The iconic actor Robert Ryan is best known for his intense performances in films such as:
Ryan seemed to specialize in playing angry white men whose racism or other hidden demons cultivated a hatred that was always simmering just below the surface such that they were always ready to explode if it was stirred even slightly, or their passions were otherwise provoked. His portrayal of Captain Vere’s Master at Arms John Claggart in actor-director Peter Ustinov’s screen version of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (1962) – in which Terence Stamp earned his only Oscar nomination (in the ill-fated title role) – is a quintessential example of these roles on the actor’s resume. Ryan’s Claggart is a particularly sadistic and cruel individual who seems to enjoy exercising his authority, having men flogged (ostensibly to enforce discipline, but) for no apparent reason.
Late in his career, when the threat of any physical action (and its inherent consequences) by the actor’s characters were no longer as ominously apparent, Ryan still clashed with some of the big names on the screen in supporting roles:
But what you may not know (or remember) about Robert Ryan is that he also played some less intense parts on film. Fortunately, even though I’ve only seen a third of his 75 movies, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some of his more nuanced character roles. Early in his career, he actually played “good guys”: helping Pat O’Brien catch a spy in Bombardier (1943) and as Ginger Rogers’s nice soldier husband in Tender Comrade (1943). However, in another RKO movie that same year – The Sky’s the Limit (1943) – Ryan revealed a more devious side: his character exploits Fred Astaire’s, ‘forcing’ him to perform a snake dance by threatening to reveal his identity and possibly ruin his chances with Joan Leslie’s.
But after World War II, another Ryan character assisted Merle Oberon’s by helping Paul Lukas’s German diplomat escape assassination in Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express (1948). Ryan also played more sympathetic (if sometimes misunderstood) characters in Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence (1948) – as a cripple that pursues Van Heflin for past deeds – and in Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949) – as an over-the-hill boxer who resists taking a dive in his last fight – before playing Claudette Colbert’s confused fiancé in the rarely aired The Secret Fury (1950), directed by actor Mel Ferrer. When his character’s wedding to Colbert’s is interrupted by a man claiming that the bride-to-be is already married, Ryan is relentless during his pursuit of the truth. But later that year, in a curiously miscast Nicholas Ray drama Born to Be Bad (1950) – thirty-three year old Joan Fontaine plays a college student while Ryan plays a writer that she has an affair with – he gets to deliver some audacious one-liners with absolutely no subtly; Ferrer, Leslie and Zachary Scott also have featured roles.
Although most of Ryan’s more iconic roles can be found in the 1950’s portion of his filmography (listed at the beginning of this article), there were also three fairly atypical ones in the latter half of the decade that many may not have seen. One is the B-movie remake of director John Farrow’s minor classic Five Came Back (1939); as its producer, Farrow remade his earlier RKO film as Back From Eternity (1956), in which Ryan played a near retirement “alcoholic” pilot whose plane crashes in the jungle. The plot may have inspired the reality TV series Survivor, which was among the first of its kind on network television. Another subdued role was the cynical newspaperman Ryan played opposite a somewhat idealist Monty Clift in the infrequently shown Lonelyhearts (1958). Myrna Loy plays Ryan’s wife, who provides the path that the unemployed writer uses to get a job at her husband’s paper. There are several ‘confrontations’ between Ryan’s and Clift’s characters, which feature the movie’s best dialogue; the newspaper veteran manipulates the younger man, trying to corrupt him. Clift’s eventually falls prey to Maureen Stapleton’s character (the actress earning the first of her four supporting nominations in her debut) in the film’s title role of “Miss Lonelyheart”, who’d written about the problem of her husband’s impotence to the paper’s “Dear Abby”-like column (which Ryan had assigned to Clift). Finally, there’s Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), which he co-produced with Harry Belafonte. Belafonte’s character teams with Ryan’s and Ed Begley’s as would-be bank robbers, but they fight among themselves so much that a successful heist is unlikely. Ryan’s character, a two-time loser who served time for manslaughter, is a racist, which obviously adds tension to the drama, as does the fact that he’s a kept man – by Shelley Winters – and that their sexy neighbor (Gloria Grahame, naturally) is turned on by the ex-con’s past.
As you can see, Robert Ryan didn’t only play Cro-Magnon oddball hotheads during his career; the actor had the opportunity to show us more from his earliest movies to his last, and even during the decade that marked his most notable work products.
© 2009 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog