Friday, February 12, 2010

A Shout Out to Robert Ryan

For many years I did not appreciate Robert Ryan's tremendous acting versatility, identifying him as someone who realistically portrayed dangerously disturbed sociopathic criminal types, which he did very well in Crossfire, Bad Day at Black Rock, House of Bamboo, The Racket, etc. The other day I channel-surfed into Bad Day at Black Rock; I watched it until the end, witnessing the epic battle between good and evil, Spencer Tracy vs Robert Ryan, in a harrowing fight which appropriately ends with Ryan in flames. I've seen this film several times, and Ryan's demonic performance still remains powerfully frightening. I felt a sudden urge to write a short thank-you note to this outstanding actor for giving us a legacy of memorable performances, highlighting one film which showcased his remarkable talents.

I give deserved props to Ryan's reputation as one of the best Hollywood villains, but in the film On Dangerous Ground, there are subtle and effective nuances of performance that not only demonstrate his skill at portraying tortured, bitter and emotionally unstable characters, but also reveal a tender and romantic element that brilliantly and believably evolves through the course of the movie.

Ryan plays Jim Wilson, a burnt-out city detective, disgusted by the trash heap of criminals he must deal with on a daily basis, frustrated to the point of using brutal force to extract information from suspects. He is at the brink of losing control with his interrogation methods drawing unfavorable attention to the police department. His superiors decide to give him a cooling off period and send him to investigate a murder in the rural countryside. In this cold, stark landscape dotted with snow, Wilson meets Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), sister of the alleged murderer he's tracking down. She is blind and alone, taking care of her simple-minded brother since their parents died. Wilson is moved by her open nature and courage, which begin to strip away the layers of cynicism and bitterness that have accumulated around his heart.

At the beginning of this film Wilson is a ruthless cop on the verge of a melt-down; by the end he has seamlessly become a human being who is now ready to accept the possibility of loving and being loved. In the course of 82 minutes, Ryan manages to capture all the elements of his tough guy screen persona, while instilling in the audience the belief that there is a real chance for him to experience the happiness that has eluded him for so long. Ida Lupino's gentle and low-key performance perfectly complements Ryan's and the ending, framed by the beautiful viola solo written for Lupino's character by Bernard Herrmann, is unusual for movies of the film noir genre; it is uplifting with the promise of redemption.


  1. Saz, Thanks for The Shot Out. Ryan is one of my favorites. One film that I think really shows Ryan at his best is the Robert Wise film The Set up. Ryan plays a boxer (he was a college champ)and the film takes place in "real time" IO first saw it as a kid in the 60's and was so happy to see it's in the Warner Bros Film Noir box set Vol 1. Other favorites are The Wild Bunch, and Richard Brooks The Professionals.

  2. Saz OPPS ,I wanted to say Shout Out I can't type worth a darn.

  3. Saz, it also took me awhile to appreciate Robert Ryan. Paul mentioned my favorite Ryan performances: THE SET UP, THE PROFESSIONALS, and THE WILD BUNCH. I haven't seen ON DANGEROUS GROUND, though, and will be on the lookout for it.

  4. I happened upon "On Dangerous Ground" on TCM not long ago. The first time I'd seen it. You captured it well, Ryan did transform seamlessly. He was a very fine actor and, as you note, had more range than one might imagine. I always like to watch him with Stanwyck in "Clash by Night" - wonderful pairing. Thanks for a really well done 'shout out'...

  5. It's already been mentioned twice, but THE SET-UP is a great film, and Ryan is outstanding in it!

  6. Saz, this was a good read about Ryan. I think I know him best from "Bad Day at Black Rock" but you have intrigued me to look further into his work. Thank you! And Happy Valentine's Day, too!

  7. From what I saw here and at our Face Book page looks like The Set Up is the Ryan film most of us are talking about. Shows what taste the cafe patrons have in Film Noir.

  8. I have seen most of Ryan's works. He appeared in remarkable films, though they are still unjustly underrated.

    Woman on the Beach
    The Set-Up
    On dangerous Ground
    Clash by Night
    Naked Spur
    Men in War
    Day of the Outlaw
    Odds Against Tomorrow
    Billy Budd
    The Iceman Cometh

    Try those.