November 11th on TCM: Chock-full of Robert Ryan Noir!
One of the icons of the film noir era, Ryan had a take-no prisoners approach and an aura of barely suppressed ferocity. Although he displayed his talent and versatility in a wide variety of roles during his 40-year career, it is the cold-hearted hoods, psychotic spouses, and iniquitous gangsters for which he is best remembered.
Robert Bushnell Ryan was born on November 11, 1909 (some sources give 1911 or 1913 as the year), in Chicago, Illinois, the first child of Timothy Ryan, a well-to-do building contractor, and his wife, Mabel. In 1936, he joined an amateur theater group in Chicago, and two years later he set his sights on Hollywood, enrolling in the Max Reinhardt workshop in Los Angeles. After making his professional stage debut in 1940, Ryan was spotted by a Paramount talent scout and signed a $75 a week contract, but after a handful of films, his contract was not renewed.
Undaunted, Ryan headed for the Eastern “straw-hat circuit,” where he landed a supporting role in A Kiss for Cinderella, starring Luise Rainer. His favorable reviews led to his casting in Clifford Odets’s Clash by Night, featuring Tallulah Bankhead, Joseph Schildkraut, and Lee J. Cobb. Although the play closed after fewer than 50 performances, Ryan was singled out by one critic for his “manly and clearheaded” performance.
Ryan’s disappointment over the brief run of Clash by Night didn’t last long; a short time later he inked a $700 a week contract with RKO. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1944, serving as an infantry training instructor at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California.
After his discharge, he returned to the screen, and in 1947, he entered the domain of film noir – a province that seemed to be tailor-made for him.
On Monday, November 11th, TCM will show back-to-back-to-back Ryan noirs – including some of my personal favorites. If you can’t call in sick, then hunt down a blank VHS tape or fire up the DVR – there are some great ones airing that you’re not going to want to miss! Here’s a rundown of what’s playing:
Berlin Express (1948)
This feature centers on the post-war kidnapping of a German diplomat and the efforts of four men and the man’s secretary – played by Merle Oberon – to find him. An unusual noir, given its European setting, Berlin Express was released to mostly good notices; in a typical review, Lowell E. Redelings of the Hollywood Citizen-News termed it “not outstanding but nevertheless interesting, and sometimes quite entertaining.”
Act of Violence (1949)
Here, Ryan plays a disabled veteran with a mysterious and unflagging vendetta against an ex-war buddy, played by Van Heflin. The cast includes Janet Leigh as Heflin’s wife, Phyllis Thaxter as Ryan’s girlfriend, and Mary Astor as you’ve never seen her before. Be sure you don’t overlook this underrated gem.
In this hard-hitting indictment of anti-Semitism, Ryan played a bigoted psychopath suspected of killing a Jewish war veteran (Sam Levene). He’s ably supported by co-stars Robert Mitchum and Robert Young. Critics lauded Ryan’s standout performance, and Ryan earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor – although he lost to Edmund Gwenn for Miracle on 34th Street (1947), the film provided a significant boost to Ryan’s career.
The Set-Up (1949)
This is my favorite Robert Ryan movie and one of my best-loved noirs. (I might add, Ryan counted it among his favorites as well.) In it, Ryan plays Stoker Thompson, an aging boxer who was, according to one description, “one punch away from being punch-drunk.” The film’s first-rate cast includes the always-great Audrey Totter, George Tobias, Wallace Ford, and Percy Helton. (You can read more about my take on this movie here.)
Beware, My Lovely (1952)
Co-starring Ida Lupino, this feature tells the tale of a mentally unbalanced handyman who terrorizes the owner of a boardinghouse. The cast also includes Taylor Holmes who was, for you pre-Code fans, the father of Phillips Holmes. (And for those of you who like spotting goofs as much as I do, keep an eye out in the opening scene for the blinking murder victim.)
On Dangerous Ground (1952)
In this feature, directed by Nicholas Ray, Ryan played a brooding, cynical New York cop who is put on an assignment in a rural area when his violent tendencies threaten to be the end of his career. He was once again teamed with Ida Lupino.
So that’s what TCM has in store for you on November 11th – mark your calendars and don’t you dare miss this line-up!
You only owe it to yourself.