Robert Ryan (1909-1973) was one of the greatest American film actors of the post-war period. Because he played thugs and outcasts, antiheroes and villains, he was never a popular favourite, never a screen idol in the manner of Humphrey Bogart or James Stewart. He wasn't a romantic lead, he didn't get the girl, he seemed ill-at-ease when forced to share the screen with a woman. He took the beatings, bowed his head and showed us hate or self-loathing from his stunning, well-deep, soul-bearing eyes. He was always running, sometimes from other people, but more often from himself.

Most people know him from late in his career. In The Dirty Dozen (1967), he was a buffoon, the strict, officious officer humiliated by Lee Marvin. A better memorial was Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), reckoned among the best Westerns ever made. Here again Ryan is the villain, the traitor who has sold out his former colleagues. He stands aside as the action plays out - coming along to pick up the pieces, load the corpses onto donkeys, an Ishmael to William Holden's heroic Ahab.

But always in his eyes there is that look, that complicated expression that acknowledges his crimes, that says he has fallen, he has done wrong, but mankind is fallen, he can do nothing else. William Holden and his gang choose to die fighting for a romantic ideal in Mexico. Robert Ryan has no faith in human nature; Holden and the film's other heroes cast off their cynical egotism, the greed of the criminal, to do one good deed before they die. Ryan walks like one already dead, one without greed or passion.

He has suffered dreadful things; he cannot go back to jail. So he chooses to play the role of Judas, the necessary traitor. He has lost his soul long ago, and has nothing left to lose. He does not even seek absolution. He is an absurdist hero like something out of Beckett, a man waiting for his life to end. He seems to carry the burden of civilization; he knows what Holden is fighting for, but does not think it worthwhile to join in. He does not even think it worthwhile to die.

But that was just the last in a string of astonishing roles. His first major role was in The Set-Up (1947), a noir movie directed by Robert Wise, playing a boxer forced by the mob to throw a fight. Ryan changes his mind and wins, but is forced to go on the run. Playing a hero he is less interesting, less complex, but he gives an excellent performance nonetheless, and the film has achieved cult status recently as the influence for the Bruce Willis segment of Pulp Fiction.

In On Dangerous Ground (1951) he gives perhaps his best performance as Jim Wilson, a tough Los Angeles cop. For Nicholas Ray's film, Ryan creates an amazing character, a policeman filled with self-loathing, sunk so deep among the criminals that all morality is lost. Beating up a suspect, he complains: "I always make you punks talk! Why do you make me do it?" Later, Cleo Moore, playing a moll, asks him, "You'll make me talk, you'll squeeze it out of me with those big strong arms, won't you?" This is a world empty of love, where violence is his only means of expression.

The first hour of the film is as dark as any movie of the time. Later, though, he softens a little, when he is sent out of the hellish city to investigate the murder of a young girl - his colleagues want rid of him, and send him upstate into a snow-bound wasteland where he meets the dead girl's blind sister Mary (Ida Lupino). Ryan's character is attracted by her isolation: he recognises her lack of contact with the world, and sees in it a parallel with his own detachment and emotional blindness. Lupino is excellent as ever, while Ryan's portrayal of a gradual, cautious softening is affecting without slipping into sentimentality.

Between the late 1940s to early 1950s and his comeback in the late 1960s, Ryan had less success, playing smaller roles. He was striking as the villain in Bad Day at Black Rock (1954). He also appeared as the literal Judas in Nicholas Ray's Jesus movie King of Kings (1961), and as Claggart, the satanic villain in Peter Ustinov's film of Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd (1962).

His last performance, in 1973, was as Larry Slade in John Frankenheimer's film of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. He was dead before the film was released. Ryan was born in Chicago in 1909. He attended a Jesuit high school, then went to Dartmouth, were he excelled as a boxer.

Selected filmography

Title (year, director)

The Woman on the Beach (1947, Jean Renoir)
Crossfire (1947, Edward Dmytryk)
The Boy with Green Hair (1948, Joseph Losey)
The Set-Up (1949, Robert Wise)
Act of Violence (1949, Fred Zinneman)
Caught (1949, Max Ophuls)
I Married A Communist, aka The Woman on Pier 13 (1949, Brad Collins)
Clash by Night (1952, Fritz Lang)
The Naked Spur (1953, Anthony Mann)
Inferno (1953, Roy Baker)
Bad Day at Black Rock (1954, John Sturges)
The Tall Men (1955, Raoul Walsh)
Men In War (1957, Anthony Mann)
Miss Lonelyhearts (1958, Vincent J. Donehue)
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959, Robert Wise)
King of Kings (1961, Nicholas Ray)
Billy Budd (1962, Peter Ustinov)
The Dirty Dozen (1967, Robert Aldrich)
Custer of the West (1968, Robert Siodmak and Irving Lemar)
The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah)
Executive Action (1973, David Miller)
The Iceman Cometh (1973, John Frankenheimer)

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