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?’

Tracy held his own in the scene magnificently, but later on the set he asked the writer Millard Kaufman, ‘Does Ryan scare you?’ and took no comfort from the reassuring reply. ‘Well, he scares the hell out of me.’ This effect was repeated too often to be called an accident of typecasting. Crossfire gave Ryan his first role as a psychopath, and he went out of his way to get it. He had read the novel The Brick Foxhole by his friend Richard Brooks, and his memories of Camp Pendleton, where he had served as a drill sergeant in 1944 and 1945, brought the character close to home. ‘I know that son of a bitch,’ he said of the brutal anti-Semite in the script, named Montgomery. ‘No one knows him better than I do.’ Montgomery looks as if he was born in uniform, and is honest like Iago, with a confiding semblance of charm. He meets a Jew in a bar and works himself into a drunken rage: the Jew looks comfortable, so he must have been a draft-dodger. Montgomery beats him to death and pins it on another soldier. There is shock in the violence and something more obscurely troubling in the way Montgomery sucks up to officers and ‘feels for’ the people he says he likes. ‘I follow but myself,’ Iago says, ‘I am not what I am.’ Ryan had thought hard about those lines.

A rare opportunity to play a decent man came two years later in The Set-Up. The hero is a veteran boxer on his way down, and his pride is captured in a sort of ballad-line the script turns into the plainest prose: ‘I can take this kid, I can feel it – if I can belt him solid, just once.’ The skill of the boxer, we are made to see, isn’t a gift of the gods but a discipline he has made for himself; and he knows it won’t last much longer. In the continuous footage of the four-round match, Ryan fights from a deep crouch, lunging forward – a strategy he must have learned in becoming a heavyweight champion at Dartmouth – but there is nothing collegiate about the look he gives the pretty boy in the opposite corner, a flicker of appraisal: he can take him. And yet after he wins we see the hero sprint across the darkened arena to escape the fixers who paid for him to lose. He may overcome his fear intermittently, but he can never altogether escape.

‘Why do you make me do it?’ Ryan asks a punk in an early scene of On Dangerous Ground, before pressing forward to beat a confession out of him. He is now a city detective in LA, and excessive zeal will get him sidelined to a mountain district. As he drives through the winter landscape, the wipers clearing the snow, one has the sense of a gradual calm and remission; but once out of the car he finds another crisis unfolding, and soon he is chasing the footprints of another killer. Strange as it is and jagged in its plotting – the violence of the hero turning into tenderness by a process that is only traceable when complete – I think On Dangerous Ground is the central Robert Ryan film. Here he discovered his range and resonance, in the company of his nearest female counterpart, Ida Lupino. His character (one does come to think of all the parts as a single character) obeys a compulsion that will not relent. In the lines of his face are buried layer on layer of self-distrust and disappointment.

He had a late start in movies – his first noticeable role came at the age of 34 – but he entered with the air of a veteran because he had grown up a close observer of the men who ran things. His father, Timothy, was a committeeman for the Democratic Party machine in Chicago, and with his four brothers founded and managed the Ryan Company, a construction firm with a line in street paving and sewer tunnels. Though they suffered in the market crash of 1929, Ryan’s parents did well enough in the hardest of times: a lucky childhood in all the obvious ways. On the other hand, ‘you cannot know the difficulties,’ he wrote in a 20-page letter to his children about his early life, ‘that attend an only child. Two big grown-ups are beaming in on him all the time – even when he isn’t there. It is a feeling of being watched that lingers throughout life. And the feeling it engenders is escape.’

Howard Hughes, a megalomaniac solitary with a horror of being watched, was familiar to Ryan from his dealings with RKO, and he seems to have supplied the master-clue to the portrayal of the tycoon Smith Ohlrig in Caught. A suggestion of violence suffuses the film, and Caught has often been classified as film noir, though not one blow is struck anywhere in it. What people are feeling when they set it alongside Double Indemnity or Out of the Past or The Big Heat – films of extraordinary and explicit violence – is the sheer presence of Ryan and the torment of his character. Presence, in fact, might be the truest word to capture the strength of his acting, and not only here. In one of the two finest scenes in Caught, Ohlrig brings a few business associates late one night to his enormous Long Island mansion to show them documentary clips of himself and his latest projects. At a table in the back of the darkened room, his wife, Barbara Bel Geddes, offends him by sharing a laugh with one of the men, and he upbraids her, dismisses them, and summons her back to pronounce her doom.

This frightening speech is underscored by a recurrent gesture, as Ryan grimaces and flicks a billiard ball hard against the walls of the table – a man at the pinnacle of success, racked by serial humiliations. Each throw seems a clenched fist driving a harpoon. ‘You thought,’ he tells her, ‘if you had enough money you’d have everything. Well, it’s not that easy. The world is clammy with people who think that way, and they sicken me. I was born rich. My father left me four million dollars. I didn’t drink it away, I didn’t gamble it away, I didn’t marry it away. I knew exactly what to do with it.’ Each of his employees knows his place, Ryan says (the ball ramming against the sides of the table): ‘You’re better paid than any of them. And you’ve got your place: this house. And that’s where you’ll stay.’ Self-pity, an appetite for possession without limit, and under it a void: this was close to the motive Ryan would discover, too, in the last of his great film roles, the master-at-arms Claggart in Billy Budd. He built up the entire character from Melville’s brief allegorical sketch about the enigma of ‘natural depravity’ – a speculative passage that leaves every dramatic detail to be worked from the ground up.

