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An appreciation of the great American actor Robert Ryan on the occasion of a New York retrospective.
Kent Jones
Robert Ryan

"It's all in the eyes," Robert Ryan once said of film acting. "That's where you do most of your work." 

But was it true of Ryan himself? His own narrow and heavily lidded brown eyes often registered as black disks in the lighting schemes of the late 40s and early 50s—that is, when they weren't overwhelmed by his massive forehead and his thick tangle of dark hair, or a pair of tragic eyebrows that threatened to merge with the numerous crags in his face as he entered middle age. Not to mention his lanky, extremely powerful physique. Take a close look at Ryan in The Set-Up or On Dangerous Ground and you'll get a sense of the relative frailty and delicacy of most male movie stars. In the post-war era, only Burt Lancaster was as physically imposing (Kirk Douglas was always fit but he was self-contained and self-motivated, even when he was coming unhinged; Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear aside, Robert Mitchum appeared less threatening than looming, dreamily approaching the ecstatic). But Ryan never looked as coordinated as Lancaster. His long arms powered an upper body that always seemed in danger of swinging out of control, in concert with his quavering voice. Nevertheless, his acting instrument was always refined, increasingly so as the decades rolled by. "I may have been the worst fiddler that ever played," he said of his years in the doldrums of violin lessons, "but I sharpened two qualities I did have—a good sense of rhythm and a keen ear." Both gifts informed his acting, which is rarely less than soulful and almost always electrifyingly alive to the moment. Ryan breathlessly jumps on his lines or jerks into motion suddenly and unexpectedly in his early performances, inadvertently breaking up the decorum of Hollywood moviemaking as he composes his own physical and vocal poetry. The older he got, the more he worked from a stillness and a containment of combustible energy, and the poetry became sharper and more distilled, the voice more controlled. "Can you suggest any way I can persuade him to stay without…humbling myself?" he asks a departing Montgomery Clift in Lonelyhearts—the musical lilt of those 14 words is a magical event, not least the elongation of the word "stay" into two quietly pleading syllables. He works another little miracle in Billy Budd with "How's your gear, Squeak—all stowed proper?" at the end of his extended exchange with Terrence Stamp's Billy, which Ryan hammers into a sustained composition of wary disquiet made up of calmly posed queries, concentrated silences and stares, and a nicely timed turn of mind when his character realizes that he is falling under Billy's spell—"Ahh no—you would charm me too, eh?"

Like Lancaster, Richard Widmark and William Holden, Ryan was a bridge between old and new sensibilities, with the formality of self-presentation of an earlier era married to a then-new sensitivity to people and environment, now understood as post-method. In many Ryan performances, most notably On Dangerous Ground where he received his most sensitive direction, he appears sensitized to the mood of anyone in his immediate vicinity. In one of the most shattering moments in 50s cinema, Ryan's plainclothes cop Jim Wilson brings his partner (Charles Kemper) into a drug store for a quick rubdown from the druggist (Jimmy Conlin, a cherished figure in Preston Sturges' movies) to repair an aching shoulder. Ryan's character has already been established as a loner and, when he's not out on patrol, a shut-in. He flirts briefly with the girl behind the counter (Joan Taylor), but her innocent response to an offhand remark about what would happen if her boyfriend found out—"That's all he'd need to know—me going out with a cop"—prompts Wilson to turn furiously away in the bitterest hurt. It's a subtle, tamped down version of an emotional "figure" that runs through all of Ryan's most famous performances: the recoil of resentment, prompting a crushing bitterness and sarcasm—as in Clash by Night, where he destroys Barbara Stanwyck with a four-word kiss-off—"On your way, dust!"—delivered in a ferociously clipped, disgusted rage. Bogart had been the cinema's most touching practitioner of hurt feelings, as evidenced in the sudden, forever alarming cut to a close-up when Rick sees Elsa for the first time in Casablanca: his face freezes and seems to decompose before our eyes, and we feel the sensation of a vast inner world coming to a dead halt. Ryan picked up the melody and reset it to a new rhythm for a new era. Unlike Bogart's signature roles, there was nothing hip about the characters Ryan played: Monty the bigot in Crossfire, Stoker the washed-up fighter in The Set-Up, Joe the avenging vet in Act of Violence, Wilson in On Dangerous Ground, and Reno the small-town crime boss in Bad Day at Black Rock are all haunted by normalcy and equilibrium, trying to contain, correct or eradicate whatever plagues their existences. "Why do you make me do it?" cries Wilson in a quavering voice in the Ray film, before beating a gangster within an inch of his life. Something is always turning Ryan's characters horribly inside out, causing them to fight their way to the other side of anguish. Only in the 60s, when he and Sam Peckinpah found each other, did Ryan have a role that allowed him to lean back and cast a weary, still embittered but gently bemused look at the curious comings and goings of humanity.

