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.)