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A great actor must attach the named vices and virtues to something in the environment of the story. An intuition that Ryan could do this on the most forbidding terrain prompted his friend John Houseman in 1953 to offer him the lead in a New York stage production of Coriolanus. ‘He was a black Irishman,’ wrote Houseman in his memoir Front and Centre, ‘an athlete in his youth, a disturbing mixture of anger and tenderness who had reached stardom by playing mostly brutal, neurotic roles that were at complete variance with his true nature’; and Houseman added a pertinent detail for the most commanding and repellent of Shakespeare’s heroes: ‘His physical presence was magnificent – six foot four with a heavyweight boxer’s body and a head that … had all the required look of nobility and dark power.’ The performance, Brooks Atkinson wrote in a perceptive review, showed Coriolanus as a ‘well-bred son of the upper classes who despises the people more out of intellectual sluggishness than malice’. Accordingly what emerged in Ryan’s Coriolanus was ‘candour, grace and a kind of artless sincerity’. The Houseman-Ryan conception of the character sounds truer than any version I have seen or read about.

When Coriolanus requites his banishment by the Roman crowd with the immaculate answer, ‘I banish you,’ it is wrong to make him shout. Quiet contempt is in the character, but there is no wailing or gnashing of teeth, only the bottomless thirst for another fight. The climax comes in a scene that for harsh irony has no equal anywhere in Shakespeare: the mother of this warrior, the woman who created him as both a Roman and a warrior, forcing him now to choose between the humiliation of his family and city and the assumption of the role of peacemaker stripped of his manhood. I wondered at the sudden shift of feeling when Ralph Fiennes, in his recent Coriolanus, sank to his knees for the terrible and pathetic line ‘O mother, mother!/What have you done?’ – as if this were a surrender and tragic reproach by the ‘boy of tears’. One would like to know how Ryan handled the moment. I can imagine him standing erect, the voice tightening and turning to gravel as it rises – a signature detail, for him, as marked as the freezing look from Bogart when someone assumed he was as crooked as he was supposed to be.

Bogart was a friend, and their styles of acting were closely allied, a difficult restraint serving both as an index of integrity. They didn’t care to be loved for the men they were beneath the parts they played, and neither would have reduced the brutality of the spirit to the coarseness of a physical touch – an experiment that John Malkovich tried as Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady (1997). Ryan’s monsters are always situated within the bounds of the probable. You can feel the depth of his achievement if you set him alongside two leading actors, Robert Mitchum and John Wayne, who bore a family resemblance to his masculine type in the 1950s. Mitchum was a gifted actor across a narrow range. He seemed to have seen through everything; the subtler tones and reactions were simply alien to his nature. Wayne, a charming and witty actor in his early work, bit by bit was corrupted by vulgarity and self-satisfaction, a combination of defects that left an ambiguity in his performance as the revenger Ethan in The Searchers (1956): the knight of the prairie who hunts down the kidnappers of the white girl after the Indian raid. The cruelty of the character is so locked into the actor’s usual gestures that the audience can be carried along with him.

Men in War (1957) brought Ryan as close as he ever came to an ordinary heroic role. This was the second of three films he made with Anthony Mann (coming between The Naked Spur and God’s Little Acre): evidently the happiest of his relationships with a major director, though he did remarkable work for Nicholas Ray (Born to Be Bad, On Dangerous Ground), Fritz Lang (Clash by Night) and Jean Renoir (The Woman on the Beach). Lieutenant Benson is fighting in Korea because he has to, and the progress of his platoon is by inches, through a mined road and enemy shelling and snipers, cut off from his batallion by a successful North Korean attack. ‘Well, battalion doesn’t exist,’ he tells one of his men, Riordan, who has expressed an innocent faith that Benson will find a way out if anyone can. ‘Regiment doesn’t exist, command headquarters doesn’t exist, the USA doesn’t exist – they don’t exist, Riordan, we’ll never see ’em again.’ Ryan was seldom an actor who lived his parts, but Men in War seems to have been an exception. ‘With each day,’ he told a reporter, ‘I felt dirtier, grimier, lousier and more forsaken. It became more and more difficult to sleep in my clean bed at night. I found it finally impossible – I had to sleep on the floor.’

A comparable sense of the actor’s immersion comes through his last performance, as Larry, the old anarchist who has fallen away from the movement and found nothing to replace it, in the American Film Theater version of The Iceman Cometh directed by John Frankenheimer in 1973. The play was filmed when Ryan was dying, and released after his death; but here, in a final visitation, were the curl of the lip, the averted eyes, the hooded look of an accuser who eventually will turn against himself. I found The Iceman Cometh on DVD, and I regret having missed his unrecorded performance as James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night – a version (to judge by the published accounts) that rivalled Olivier’s masterly rendition of the same part in the same year, 1971. A long preparation led to Ryan’s ending as he began, in theatre. His serious training had been with Max Reinhardt, during his years of exile in the US, and Ryan said the best direction he ever got was contained in one word of advice by Reinhardt: ‘Listen.’ Listen to what the other actors say and look at what they show, and you will know what you have to do. This was true of the sadistic Claggart, probing the innocence of Billy Budd in a mood between irritable mischief and fanaticism, and it was true of the stoic Lieutenant Benson declining a shallow consolation to the soldier who trusted him. A generous and forbearing man, Ryan was suspicious to the core, and wary of his own ability. ‘Mainly,’ he wrote in his letter to his children, ‘I was at my worst beginning something – this has always been true of me. Shyness or fear or both has always inhibited me to the point of non-function EXCEPT in the theatre. I have the fear but I also have the function.’ His characters showed the fear.

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