Portraying Ryan's career as a stockpile of furious resentment tells only half of the story. Unlike Bogart, Ryan could be commandingly, poetically alone onscreen, whether on horseback (Renoir's Woman on the Beach), in a scorched, hellish desert landscape (Inferno), in a seedy dressing room (The Set-Up) or behind the wheel of a car (On Dangerous Ground). Ryan's first scene in the Ray film—the end of a lonely homemade dinner in a New York apartment—is the first of many entrancing stretches in which he holds solitary screen time as De Niro and Duvall would do decades later. What's touching is the hop-to-it reaction to the honking of a car horn, the way he bolts up and scrapes the leavings into the trash can, the sense of someone who keeps things proper for an unseen, watchful presence. Ryan had a younger brother who died in childhood—"I remember a rather solemn, gentle little fellow," wrote the actor in a remarkable 20-page letter to his children. His observations of the peculiar dilemma of a single child are penetrating. "You can not know the difficulties that attend an only child," he wrote in the letter. "Two big grown ups are beaming in on him all the time—even when he isn't there. It is a feeling of being watched that lingers throughout life. And the feeling it engenders is escape." In fact, I think that this constant "feeling of being watched" colors a lot of Ryan's acting, from his incredible Howard Hughes-à-clef in Ophüls' Caught through his hair-raising Claggart in Billy Budd and equally powerful bigot in Odds Against Tomorrow, and it only mellowed in the later, spare performances in The Wild Bunch, Executive Action and The Iceman Cometh, where he was finally able to shed the emotional shadow-boxing of youth and middle age. I would wager that he recognized his super-self-consciousness as a creative tool, no matter how painfully it afflicted his personal life. "The myth about the actor being one thing and portraying another is not true," Ryan said in a 1971 Films and Filming interview. "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." The choice of the word "size" is interesting in this context, because it implies more than height, weight and muscle mass. There is also the size of the self-image relative to everyone else, in whose collective light it can become infinitesimally small, and Ryan understood this as a genuine social malady. Politically, he was an outspoken liberal who took a public stand against HUAC ("I never was a target," he told Films and Filming—"Now, looking back, I suspect my Irish name, my being a Catholic and an ex-Marine sort of softened the blow"…that and maybe the fact that he starred in The Woman on Pier 13). He campaigned for civil rights, started the progressive Oakwood School with his wife ("When we ran up the UN flag, they threw eggs in the windows and at night they painted crosses on the building") and attended the 1968 Democratic Convention as a McCarthy delegate (while his son was outside protesting). Artistically, he spent a good part of his career playing bigots, chauvinists and resentment-stoked outlaws, and he appears to have agonized over it—he had mixed feelings about the role of Monty in the dark, cornily exciting Crossfire, which made him a star but typecast him for years to come. Nonetheless, Ryan's sense of inner smallness gave him a unique insight into that unhinged character as well as Clash by Night's Earl, the outwardly good-natured Reno or the truly terrifying Earle Smith in Odds Against Tomorrow, who begins the movie barreling down a steep cross street toward Riverside Drive, arms akimbo and mouth crooked against the winter wind, before scooping up a little African-American girl who's run into his path. "You little pickaninny, you're going to kill yourself flyin' like that, yez you are!" he says with a smile and a semi-convincing southern drawl, in a first flourish of small-minded menace.

Despite some regrettable omissions (The Woman on the Beach, Day of the Outlaw, Men in War), Film Forum's overdue retrospective includes all the peaks of Ryan's career. Inferno, the surprise highlight of the theatre's 3D show last summer, is not to be missed. Ryan's performance as a pampered, bullying millionaire left for dead who walks his way out of the Arizona desert with a broken leg is an amazingly patient, detailed piece of work, a genuinely collaborative effort between an actor left alone for half of the film's running time, his director (Roy Ward Baker) and the technical crew, managing to generate excitement out of miniscule events and progressions—finding wood for a temporary splint, re-setting the bone, Ryan's Carson making it down a sheer wall of rock in the blazing heat and then pulling himself back up again when he has to retrieve a rope and then repeating the exercise. Caught is a forcefully unsentimental Ophüls film framing a striking Ryan performance, a carefully rendered portrait of small-scaled megalomaniacal paranoia. The opening weekend, now underway, represents something like the creative essence of post-war American cinema. But the August 20th double bill of Act of Violence and On Dangerous Ground is absolutely essential. It's interesting that the Ray film is still written off by some as a misbegotten project split into two irreconcilable halves—in fact, that's how its producer John Houseman saw the movie. But it's the sudden dramatic shift from indoors to outdoors, from cramped to open space, night to day, rain to snow, from generalized to acute pain, all unified by Bernard Herrmann's score and Ryan's shocking sensitivity to the life around him, that makes the film so forceful and, finally, so heartbreaking.

The Film Forum show is a great opportunity to trace the creative arc of one of the few American acting careers that actually had a creative arc to speak of. "The cinema may be a director's medium but we'd have a hell of a time of it without actors," said Robert Ryan. Particularly this actor, with the blazingly complex inner life and the talent, the technique and the genius to convert it into some of the fiercest poetry in American movies.


Robert RyanNew York
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