Saturday, August 06, 2011

In Praise of Robert Ryan by Mark Asch

(thanks to Peter Winkler for the link) the L Magazine

"If most movie stars embody one or another of our treasured notions about who we are, Robert Ryan quickly became a shadow-self, a fathomless well of postwar America's weaknesses, insecurities, prejudices and demons. In Fred Zinnemann's 1948 Act of Violence, he's the war buddy who torments Van Heflin—the solid homesteader of so many Westerns, here symbolically cast as a suburban contractor—with knowledge of his dark past. A few years ago, The L's Nicolas Rapold pointed out Act's striking similarities to A History of Violence: Ryan is the specter of our worst capabilities, but also a conflicted, sympathetic character. Zinnemann keeps the camera on him as he stands just outside the threshold of Heflin's comfy house, waiting to mete out his long-sought vengeance but also starting guiltily at the sound of a woman's voice from inside, sweating and grimacing and trying to slow his churning heartbeat.

"Ryan was always either pursuer or pursued, or maybe both, but he brought nearly infinite nuance and variety to his boogeymen. In Fritz Lang's Clash By Night (1952), as the small-town projectionist who hounds Barbara Stanwyck, he's full of loathing borne of self-knowledge and given flight by Clifford Odets's baroque, steel-edged dialogue; he's more raw as the racist bankrobber in Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), with its great wintry uptown and upstate locations. Blacklisted screenwriter Abe Polonsky makes the film's heist into a racial allegory, plagued by tensions between Ryan and angry Harry Belafonte: most Ryan performances are psychoanalytic inquiries into the social ills of postwar America, revealed as hateful or frightened or drunk, but Polonsky makes it explicit, and the liberal Ryan, despite his conscientious disapproval of his character (which he discussed with the activist press), grants himself access to stores of blind, omnidirectional hatred in a relentlessly self-flagellating performance (check that bitter smile as he delivers his first line of dialogue, addressing a small African-American girl in mock dialect).

for the entire article go here:


David Cranmer said...

Thanks for linking to this article, Ed. I've always liked Ryan and my favorite performance of his was in THE WILD BUNCH.

Ron Scheer said...

Ryan always amazes me that he went for these tormented hateful characters with such relish. There's usually a point in any performance where he makes me squirm.

Mike Dennis said...

Right on, David! THE WILD BUNCH was definitely Ryan's best moment. He showed a weariness that most of the aging Old West outlaws must have had as the 20th century closed in on them. And he did it without resorting to the tense, creepy persona he perfected in many of his earlier films.