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Robert Ryan Movies: Liberal Actor Known for Playing Reactionary Characters

6 minutes read

Robert Ryan The Set-Up
Robert Ryan in Robert Wise’s The Set-Up.
Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

Robert Ryan, one of the most effective Hollywood actors of the studio era – or any other era – will have his Turner Classic Movies Day on Friday, Aug. 13. Friday the Thirteenths don’t get any luckier.

On Robert Ryan Day, TCM will present thirteen of the actor’s films as part of its “Summer Under the Stars” series.

Curiously, Ryan may have been known as one of the screen’s most notorious villains, usually to be found “in deserts with a dirty shirt and a two-day growth of beard.” In real life, however, he was a cultured man with highly liberal political views.

As Ryan himself once explained, “I have been in films pretty well everything I am dedicated to fighting against.”

Ryan can be seen at his best in three movies being shown on TCM: Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947), Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949), and Peter Ustinov’s Billy Budd (1962).

In Crossfire, Ryan plays a US World War II veteran who has more in common with the Nazis than he (and others) would care to believe. (In the movie, his victim is a Jewish man; in future director Richard Brooks’ novel, it was a gay man.)

For his role as the psycho bigot, Ryan received his one and only Academy Award nomination (in the Best Supporting Actor category). Also in the Crossfire cast: Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, and Gloria Grahame.

A mix of film noir and social commentary, Crossfire was so effective, in fact, that it got director Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott in big trouble with the far-right patriots of the House of Un-American Activities. Dmytryk and Scott were two of The Hollywood Ten.

The Set-Up features my personal favorite Robert Ryan performance. In this film, played out in “real time” – all 72 minutes of it – Ryan incarnates a washed-up boxer who does what he can to keep on punching and/or getting punched. How else to pursue his American Dream?

This tragic tale (from a screenplay by Art Cohn) is by far the best – and darkest – among the boxing films of that time (Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul, Mark Robson’s Champion), and I find it eons superior to Martin Scorsese’s revered Raging Bull. And to think Robert Wise was the same guy who went to direct the maudlin Somebody Up There Likes Me – not to mention The Sound of Music, which could have used a few punches.

Also, The Set-Up is such an excellent movie that it didn’t get a single Academy Award nomination. Can’t think of a better recommendation – except for the fact that Audrey Totter is in it, too.

In Ustinov’s Billy Budd, Ryan plays the late 18th-century British Navy’s Master d’Arms John Claggart, a psychopath desperately, uncontrollably in love with Terence Stamp’s sweet, pretty seaman Billy. To be the object of mad desire of a total closet case isn’t exactly a good thing, as poor Billy Budd, who suffers and suffers, can surely attest.

Stamp, though actually the film’s lead, was the one nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Ryan, as the personification of unbridled passion/madness/evil, should have been won the statuette that year, whether in the lead or supporting category. Needless to say, he was left nominationless.

Also of interest: Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), an ultra-violent Western with an all-star cast, including William Holden and Ernest Borgnine; The Boy with Green Hair (1948), a well-intentioned but not all that involving allegory about prejudice, with Dean Stockwell as the boy with the weird hair dye; and Fred Zinnemann’s crime drama Act of Violence (1948), with a solid cast that includes Van Heflin, Mary Astor, and Janet Leigh.

Quotes: David Shipman’s The Great Movie Stars.

Schedule and synopses from the TCM website:

3:00 AM Trail Street (1947)
Bat Masterson fights to make Kansas safe for wheat farmers. Cast: Randolph Scott, Robert Ryan, Anne Jeffreys. Director: Ray Enright. Black and white. 84 min.

4:30 AM Return of the Badmen (1948)
A farmer falls for the female leader of a band of notorious outlaws. Cast: Randolph Scott, Robert Ryan, Anne Jeffreys. Director: Ray Enright. Black and white. 90 min.

6:15 AM Flying Leathernecks (1951)
A World War II Marine officer drives his men mercilessly during the battle for Guadalcanal. Cast: John Wayne, Robert Ryan, Jay C. Flippen. Director: Nicholas Ray. Color. 102 min.

8:00 AM Men In War (1957)
Two enemies join forces to save their men during a retreat from the North Koreans. Cast: Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Robert Keith. Director: Anthony Mann. Black and white. 98 min.

10:00 AM Crossfire (1947)
A crusading district attorney investigates the murder of a Jewish man. Cast: Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan. Director: Edward Dmytryk. Black and white. 86 min.

11:30 AM Act Of Violence (1949)
An embittered veteran tracks down a POW camp informer. Cast: Van Heflin, Robert Ryan, Janet Leigh. Director: Fred Zinnemann. Black and white. 82 min.

1:00 PM God’s Little Acre (1958)
A dirt-farmer lets his family fall apart while he hunts for his grandfather’s buried gold. Cast: Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Tina Louise. Director: Anthony Mann. Black and white. 118 min.

3:00 PM Captain Nemo And The Underwater City (1969)
The infamous submarine captain rescues six shipwreck survivors. Cast: Robert Ryan, Chuck Connors, Nanette Newman. Director: James Hill. Color. 106 min.

5:00 PM Boy With Green Hair, The (1948)
An orphaned boy mystically acquires green hair and a mission to end war. Cast: Dean Stockwell, Pat O’Brien, Robert Ryan. Director: Joseph Losey. Color. 82 min.

6:30 PM Set-Up, The (1949)
An aging boxer defies the gangsters who’ve ordered him to throw his last fight. Cast: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias. Director: Robert Wise. Black and white. 73 min.

8:00 PM Billy Budd (1962)
Adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic tale of a ship’s captain caught between an innocent young sailor and an evil officer. Cast: Peter Ustinov, Robert Ryan, Terence Stamp. Director: Peter Ustinov. Black and white. 123 min.

10:15 PM Wild Bunch, The (1969)
A group of aging cowboys look for one last score in a corrupt border town. Cast: William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine. Director: Sam Peckinpah. Color. 144 min.

1:00 AM Outfit, The (1973)
An ex-con takes on the mob to avenge his brother’s death. Cast: Robert Duvall, Karen Black, Joe Don Baker. Director: John Flynn. Color. 103 min.

Robert Ryan movies’ schedule via the TCM website.

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