Robert Ryan looked like hell.
This isn’t to say that he was ugly—he was six-foot-four, a strapping Black Irish specimen—but very often Ryan played men pursued by furies, and he looked like he carried a lake of fire in his belly. Ryan’s wife was Quaker, and his politics were pacifistic and idealistic, but his lacerating art retained the Irish fatalism and Jesuit stamp of his youth.
Born in 1909, into an upper-middle-class Chicago household, Ryan attended Dartmouth, where he developed a literary bent, including a lifelong engagement with James Joyce and Eugene O’Neill, and graduated just in time to eke through the Depression at a variety of odd jobs, turning to acting finally at age 30. This combination of Ivy League polish and blue-collar bona fides would be a virtue later, as evidenced in Film Forum’s two-week retrospective: Ryan infamously played a variety of unbalanced cowpokes and hoods, but was equally effective as a neurotic plutocrat in Max Ophuls’s Caught (1949), in a rare romantic lead as the cocksman novelist in Nicholas Ray’s underappreciated melodrama Born to Be Bad (1950), or as ulcerous editor Shrike in the gelded Nathanael West adaptation Lonelyhearts (1958).
After an abortive run at Paramount, Ryan was signed by RKO on the strength of his performance as hardworking straight-arrow Joe Doyle in the 1941 stage production of Clifford Odets’s Clash by Night. The actor didn’t immediately find his niche, but his breakthrough role as an anti-Semitic psychopath in 1947’s Crossfire established him as a bankable heavy. When Fritz Lang filmed Clash on the San Pedro docks in ’52, Ryan was invited back—but this time, an established menace to society and leading ladies, he played the splenetic, alcoholic projectionist, Earl Pfeiffer.
Ryan’s body was sinuous and angular, perfect for striking jagged, hunted silhouettes against noir cityscapes. He was also a natural athlete, with the endurance for outdoor adventure—and, an undefeated heavyweight champ at college for four years, he choreographed the four gut-pulping rounds he boxes through in The Set-Up (1949), playing club fighter Stoker Jones. In close-up, Ryan was no less impactful. In black and white, his dark pupils seemed to leave scarcely any room for white. When angry, they narrow to shiny chips of obsidian. Seemingly every Robert Ryan film finds a place for the Robert Ryan Outburst. His dialogue, in that chafing Chicagoland honk, comes out of his mouth as though it’s being convulsively pulled out of his throat, causing him great pain in the process. As the cop laying into an uncooperative perp in Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952), Ryan howls “Why do you make me do this?” like a penitent administering self-flagellation.
Ryan was never on solid ground as a leading man, and as he aged and the noir parts for which he was known grew scarce, the accumulated stigma of so many headlong trips into the darkness made the casting-powers-that-be wary. The nearest Ryan got to benevolent patriarchs was his father-knows-worst performance in God’s Little Acre (1958), a fascinating departure into manic cracker-barrel comedy. After subsisting mostly on cameos through the ’60s, The Wild Bunch (1969) gave Ryan a role catered to his legend, Western pariah Deke Thornton. He was diagnosed with cancer not long afterward. Looking death head-on and unblinking, his iconic status confirmed, Ryan became urgently hands-on with his legacy. The Iceman Cometh (1973), directed by John Frankenheimer, was Ryan’s passion project; as ex-anarchist Larry Slade, he is the soul of O’Neill’s flophouse confessional. Confounding the Hollywood playbook to the end, Ryan may have finally found the role he was born to play at his prideful, passionate curtain call.