In life Ryan was a loving husband and devoted if distant father (and a staunch supporter of progressive causes), but in his best performances (personal favorites are an embittered sellout ex-outlaw in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, an insecure tyrannical Howard Hughes a clef in Ophuls's Caught, and a repressed homosexual crime boss in Fuller's House of Bamboo), this tall, handsome former Dartmouth boxing champ suggested, with utmost subtlety, access to untold seething depths of doubt and self-loathing. If our favorite movie stars embody how America would most like to see itself, Ryan embodied what America is secretly most afraid that it really is.
For this reason—and for his collaborations with, at one time or another, most of the postwar era's most interesting filmmakers—he's a favorite of cinephiles, both professional and amateur. Certain cultural commentators find him especially suggestive. From Don DeLillo's White Noise, in a scene depicting a cultural-studies bull session:
"How old were you when you first realized your father was a jerk?"
"Twelve and a half," Grappa said. "I was sitting in the balcony at the Loew's Fairmont watching Fritz Lang's Clash by Night with Barbara Stanwyck as Mae Doyle, Paul Douglas as Jerry d'Amato and the great Robert Ryan as Earl Pfeiffer."
This seems just about right.