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Robert Ryan and Frank Sinatra

Reconsidering two icons of mid-20th-century American cinema.

"Born to play beautifully tortured, angry souls, the actor Robert Ryan was a familiar movie face for more than two decades in Hollywood's classical years, his studio ups and downs, independent detours and outlier adventures paralleling the arc of American cinema as it went from a national pastime to near collapse." Manohla Dargis in the New York Times: "A little prettier and he might have been one of the golden boys of the golden age. But there could be something a touch menacing about his face (something open and sweet too), which bunched as tight as a fist, and his towering height (he stood 6 foot 4) at times loomed like a threat. The rage boiled up in him so quickly. It made him seem dangerous…. The two dozen features in a Film Forum series dedicated to Ryan and opening [today] includes dazzlers, solid genre fare, some curiosities and a few duds. Most are better than anything playing now at the multiplex."

For the L's Mark Asch, Ryan was "probably the greatest actor in the history of cinema… If most movie stars embody one or another of our treasured notions about who we are, Robert Ryan quickly became a shadow-self, a fathomless well of postwar America's weaknesses, insecurities, prejudices and demons. In Fred Zinnemann's 1948 Act of Violence, he's the war buddy who torments Van Heflin — the solid homesteader of so many Westerns, here symbolically cast as a suburban contractor — with knowledge of his dark past. A few years ago, The L's Nicolas Rapold pointed out Act's striking similarities to A History of Violence: Ryan is the specter of our worst capabilities, but also a conflicted, sympathetic character. Zinnemann keeps the camera on him as he stands just outside the threshold of Heflin's comfy house, waiting to mete out his long-sought vengeance but also starting guiltily at the sound of a woman's voice from inside, sweating and grimacing and trying to slow his churning heartbeat."

More from Nicolas Rapold, here for Artforum: "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.'"

"Ryan infamously played a variety of unbalanced cowpokes and hoods," writes Nick Pinkerton in the Voice, "but was equally effective as a neurotic plutocrat in Max Ophuls's Caught (1949), in a rare romantic lead as the cocksman novelist in Nicholas Ray's underappreciated melodrama Born to Be Bad (1950), or as ulcerous editor Shrike in the gelded Nathanael West adaptation Lonelyhearts (1958)."

Through August 25.

Update: "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," suggests Imogen Smith at Alt Screen. "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 from a murder 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."

Update, 8/15: From Kent Jones's appreciation here in the Notebook: "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…. 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."


"Whether his voice makes you swoon or flee the room, Frank Sinatra was a far more daring actor than most pop stars turned movie stars," writes Mark Holcomb in the Voice. "As a sampling of his Hollywood work, the MOMI series The Films of Frank Sinatra captures Ol' Blue Eyes in all but the last of his cinematic incarnations, from wiry crooner to self-flagellating Method man to entitled, ultra-laconic hipster." Through September 4.

Update: "Before he starred in the 1955 film version of Guys and Dolls but after On the Town and From Here to Eternity, Frank Sinatra starred in a grim low-budget thriller called Suddenly!," notes Simon Abrams for the L. "In it, Ol’ Blue Eyes throws himself into the role of John Baron, an amoral hit man who plots to assassinate the President of the United States… Sinatra exudes a creepy kind of charm with every broad, defiant smile he makes."

Update, 8/15: Alt Screen posts a big, big roundup on Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm (1955).

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Robert Ryan was also a standout in BILLY BUDD and THE ICEMAN COMETH, two films you don’t hear enough about these days. More thoughts on Ryan’s work at … and check out this amazing Chicago Reader article on his Chicago background:

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