The 1951 crime flick THE RACKET is one of film noir’s great misfires. Robert Mitchum stars as an honest cop trying to bring down vicious crime lord Robert Ryan, and with these two titans of noir squaring off against each other, the film should be a blast. Instead, it’s a disaster. Under the obsessive and erratic supervision of RKO studio chief Howard Hughes, the film was shot, reshot, and reshot again. The story changed every time Hughes changed his mind, which was almost daily. Burning through five directors and countless yards of film, Hughes managed to squeeze all the life out of what should have been a fun little gangster picture. The result, by pretty much any measure, is a mess.
Today, the only fun thing about THE RACKET is the opportunity to observe the interaction of the two stars who, together, define the opposite ends of film noir’s emotional scale: Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan. Mitchum was, of course, forever the king of cool, his breezy insouciance acquiring a kind of romantic sheen in classics like OUT OF THE PAST (1947). While Mitchum’s very lack of concern could occasionally curdle into a pathological absence of empathy (in films like THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER or CAPE FEAR), for the most part film noir positioned his detachment as something cool. When Lee Server wrote the definitive Mitchum biography, he snatched one of the actor’s great OUT OF THE PAST lines for his title: BABY, I DON’T CARE
Robert Ryan, on the other hand, wasn’t cool. He was hot. He rarely got to play the good guy, and he had even fewer chances to play romantic leads. He was noir’s man on the edge. He specialized in playing desperation, bigotry, and psychosis (on one occasion he even played a vicious version of Howard Hughes himself). When he did get to portray the hero, in classics like THE SET-UP or ON DANGEROUS GROUND, he brought real fire and passion to his roles. Robert Ryan never played indifference onscreen. Detachment was never his thing. Good or bad, Robert Ryan always cared, baby.
In his wonderful new biography of the actor, THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN, Chicago Reader critic J.R. Jones makes clear that Ryan’s onscreen passion was very much in keeping with his offscreen life. One of the most politically engaged actors of his era, Ryan charted his own course through some of Hollywood’s darkest days, and along the way made himself into an enduring icon of film noir. With THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN, we now have the kind of serious treatment which Ryan has always deserved.
Born into a well-to-do family in 1909, Robert Bushnell Ryan was raised on Chicago’s north side. Jones reveals that Ryan’s father was a successful businessman who was deeply involved in the rough-and-tumble politics of the city’s Democratic machine. Young Bob kept his eyes open, and although he would grow into a far more idealistic man than his father, he inherited a steel spine and a practical streak when it came to navigating choppy political waters.
Unfortunately, while he was still young, a series of tragedies struck his family that would shape his inner life for years to come. When he was still a child, his younger brother Jack died. His parents closed ranks around their surviving son, but Jones notes that they were “Victorian people, reserved even with their own child; and as the years passed Bob learned to keep his own company.” Even as an adult, even with those he loved the most, Jones reports, Ryan would remain “a sealed envelope.”
Bob had gone away to Dartmouth — studying English in the hopes of being a playwright, and becoming a collegiate boxing champion in the meantime — when tragedy struck again. First the stock market crashed, and the Ryan family fortune was wiped out. Not long after, a fire broke out on one of his father’s job sites, killing eleven men and delivering a blow the Ryan family business never recovered from. After graduating from school, Bob kicked around for a few years, scribbling away at his plays and working a variety of jobs, including a short stint as a male model and a failed attempt at gold prospecting in Montana. Out west he worked on a dude ranch and learned how to handle a horse (experience that would come in handy once he started making westerns). He was working as a sailor on the boat The City of New York, making runs between New York, and South Africa, when he learned that his father had died after being hit by a car. With this final family tragedy, Robert Ryan had to settle down and find a career.
He got into acting through the instigation of a friend. Jones quotes Ryan as saying, “I never even thought of acting until I was twenty-eight. The first minute I got on the stage I thought, ‘Bing! This is it.’” He quickly made his way to Hollywood and into the tutelage of the legendary acting coach Max Reinhart. Even more important for Ryan, at the Reinhardt School of the Theater he met an aspiring young actor named Jessica Cadwalader, who would shortly become his wife.
One of the main pleasures of THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN is the attention Jones pays to the fascinating figure of Jessica Ryan. The pacifist daughter of Quaker parents, Jessica was a serious and well-read woman who spurned the Hollywood social set in favor of political and intellectual pursuits. Soon after she married Ryan, she quit acting and devoted herself to writing mysteries (like THE MAN WHO ASKED WHY, 1945; and EXIT HARLEQUIN, 1947). After giving birth to two sons, she began to turn her attention to the field of childhood education. Around the time she gave birth to the Ryans’ third child, a daughter, she had already put plans into motion to open a progressive grade school in North Hollywood. The Oakwood School, as it would come to be called, became a passion for both Jessica and her husband.
Before that time came, however, the Ryans had to get through World War II. When the war broke out Bob’s movie career was just taking off with a couple of roles that let him take off his shirt and show off his boxing skills. Jessica wasn’t happy when he entered the Marine Corps as a drill instructor; although once the war ended and the Red Scare overtook Hollywood, Bob’s military service would provide him with political cover from conservatives who didn’t like his lefty politics.
The Red Scare, and the blacklist period that it birthed, features prominently in THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN for good reason. The book nicely situates Ryan’s film noir career in the rising turmoil of the postwar world. Ryan didn’t make his first noir until 1947 — the genre’s pivotal year — when he starred in Jean Renoir’s convoluted THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH opposite Joan Bennett. That same year he would make CROSSFIRE for Edward Dmytryk, opposite Robert Mitchum, and the following year he would star in the underrated Fred Zinnemann masterpiece ACT OF VIOLENCE. All three of these noir films cast Ryan as a violent (or potentially violent) ex-serviceman. By 1947, he was practically the onscreen face of what we now know as PTSD.
