Friday, February 18, 2005

Robert Ryan - The Face of an America We Didn't Want to See

Robert Ryan is perhaps the most under-rated of the great stars of classic Hollywood.

Most attribute this merely to the fact that Ryan tended to play villians. This underestimates that Ryan's acting tapped into places where audiences often didn't want to go: places of obsession, places of darkness, places of hatred, places of danger. This made is what drove directors dedicated to going precisely those places to hire Ryan for great picture after great picture.

Ryan's big career break came as a virulent anti-Semite in Dmytryk's Crossfire.
Ryan's acting was soon noticed by Nicholas Ray, who needed Ryan's abilities in his dark and ferocious dramas. Ray highlighted Ryan to maximal effect in Flying Leathernecks and On Dangerous Ground. Ryan was also selected by the likes of Fritz Lang (Clash by Night), Jean Renoir (The Woman on the Beach) and Fred Zinneman (Act of Violence ).
The mid Fifties were the highpoint of Ryan's career, as he starred in one excellent movie after another, including: Mann's The Naked Spur and Men in War, Bad Day at Black Rock, Fuller's House of Bamboo, Walsh's The Tall Men, and De Toth's Day of the Outlaw.

Ryan's career declined in the 1960s, as his roles (though quite lucrative) became enmeshed in a series of overblown war movies. Still, Ryan turned in many interesting performances, particularly in Ray's King of Kings, A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die and Aldrich's Dirty Dozen. To some extent, Ryan (and Lee Marvin)'s careers at this time show how Hollywood's decline accelerated the growth of decadent forms of once-transgressive B-genres.
Ryan ended his career in a spectacular fashion with his performances in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, Executive Action and The Iceman Cometh.

Beyond the pure joy in seeing Ryan's performances, Ryan's greatest contribution was to embody the the visions of the new, combative, intentionally sleazy, violent, obsessed and even cruel school of filmmakers in Fuller, Ray, Aldrich, Mann and Boetticher. In addition, he and Lee Marvin allowed American male acting to reach into regions previously unexplored and previously unheralded.


Post a Comment

<< Home