Robert Ryan, probably the greatest actor in the history of cinema and subject of a long-awaited Film Forum retrospective from August 12 through the end of the month, was tall—six foot four—and handsome, the first son of a prominent Irish-American Chicago family, and educated at Dartmouth, where he was boxing champion all four years. He devoted much of his adult life to left-wing causes—civil rights, nuclear disarmament—and his three children recall a devoted if sometimes distant father. (In the early 50s, he wrote them a long letter about his family history and upbringing: “The time might come someday to one of you—or all of you—when you become curious about my early life. If that should ever happen, you will have this record to tell you.”) Ryan wasn't beautiful enough to be a major leading man—his brow loomed over the rest of his face—but he was more than handsome enough in a presidential sort of way and found himself playing upright supporting parts before he decided, in 1944, to join the Marines, either out of a sense of obligation or to help his career. In Robert Ryan: A Biography and Critical Filmography, Franklin Jarlett proposes that his time serving as a drill instructor at Camp Pendleton gave him a distressing firsthand look at the cost of war; in the service, he befriended fellow Marine Richard Brooks, author of the novel The Brick Foxhole, and lobbied for the part of the homophobe (changed on film to anti-Semite) who kills a fellow soldier. He received his sole Oscar nomination for Brooks's Crossfire in 1948.
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.
Ryan was always either pursuer or pursued, or maybe both, but he brought nearly infinite nuance and variety to his boogeymen. In Fritz Lang's Clash By Night (1952), as the small-town projectionist who hounds Barbara Stanwyck, he's full of loathing borne of self-knowledge and given flight by Clifford Odets's baroque, steel-edged dialogue; he's more raw as the racist bankrobber in Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), with its great wintry uptown and upstate locations. Blacklisted screenwriter Abe Polonsky makes the film's heist into a racial allegory, plagued by tensions between Ryan and angry Harry Belafonte: most Ryan performances are psychoanalytic inquiries into the social ills of postwar America, revealed as hateful or frightened or drunk, but Polonsky makes it explicit, and the liberal Ryan, despite his conscientious disapproval of his character (which he discussed with the activist press), grants himself access to stores of blind, omnidirectional hatred in a relentlessly self-flagellating performance (check that bitter smile as he delivers his first line of dialogue, addressing a small African-American girl in mock dialect).
A decade earlier, Wise had cast Ryan as the soul of naïveté in his domestic boxing drama The Set-Up (1949)—the film's a bit too midcentury mythpoetic about the modest dreams of little people, but effective for the "Paradise City" set, a backlot dream of Americana, and for Ryan, who plays a similarly idealized role, for once, with punch-drunk cadences turning slowly to self-discovery. He's so open, which is also the source of his damage. Ryan had a big, sheepish smile and a soft, hoarse voice; his laugh was a sort of indulgent chuckle, which could be either sweet or terrifying. Even—especially—at his most menacing, he was tender, the way a bruise is tender. As the American gangster in postwar Tokyo, betrayed by Robert Stack's undercover man in Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo (1955; a weeklong run ends the series), Ryan is shockingly needy; his every act of violence is almost like a last, desperate plea. (He is also surely the only actor who could have convincingly portrayed a homosexual subtext while speaking Sam Fuller's dialogue.)
Howard Hughes, the dashing, self-made flyboy hero turned paranoid maniac, was an ideal Ryan role, and as the thinly disguised Hughes figure in Max Ophüls's Caught (1949) he's at first tall, dark and handsome, and then uses that gentle voice to catch and hold his poor manipulated bride, Barbara Bel Geddes, while allowing us to perceive the crazy gears spinning beneath his seething, roiling speech. Caught was something of a personal project for Ophüls, fired by Hughes a couple of years prior, and he was among many great directors to see something in Ryan: in addition to Ophüls, Lang, Zinnemann, and the Americans Fuller and Wise, conflicted man of action Anthony Mann and ultrasensitive Nick Ray both used Ryan frequently and well—as Film Forum's selection indicates, Ryan worked with most of the best hidden talents of the postwar studio era: he was an ideal instrument for layering subtle depth onto genre fare, and is now something of a password for cinephiles as well (one of the professors in DeLillo's White Noise praises his performance in Clash By Night). This series is wall-to-wall with auteurist favorites, even as it leaves out the movies Ryan made with Jean Renoir (Woman on the Beach) and Joseph Losey (The Boy with Green Hair) in favor of a sampling of his less-cult-beloved leading roles and other curios.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s Ryan also tested himself with tough, literary roles on the New York stage and on live television. He was Jay Gatsby on Playhouse 90 in 1958—nearing 50, he must have been too old, but what a perfect role for him, a strapping American icon with a fatal bottled-up past. In Hollywood, he played a lot of generals as the studio system calcified in the 60s, assaying equal parts dull decency and establishment distaste, but good parts kept finding him, too. As the former running mate turned pursuer of The Wild Bunch (1969), Ryan is soul-sick and as Black Irish as he ever got, his contemptuous outbursts contorting self-pity into something disturbingly virulent. ("We're after men—and I wish to God I was with them.") Peckinpah's great Westerns all hinge on characters who live with their compromises, and Ryan, unsettlingly against the odds of his stable biography and committed, constructive lifestyle, was better than any other actor at conveying the agony of living inside the person who's done the things you've done.
The impossibility of ever really living with yourself is the subject of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh; John Frankenheimer's 1973 film of the play was Ryan's swan song, a performance that prompted a rhapsodic Pauline Kael to ask, in her New Yorker review, whether it could really be true that he didn't find out he was dying until after the shoot wrapped. Ryan succumbed to lung cancer in 1973, following by a year his Quaker wife, the writer Jessica Cadwalader (with whom he founded North Hollywood’s Oakwood School, in the early 50s). He was 63; his career spanned a little more than a quarter century, from WWII up not quite to the fall of Saigon, and tells a secret history of America in decline and fighting madly not to know it.