Of course, 1947 was also the same year the House Committee on Un-American Activities came to town. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organization of Hollywood conservatives led by John Wayne, warned the committee against creeping communist influence in the movie industry. Congressional subpoenas were issued. A group of leftist filmmakers, dubbed the “Hollywood Ten,” refused to hand over names of other suspected communists and were sent to jail. When a group of liberals led by Humphrey Bogart flew to Washington to protest the congressional hearings, they faced a such a skewering in the press that they immediately backed down. A blacklist was instituted. Jack Warner went before the committee and boasted about firing a dozen suspected communist sympathizers at his studios. The other studios rushed to keep up.
For his part, Ryan had always made his political views clear. To coincide with the release of CROSSFIRE, he’d already published articles in The Daily Worker denouncing anti-Semitism, and now that CROSSFIRE’s director (Edward Dmytryk) and producer (Adrian Scott) were serving time for refusing to testify before HUAC, Ryan appeared before the Jewish Labor Council, a group the government considered to have communist affiliations. He gave a speech at a “Keep America Free” rally organized by the Progressive Citizens of America and told the audience, “We protest the threat to personal liberty…represented by this police committee… We demand, in the name of all Americans, that the House Committee on Un-American Activities be abolished, while there still remains the freedom to abolish it.”
J.R. Jones nicely answers a question that has long perplexed astute observers of film noir. Namely, how did an outspoken liberal like Robert Ryan manage to keep from being blacklisted during the worst days of the Red Scare? Over the course of THE LIVES OF ROBERT RYAN, Jones identifies three main factors in saving Ryan’s career. One, he’d served in the military during the war, something that many of his outspoken political opposites (like John Wayne) couldn’t claim. Two, he worked at RKO, which was run by Howard Hughes, and while Hughes was a rabid anticommunist, he was also a man utterly controlled by his own unfathomable whims. Hughes hung onto Robert Mitchum despite his infamous 1948 drug bust and Robert Ryan despite his lefty politics because, well, he liked them. Besides, as Jones also points out, Hughes had so sliced and diced the creative roster at RKO (while keeping a virtual harem of pretty starlets on the payroll) that Mitchum and Ryan were practically the only bankable male stars he had left.
The third factor that saved Ryan’s career is that he was willing to do some practical political maneuvering when the need arose. When Mitchum was serving a brief period in lockup after his marijuana bust, it was Ryan who took the starring role in Hughes’s litmus test project, I MARRIED A COMMUNIST (1949). A “redbaiter” that found Ryan duking it out with a gang of wicked commies, the movie flopped at the box office.
“In later years Ryan could barely bring himself to mention the picture,” Jones tells us, but while Ryan hated doing Hughes’s hammy propaganda piece, it helped save his job, and over the course of the late 1940s he managed to star in many of his best films. For director Fred Zinnemann he played a vengeful ex-serviceman stalking a fellow soldier in 1948’s ACT OF VIOLENCE (a film which remains one of the greatest noirs that most people have never seen). For Max Ophüls, he played an insane misogynist millionaire (in the image of you know who) in the excellent 1949 noir CAUGHT.
And for Robert Wise, he made his greatest film, THE SET-UP (1949). Ryan stars as Stoker Thompson, a past-his-prime boxer heading into a bout with an up and coming fighter. The fight has been fixed, but Stoker’s managers don’t tell him because they figure he can’t win anyway. Brilliantly staged and shot, featuring the best fight sequence in classic film, THE SET-UP belongs in the upper echelon of noir films, and at its center, believable and human and tragic, is Robert Ryan giving the performance of his career.
He would give other terrific performances — an obsessive cop in ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951); a psycho in BEWARE MY LOVELY (1952); a millionaire double-crossed by his evil wife in INFERNO (1953) — but Jones reveals that Ryan’s focus in the early 1950s turned more and more to the school that he had founded with Jessica. They launched the Oakwood School in 1951 as an integrated progressive grade school, and Jones quotes Jessica as saying that they made up their minds “to call a spade a spade —meaning calling progressive progressive, even though the word had lately become suspect.” Jessica would be the driving force of the school, serving as president of the board and helping to write the curriculum. The Ryans sank their money and passion into the school (which is still operating today), and they considered its success their greatest professional accomplishment.
Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, Ryan stayed politically active. He gave speeches for the ACLU, the NAACP, and the United World Federalists. He co-founded the Hollywood chapter of the National Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy. In 1959, he co-starred in ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW, which starred and was produced by Harry Belafonte. It was one of Ryan’s finest films (and his last classic noir), and he and Belafonte would become lifelong friends. Through Belafonte, he would meet and become a supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King.
In the late 1960s, Ryan had achieved the status of elder statesman in Hollywood but he didn’t rest on his laurels. He stayed relevant in films like THE PROFESSIONALS (1966), THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), and THE WILD BUNCH (1969). In the early 1970s, filmmakers started tapping into his classic noir persona, and he starred in neo-noirs like René Clment’s David Goodis adaptation AND HOPE TO DIE (1972) and John Flynn’s Richard Stark adaptation THE OUTFIT (1973). Appearing on Broadway, he was a mentor to up-and-coming actors such as Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges, and his final triumph was on the stage, in a heralded production of THE ICEMAN COMETH (1973).
Jessica was diagnosed with cancer in 1972 and died only ten days later. Ryan was devastated, but he tried to carry on. He threw himself into working (and drinking), but he would die just a little over a year later, in July of 1973. Following his death, Pete Hamill would write a striking tribute to Ryan, calling him “a good man in a bad time.” By the time J.R. Jones closes out his masterful biography of the actor, the reader can only agree.
Note: This piece originally appeared at THE LIFE SENTENCE