powerful could appear so vulnerable; the muscular mass of his body looms on screen, but you’re conscious not of the punishment it could dish out so much as the damage it has sustained. (“Holy Toledo!” a locker-room attendant cries on seeing Ryan’s battered-to-a-pulp post-fight face.) The real-time film is crafted with clockwork precision, and though its workings are a little obvious, its sweaty, tawdry settings are worthy of Weegee, and it packs a blunt noir punch in its lesson that to win is to lose; holding onto your dreams and ambitions will only land you crippled in an alley.
Dogged endurance serves Ryan better in Roy Baker’s Inferno (1953), a film that makes unusually subtle and effective use of 3D. (Instead of hurling objects at your head, it merely invites you to spend 90 minutes crawling through a boundless desert. Who could refuse?) Ryan starts out as another neurotic, universally-despised tycoon; but when he’s left to die in the wilderness by his cheating wife, the pampered scion reveals untapped reserves of humor, resourcefulness, and sheer grit: setting his own broken leg, improvising ropes and crawling down jagged canyons, eating cactus and dried deer meat. No film better displays Ryan’s physicality as an actor, or his ability to make you feel what he feels: his fear, his thirst, his almost deranged determination; every rock, every rope-burn, every precious droplet of moisture sucked from a prickly-pear. Inferno takes Ryan’s solitude to its most radical extreme, and in it he achieves a ragged, sun-baked self-sufficiency.
Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino in Nicolas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952)
ON DANGEROUS GROUND harps incessantly on Ryan’s loneliness: the blank drifts of snow through which he flounders in his dark overcoat are an almost hallucinatory vision of his isolation. Ryan made four movies with Ray, and he was a natural for the restlessly estranged, incurably violent Ray hero, always searching for a home, never reaching safe harbor. In this film, Ryan’s violence springs from his sensitivity. The “garbage” he sees as a prowl-car cop has gotten under his skin and flows through his veins. His relationship to criminals has a symbiotic, nearly sado-masochistic quality that’s exposed in his sexually charged encounter with a gangster’s perfumed girlfriend (“I like to stink myself up,” she confides.) He responds to her sluttish taunts with a blend of icy revulsion and queasy arousal. Though the film turns sentimental in the end, there is a delicate thread of real feeling between Ryan and a weary angel played by Ida Lupino, bringing out what John Houseman called his “disturbing mixture of anger and tenderness.” Lupino plays a blind woman who has quietly withdrawn from the world into a life of domestic loneliness. The trusting, tactile intimacy of their interactions provides the antidote to his rigid, harsh aloofness. When he blocks another man from striking her, Ryan’s motion, accompanied by a swoop of the camera and a swell of music, turns the action into a graceful release, like a dam giving way.
Hollywood gave up on Ryan as a romantic lead fairly early on. Off-screen, he was a magnet for women. “He had a pretty lethal mixture of repressed energy and violence combined with a real sweetness,” his friend Arvin Brown explained. “The key thing was that Bob had this wonderful gentleness, which was a real powerful attraction in a guy who seemed like he was maybe a dark force.” On-screen, it was mostly the dark force that came out, and his power to excite women was often used to invoke perversion, as in his creepy encounter with Gloria Grahame in Odds Against Tomorrow: when she asks how it feels to kill someone, Ryan promptly rips open her dress. Ray’s Born to Be Bad was one of the few films that cast him as a man confident of his sexual charisma: a successful writer who sees through the heroine’s sugar-coated deceit even as he dallies with her. But with his excessive height and suggestion of barely-suppressed brutality, he mostly seemed too menacing around women, or too coldly wary of them.
