Robert Ryan: 'It's all in the eyes' - ('The Man I Love' video)

Still of Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan from "On dangerous ground" (1952) directed by Nicholas Ray

"It's all in the eyes", Robert Ryan once said of film acting. "That's where you do most of your work."

Take a close look at Ryan in The Set-Up or On Dangerous Ground and you'll get a sense of the relative frailty and delicacy of most male movie stars. In the post-war era, only Burt Lancaster was as physically imposing (Kirk Douglas was always fit but he was self-contained and self-motivated, even when he was coming unhinged; Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear aside, Robert Mitchum appeared less threatening than looming, dreamily approaching the ecstatic).

Robert Ryan - The Man I Love (Song by Dinah Shore)

Slideshow of Robert Ryan set to the song 'Do I Move You?' by Nina Simone. A superbly gifted actor, Robert Ryan often portrayed dark characters on screen; characters filled with violence, self-loathing and bigotry. Tirelessly supporting civil rights issues, Ryan's own politics were a world apart from the petty and reactionary prejudices of many of his on-screen personas. Perhaps this is the very reason WHY he portrayed them so convincingly. So great and fearless was Ryan's talent that he inhabited such characters from within and rather than give flat portrayals of these dark figures as villains of pure evil he imbued them with a crushing realism that highlighted their own distorted humanity; a humanity derailed by self-deception and a profound lack of self-worth.
He was also, of course, a fine figure of a man whose on-screen-persona as a passionate, flawed and potentially dangerous individual gave him his own certain sexual allure. It is this aspect of Ryan's screen image that this slideshow attempts to portray but the depths that lie beneath this image are there for us all to discover for ourselves if we wish to do so.

Robert Ryan, wife Jessica and kids Tim & Lisa in 1965

In the prime of his career, Robert Ryan, Jessica and their three children lived with an anti-Hollywood modesty. The parents took intense interest in the education of their children, going so far as to fund and construct, in 1953, The Oakwood School, a private learning center offering an alternative to crowded public schools and rich-kid country clubs. Conservative neighbors egged the building and painted crosses on its doors. A committed leftist, Ryan managed to elude persecution during the witchhunt; but by the mid-'s 50s he was active in the ACLU, a big supporter of the UN, and president of the Southern California branch of the United World Federalists.

Meanwhile, Ryan continued to portray the men he most despised -amoral racists like Reno Smith in "Bad Day at Black Rock" (1954). It was an updated Western in which Spencer Tracy played a one-armed vet who rides into a dusty desert town to present a Japanese farmer with his son's posthumous war medal. Surprise: a gang of rabid townsfolk, led by Ryan, has already murdered the old man in a fit of racism disguised as patriotism.

Robert Ryan as Earle Slater and Gloria Grahame as Helen in "Odds against Tomorrow" (1959) directed by Robert Wise

You'd think Ryan couldn't get much more evil than this, but somehow he upped the ante in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), an exceptional film, and Peter Ustinov's salty adaptation of Melville's Billy Budd (1962). Films in Review called Ryan's turn as antagonistic master-at-arms John Claggart the "apotheosis of screen villainy".
Although he built a solid career foundation with the diligence of a stone-mason, Ryan felt trapped by the narrow confines of the parts he was offered. During the Fifties he poured his frustrations over ice and drank them down, becoming a functioning alcoholic. He believed his rejection of the Hollywood lifestyle was working against him. His daughter, Lisa Ryan recalls many occasions when her father would sit alone in the unlit kitchen, nursing one of many beverages, railing to the acting gods: "Goddamned 'B' pictures! That's all they give me. Goddamned 'B' pictures!"

In Sam Peckinpah's “The Wild Bunch” (1969) Ryan delivers a commanding performance as a one-time member of the outlaw gang headed by William Holden. The Ryan character breaks away from the bunch and joins up with the lawmen who are determined to track them down.

