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The Lives of Robert Ryan by J.R. Jones

Am I surprised that there is finally a biography in the bookstores on Robert Ryan? Not at all thanks to TCM and what I think is a bit of a movement over the past few years to rediscover his films and performances among classic film fans, young and old.

Jones comps.indd

I for one was never much of a Ryan fan growing up as I couldn’t see past the Colonel Breed type of characters he was playing in the films that were appealing to me. That all changed during a late night airing of  1949’s Act of Violence where he was cast in what appeared to be a bad guy role yet there was more to the character and plot that drew me in.

With the co-operation of Ryan’s three children this proved to be a well written book that details not only the films but Ryan’s political involvements over the course of his life. Having served as a Marine during WW2 he was determined that men shouldn’t need warfare to settle worldly disputes. He would come to associate himself with various politically inclined men over his lifetime including Adlai Stevenson and other Presidential candidates and movements that he believed in.

Unlike many of his coworkers in the film industry, Ryan lived a very low profile life away from the glitz and glamour associated with the industry. He was married to the same woman, Jessica his entire life. They were dedicated to giving an education to their own children and others as well lending their monetary support and time to the building of a school, overseeing it’s operations.

ryan in crossfire

Robert’s career was set on it’s path with the 1947 film Crossfire where he was cast as a racially motivated killer. It’s a role he never really escaped despite plenty of other fine roles along the way. Crossfire was also the only performance he was recognized by the Academy for. He lost out in the Best Supporting Actor category to Edmund Gwenn that year.

Like most actors Ryan was excited by the prospects of working with some of his own heroes. Tracy in Black Rock and Freddie March in The Iceman Cometh. By the time of The Iceman, he was now an actor that young up and comers wanted to work with. Both in film and on stage. Ryan never gave up the stage and returned to it repeatedly over the years even trying his hand at a musical. Something I would never associate him with.

Cancer would eventually catch up to Ryan after first claiming his wife Jessica in the early seventies. Ryan would continue to work up till his death in 1973 rounding out his career opposite Burt Lancaster in Executive Action.

the setup

Behind him he left a large amount of films worth catching up with in the Noir genre where he is mainly remembered in films like The Set Up and On Dangerous Ground. Then there are the westerns including The Naked Spur for Anthony Mann. Also for Mann he appeared in Men In War and God’s Little Acre. House of Bamboo for Sam Fuller, Clash by Night for Fritz Lang. The Wild Bunch with Peckinpah.  All worth seeking out as is a wonderful thriller titled Inferno from 1953.

He worked with a long list of formidable leading ladies including Stanwyck, Liz Scott, Shelley Winters and even Marilyn Monroe. It’s the two films opposite Ida Lupino that are so easy to recall, Beware My lovely and On Dangerous Ground.

Ida-Lupino-and-Robert-Ryan-in-On-Dangerous-Ground-1952-

I came to Ryan’s films a bit later than those of Douglas, Lancaster and Mitchum which in a way mirrors some of his performances. They can be a bit of a slow burn that comes on strong as time and the movie itself go by.

6 Comments »

  1. Somehow this book had slipped under my radar — many thanks for the heads up.

    Like yourself, I was relatively late to the realization of what a brilliant actor Ryan was, and even later to discover what a very fine human being he was — a classic case of mistaking the screen persona for the individual.

    There’s a very, very late performance of his that’s worth catching, if you can: in the Jean-Louis Trintignant movie La Course du Lièvre à Travers les Champs (1972). I like the movie itself, quite a lot, although I can imagine others mightn’t, but Ryan’s performance, in a relatively small role, is really quite splendid. It’s s if he’s not just rendering the character perfectly convincingly but also, for those who know his history, delivering a kind of commentary on the roles he played so often earlier in his career.

  2. I have been a fan of Robert Ryans for a long long time. He pulls you right in. I tried to tell my brother about one of his film’s entitled About Mrs. Leslie which I saw many years ago but have never forgotten. It was such a tender performance and he is so good at playing the isolated loner. So happy that others are discovering his talent.

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