Robert Ryan: always just a punch away from an unqualified triumph

Robert Ryan (1909–1973)

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

"UK film writer Philip French in the Observer in 2009 related that Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) “was the favourite film of Jean-Pierre Melville, who saw it 120 times before directing his noir masterwork Le deuxième soufflé [1966]”.

Gloria Grahame & Robert Ryan in Robert Wise's ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959)

"Odds Against Tomorrow" is a work of art: truly the culmination of film noir and deserving of much greater recognition not only as a consummate film but as the harbinger of the re-invention of noir in the 60s by Sam Fuller in Hollywood and Melville in France.

Most commentators see Orson Welle’s Touch of Evil (1958) as the valedictory film noir of the classic cycle, but to my mind that film’s cross-border setting and non-urban locale do not truly reflect the big city alienation that distinguishes the classic noir cycle.

In Odds Against Tomorrow, New York City and its industrial fringe are quasi-protagonists that harbor the angst and desperation of life outside the mainstream – sordid dreams of the last big heist that will fix everything. But as always in the noir universe the relentlessly deterministic metropolis in cahoots with capricious fate kick those dreams out of the ring". Source:

Robert Wise was quoted as saying, “Bob was a dream to work with… He was a very real person, and had no phoniness… He was always helpful with the other actors, and if I ever had a problem with one of them, he would always be patient… Bob worked with people whom other stars of his caliber would have had great trouble dealing with.” -"Robert Ryan: A Biography and Critical Filmography" by Franklin Jarlett (1997)

Shelley Winters was also an admirer of Ryan and first met him at Schwab’s during her early years in Hollywood through their mutual friend, Marilyn Monroe.

In her account of the filming of ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW in her autobiography "Shelley II: The Middle of My Century", the actress recalled: “… Robert Ryan and I would sit in our little set of a cheap run-down flat that was sort of an apartment hotel. We would talk about the theatre, organic farming, where Hollywood was going in this age of television, anything but what we were really thinking about.

If I remembered correctly, Bob had been rather a heavy drinker when I’d known him in my early Schwab days, but you never could tell if he was drunk. He would just grow very quiet after eight hours of drinking. The only time I suspected he had a hangover was when he had two beers at breakfast.” -"Shelley II: The Middle of My Century" by Shelley Winters

“If I ever loved a man again, I’d bear anything,” Barbara Stanwyck’s wounded Mae declares in CLASH BY NIGHT. “He could have my teeth for watch fobs.” End to end, the film’s dialogue makes continued use of mutilation motifs. “Batter his brains out,” the cuckolded Jerry is advised by his Uncle Vince (J. Carrol Naish); when the hulking Jerry confronts his unfaithful wife, she backs into a corner and threatens “I’ll smash your face with the first thing I can lay my hands on.”
Elsewhere, young lovers Marilyn Monroe and Keith Andes square off in mock fights that invariably cross the line into actual physicality yet theirs is the one relationship in CLASH BY NIGHT to pin your hopes on.
While deception and betrayal are key tropes in film noir, here the cards are all laid on the table early on, with each character unflinchingly honest about his or her shortcomings.
“My heart’s in the wrong place,” Earl declares at his first meeting with Mae, who in turn tells Jerry she’s no good for him. If anything, the characters betray themselves. Mae marries Jerry but lets Earl take her down in a violent clutch during which she slips her hand under his “wife beater”, her fingers appearing positively skeletal through the thin fabric, as if she is reaching deep within her lover, plumbing for anything like a sotl.
And the kicker is, Earl has a soul, he’s got a hell of a soul, but he’s too scarred, too broken, too enamored of getting the last word to ever fire it up for real.
As a projectionist, smiling Earl is a delivery boy for dreams he can never share. You could say he’s on the outside looking in or the inside looking out and both would be equally true. Lang’s frequent bridging shots of the roiling Pacific or gathering thunderheads marks his characters as elemental but Earl’s private Hell is to remain forever out of his element". Source:

"His ability to play such individuals so well was apparently part of an obstinate adherence to an artistic standard that the actor developed out of his own beliefs and experiences.

