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Some Robert Ryan Films September 6, 2010

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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In mentally preparing a future installment of DVR Theater, I realized that a nice chunk of the old movies I’ve been consuming lately have been Robert Ryan films from early in his career. You could tell how great an actor Ryan was by how often he rose above weaker material, and when given strong material, Ryan melted into his characters to become one with some great movies.

Well, not all the ones I watched were great, but there weren’t any true clunkers in the bunch. Probably the weakest was The Secret Fury, where Ryan marries Claudette Colbert and has to save her from a conspiracy setting her up for murder. Despite a half-decent twist at the end and a wacky jazz soundtrack, the plot is a pretty big pill to swallow with some lame red herrings. However, since Ryan naturally had a lanky-menacing quality to his physical presence, watching him play a good guy is always interesting, since there’s always the threat of danger lurking beneath the surface of those cold stares of his. In Berlin Express, Ryan has to save Merle Oberon from some Nazi insurgents trying to retake Germany – a decent thriller set against the fascinating location shoot of post-war Germany at the birth of the Cold War. Just seeing the cities makes for a great documentary of sorts, and the plot is decent, if not The Third Man.

Probably the best of the Ryan-as-good-guy movies I saw was Robert Wise’s The Set-Up, where Ryan plays an aging boxer who refuses to throw a fight for the mobsters betting on his opponent. The movie is shot in real time, and the portrait it paints of the blood-lust among various boxing fans, thereby creating the entire cold hearted universe Ryan’s character is condemned to live in, makes for a great, must-see film.

Ryan as villain? Always a good time! His breakout role as the violent bigot in Crossfire remains a great performance in a terrific and daring for its time movie. Granted, the novel deals with the murder of a homosexual and the movie switched that to Jew, which I guess was controversial enough in the same year that gave us Gentlemen’s Agreement. He plays a subtler version of the menacing redneck in Bad Day At Black Rock, a movie I liked but did not love – some wonderful motifs of isolation throughout, some rather odd martial arts from Spencer Tracy versus Ernest Borgnine, but somehow it never all came together for me.

Ryan’s portrayal of a gangster in The Racket mirrors Robert Mitchum’s cop character trying to take him down – both of them have to deal with corruption and incompetence within their own ranks, and Ryan comes across as sympathetic, even in Mitchum’s eyes. Sort of like Ryan’s character in The Wild Bunch, we see a criminal who has a fairly strict honor code for himself.

Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed Act Of Violence, where Ryan returns from World War 2 to stalk fellow Stalag inmate Van Heflin all over 1948 downtown Los Angeles (some great location shooting here for me to think about how the city has changed). Betrayal, lies and a secret past… all with Ryan very well cast since he can be naturally scary and then, turning on a dime, reveal an inner honor. Ignore the lame ending and savor the rest.

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