Why do you make me do it?

David Bromwich on Robert Ryan

‘Angry men and furious machines.’ No verb, no explanation – it is the first line of ‘Dutch Graves in Bucks County’, a poem that Wallace Stevens published in 1943. The image may have come from a march-of-time documentary of Americans training to fight in the Second World War. Probably the machines included tanks and a lorry convoy, possibly a squadron of fighter planes. What became of the angry men when the war was over? I grew up in the 1950s, in North Hollywood, where a common sight from a passing car was a man in his thirties, alone in his front yard, mowing the lawn with a push mower – a hard shove, a stop, and another shove with that metallic rush of blades.

In American films of the 1940s and 1950s, Robert Ryan (1909-73) seemed one of the angry men of the war who never quite grew reconciled to the life that came after. He lived in North Hollywood too and I may once have caught a glimpse of him. Was this the reason his face looked familiar the first time I saw it in a movie? Almost all the big stars lived in choicer parts of the city, in Beverly Hills or West LA, the canyons or Pacific Palisades. But in the decade of his major work, starting in 1947, Ryan kept a certain distance from the rest. And he was unusual in other ways: during the McCarthy years, together with his wife, Jessica, he founded a progressive school in the San Fernando Valley; later he would be a steady presence in the civil rights movement and the protests against the Vietnam War. And always, he was cast in roles of a strange consistency that suited nobody else: violent men, defeated and wilful; men who were hard by nature, or corroded by the shame of thwarted aspiration.

He has begun to get the appreciation he deserves. A revival was marked last year by the publication of a good biography, The Lives of Robert Ryan by J.R. Jones, and a retrospective series at Anthology Film Archives in New York, which screened a few of his films under the title ‘An Actor’s Actor’.[*] In his last years, Jones says, he got the delayed recognition of a plaque awarded by the City of Los Angeles, ‘celebrating the completion of his 80th picture’, but Ryan said: ‘Eighty pictures. And seventy of them were dogs. I mean, dogs.’ A more generous estimate would allow Crossfire (1947), The Woman on the Beach (1947), Act of Violence (1948), Caught (1949), The Set-Up (1949), Born to Be Bad (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951), The Racket (1951), Clash by Night (1952), Beware, My Lovely (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Men in War (1957), God’s Little Acre (1958), Odds against Tomorrow (1959), Billy Budd (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969). In many of these films, Ryan played a bad man; in every one, he was an outsider.

The parts are often separately memorable, as if they were fragments of different designs. In Bad Day at Black Rock, he was the boss of a small desert town in the southwest, after the end of the war. Spencer Tracy gets off a train there to deliver a medal to a man named Komoko, the father of a Japanese-American soldier who died fighting beside him in Italy. Everyone in Black Rock (population: ten) wants to run him out of town, but why? Tracy discovers that on the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Komoko was lynched, his house burned down and the evidence buried in an unmarked grave. A spin-off from the success of High Noon, the movie has a superior economy and no melodramatic trimmings – no fretful wife, no badge. The central scene has Ryan standing at a gas pump beside his woody station sedan, with Tracy seated a few feet away on a bench, gazing downwards: he knows their secret now and he’ll be lucky to get out of town alive. ‘Let’s talk about my future,’ Tracy says. ‘You think you have the time?’ Ryan asks. ‘I don’t seem to be going anywhere.’ ‘Why,’ says Ryan, ‘would a man like you be looking for a lousy Jap farmer?’ and the litany of resentment unspools. ‘Loyal? … That’s a laugh. They’re all mad dogs … I wish they’d leave us alone.’ ‘Leave you alone to do what?’

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[*] Wesleyan, £20, 376 pp., June 2015, 978 0 8195 7372 8.