Few could emulate and, at times, few could understand how personally costly this might be. Ryan‘s friend and professional colleague John Houseman once explained that “Ryan is a disturbing mixture of anger and tenderness who had reached stardom by playing mostly brutal, neurotic roles that were at complete variance with his true nature.”
Ryan, whose personal warmth and kindness was cited by those who knew and worked with him, was also a man whose political and social views were often 180 degrees opposite of the many bigots he played, from the murderous soldier in Crossfire to the virulent racists in 'Bad Day at Black Rock' and 'Odds Against Tomorrow'.

In his private life, he and his wife Jessica were politically supportive of the Committee for the First Amendment, the ACLU, civil rights, the United Nations and SANE, an organization devoted to a serious discussion of the nuclear policies of the world". Source:

Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg as Dicky Eklund and Micky Ward in "The Fighter" (2010) directed by David O. Russell

"2010's 'The Fighter' came to great acclaim in some circles, although I didn’t care for it nearly as much as others did. I liked some of the performances, but I found the actual boxing scenes to be lacking a visceral quality and included an annoying commentary from Jim Lampley.

At the other end of the spectrum, is Robert Wise’s taut and brutal masterpiece The Set-Up, which is not only a brilliant boxing film but a first-rate film noir, hovering precisely between the genres and ultimately transcending them both. What elevates the film is the moral complexity brought about from the fact that Stoker is not told of this deal to take the dive, providing the film with the existential crises that is so prevalent in film noir". Source:

THE SET-UP is arguably the greatest boxing movie ever filmed.

Tough and tender, ethical and compassionate Ryan injects Stoker with a tragic yet heroic power. His scenes with Audrey Totter who play his wife in the film, are touching and effective.
She’s tired of her life as a fighter’s wife.

Ryan uses his eyes very effectively in a number of scenes. When he talks about being only ‘one punch away’ from the big money they light up and sparkle. But then later as he gazes at the hotel where his wife is or the empty seat he bought for her in the arena, despair and a quiet despondence creep in. It’s impossible not to cheer for him…

Cary Grant told Robert Ryan: "I want you to know that I just saw The Set-Up and I thought your performance was one of the best I’ve ever seen."

When he died in 1973, Newsweek wrote…“Ryan died this year, leaving behind a lifetime of roles too small for his talent.”
© John Raspanti, August 2008

“I do remember my Dad talking about how much he liked working with Robert Wise (The Set-Up was my dad’s absolute favorite of all the films he was in) and when I finally met Wise I could understand why … he was incredibly warm and gracious, obviously a sensitive, caring man, with no huge ego evident.” -Lisa Ryan

“As a co-star [in The Set-Up]", Alan K. Rode mentioned, “it had to be Audrey Totter in The Set-Up. You believed that they were married in that picture".

Audrey told me that ‘Bob was a living doll’ and that the movie was her favorite.” Totter‘s remark about Ryan remind me that, unlike his more typical, highly cynical film noir roles, Ryan plays a man who, while capable of highly efficient bouts of violence, is also a gentle, almost idealistic character in The Set-Up.

Alan K. Rode mentioned when describing Ryan‘s power on screen:
“I think Ryan was similar to Spencer Tracy in that neither one of them ever got caught acting. Ryan expressed angst and rage as authentically as anyone. One critic referred to him as ‘infernally taut’, a quality that is quietly but persistently building throughout this movie". Source:

"Larry Slade, the barroom philosopher and disillusioned anarchist of The Iceman Cometh, may have cut even closer to the bone: suffering from a terminal illness, he confesses to one of his fellow drunks, "What's before me is the fact that death is a fine, long sleep. And I'm damn tired."

Directed by John Frankenheimer for the American Film Theater series of the early 70s, the movie shows Ryan at his most honest and vulnerable. Few actors have so openly contemplated their own mortality on-screen, or ended their career with such an unqualified triumph". Source:

Watch Robert Ryan video featuring stills and scenes from "Crossfire", "The Racket" (with Robert Mitchum, Lizabeth Scott), "The Set-Up" (with Audrey Totter), "Born to be Bad" (with Joan Fontaine), "Clash by Night" (with Barbara Stanwyck), "On Dangerous Ground" (with Ida Lupino), "Act of Violence" (with Janet Leigh), "Tender Comrade" (with Ginger Rogers), "The Woman on the Beach" (with Joan Bennett), "Odds Against Tomorrow" (with Shelley Winters), etc.

Songs "Via Chicago", "She's a Jar", "Hell is Chrome" by Wilco.