Robert Ryan and Barbara Stanwyck in Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952)
In Clash by Night, Ryan meets the one woman who can face up to him, unimpressed, un-intimidated, and force him to reveal his bleak, starved heart. Clifford Odets’ florid drama about the implacable enmity between the sexes took its title from Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” portraying a world that has “really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” In Fritz Lang’s incisive adaptation, Ryan plays Earl Pfeiffer, an abrasive blowhard in a Hawaiian shirt, embalmed in a toxic blend of arrogance and self-pity. Earl is grotesquely fascinating, and it’s a tribute to Ryan’s charisma, as well as to Barbara Stanwyck’s ability to sell virtually anything, that we can believe the hard-nosed Mae Doyle would fall for this misogynistic lout—shoving her hands lustfully into his undershirt when they finally kiss.
By the time he played the sadistic, cynical Shrike in Lonelyhearts (1958), an earnest, watered-down adaptation of Nathanael West’s searing, phantasmagoric novel Miss Lonelyhearts, Robert Ryan’s face looked like a sculpture eaten away by acid rain. But the acid came from the inside: Shrike is so filled with venom that it squeezes out of his pores, especially when he smiles. His need to destroy the young idealist played by Montgomery Clift (who looks destroyed already), and to torment his spirit-crushed wife (Myrna Loy), is like a burning, insatiable lust.
In 1962, Ryan produced his most definitive portrait of evil as Claggart, the master-at-arms in Peter Ustinov’s Billy Budd. Though both the script and Ryan’s performance methodically explain Claggart’s cruelty, Ryan lives his sadism and self-loathing so fully that you worry for him. Claggart looks pained and disconsolate when other men are happy; he wears a tight little gratified smile when they suffer; he’s almost frenzied with pleasure when they are flogged, and his face falls, grey and haggard, when the lashes stop. When the angelic young sailor Billy offers him understanding and companionship, he looks for a moment near tears, then realizes that his fortress of misanthropy is at risk and snaps, “Get away!” Perhaps the saddest moment comes when Billy suggests that he might be laughing at himself, and he is bewildered by the notion. Few of Ryan’s characters enjoy the consolation of humor. Claggart’s face finally softens into a peaceful smile when Billy, in a fit, strikes him a fatal blow. Ryan leaves you wondering whether he is he satisfied because he has turned the saintly boy into a murderer, or because what he wanted all along was to be killed.
Robert Ryan in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969)
DESPITE CONSISTENT PRAISE from critics for roles like these, Ryan’s career went into a slump in the 1960s. While enjoying the chance to break out of Hollywood’s typecasting on television and in the theater (for TV he played Abraham Lincoln and Jay Gatsby; onstage he did Coriolanus, Antony to Katharine Hepburn’s Cleopatra, and even the president in a flop musical with songs by Irving Berlin), he received few movie offers apart from supporting roles in westerns. Even in The Wild Bunch (1969), he has little to do besides look dignified, sorrowful and frustrated in the midst of the grimy, half-witted rabble. For a change, he’s set apart by his stillness and melancholy grace, especially as he walks through the aftermath of the climactic massacre and sits down in the dust. When he cracks a warm, genuine smile, you realize—despite his age and an unflattering mustache—how handsome he was when his face wasn’t twisted and furrowed with hate.
Ryan had lost his beloved wife, Jessica, and knew he was dying of lung cancer when he made The Iceman Cometh (1973), capping not only his career but a lifelong passion for and identification with Eugene O’Neill. Few actors have had a more perfect swansong than Ryan did in the role of the “philosophical drunken bum” Larry Slade, a disillusioned anarchist exhausted by life and pickled in booze, but forced to face the fact that life can still hurt him, and death still terrify him. It’s a role almost devoid of action, but haunted by the ghosts of anger and grief. In the last scene, as the other characters whoop it up in drunken revelry, Ryan sits with his back to them, silent and motionless, and the camera holds for a long time on his ruined face.
Here is not only the final and conclusive image of his isolation, but an answer to why, despite all the hateful characters he played, Robert Ryan inspires love. How can your heart not go out to a man exiled to such a barren rock; such a faraway, desolate place—living without joy or love, without peace or help for pain?
Imogen Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City
The Robert Ryan retrospective is playing at Film Forum, August 12-25.