On July 11, 1973, he succumbed. Pete Hamill offered a lovely tribute: "There should be a poem of farewell for Robert Ryan. It should express his quiet presence through so many lonely years when few people were struggling to bring decency to the world... Life, death, loneliness, loss: these were some of the things we learned from the quiet art of Robert Ryan, who was a good man in a bad time". -"Dark City, the lost world of film noir" (1998) by Eddie Muller

Robert Ryan and Barbara Stanwyck as Earl and Mae in "Clash By Night" (1952) directed by Fritz Lang

Q: "The Set-Up" (1949) was another milestone of film noir.

Audrey Totter: It was exceptional. I was still at Metro, and they called me in and told me that I was wanted for this film at RKO. It was a boxing film. They told me Robert Wise was directing, and I didn’t know him at that time. I wasn’t too enthused, but they suggested I take the script home and read it. Well, it was wonderful ... a wonderful script, a good part, and a good concept. The picture was to be done in "real" time, which meant the action takes place in the same time frame as the length of the film.

Q: Any recollections of Robert Ryan?

Audrey Totter: He was so glad that I agreed to do the film. He had heard I was reluctant, and he thought I would be right for the part. In the picture, Robert plays an over-the-hill fighter, and I play his wife. He has a fight which his manager wants him to throw. He wins instead, and the mob works him over in the street. They break his hands so he’ll never fight again. But they couldn’t break his spirit. Robert Ryan was excellent in the role, and it is one of the best things he ever did. Everyone was so good in the picture. It still works today whenever it is shown. Source:

Bogart had been the cinema's most touching practitioner of hurt feelings, as evidenced in the sudden, forever alarming cut to a close-up when Rick sees Elsa for the first time in Casablanca: his face freezes and seems to decompose before our eyes, and we feel the sensation of a vast inner world coming to a dead halt. Ryan picked up the melody and reset it to a new rhythm for a new era.
Unlike Bogart's signature roles, there was nothing hip about the characters Ryan played: Monty the bigot in Crossfire, Stoker the washed-up fighter in The Set-Up, Joe the avenging vet in Act of Violence, Wilson in On Dangerous Ground, and Reno the small-town crime boss in Bad Day at Black Rock are all haunted by normalcy and equilibrium, trying to contain, correct or eradicate whatever plagues their existences. "Why do you make me do it?" cries Wilson in a quavering voice in the Ray film, before beating a gangster within an inch of his life. Something is always turning Ryan's characters horribly inside out, causing them to fight their way to the other side of anguish.

"The myth about the actor being one thing and portraying another is not true", Ryan said in a 1971 Films and Filming interview. "He may play a part which has nothing to do with his own life - but his size as a person shows through no matter what he does." Source:

Robert Ryan threatens Janet Leigh in "Act Of Violence" (1948) directed by Fred Zinnemann

Thierry Génin wrote in an article in the Film French periodical L'avant-scène that Ryan's screen persona expressed a "lacerated humanity" that was "strong, yet tormented", suggesting that Ryan had been through a lot and had survived. Génin concluded that his message concerned the dilemma of the human condition.

Robert Wise believed that Ryan had a talent for eliciting sympathy for the characters he played, and that "part of Bob's art made one feel that he was a victim in some way, and not just an out and out son of a bitch". "Bob was an intensely shy man", said Arvin Brown.

Robert Ryan and Marilyn Monroe in "Clash by Night" (1952). "I got the feeling she was a frightened little girl who was trying awfully hard. She always seemed to be so mournful-looking around the set, and I'd always try to cheer her up" -Robert Ryan on Marilyn

Ryan told screenwriter Millard Lampell about a number of passes that had been made toward him by actresses, among whom were powerful sex symbols, such as Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth. Lampell noted that Ryan seemed to have feelings about women that were "a mixture of naiveté and boyishness, and a kind of old-fashioned sense of integrity and faithfulness to his wife".
Arvin Brown testified to his effect on women "they were tremendously attracted to Bob, much more than his screen presence would ever have led you to believe, a pretty lethal mixture of repressed energy and violence, combined with a real sweetness".
Brown believed that the paradox Ryan presented increased his sex-appeal: "The key thing was that Bob had this wonderful gentleness which was a real powerful attraction in a guy who seemed like he was maybe a dark force". -"Robert Ryan: A Biography and Critical Filmography" by Franklin Jarlett (1997)