One of the greatest
Robert Ryan was one the very best Western actors.
He appeared in eighteen features, between 1940 and 1971, and eight episodes of TV shows.
He led the cast, topping the billing in five features in the genre: Best of the Badmen in 1951, Horizons West in ’52, The Proud Ones, ’56, Day of the Outlaw (1959) and The Canadians (1961). But he was probably better known in the genre as the villain. One thinks in particular of his Sundance Kid fighting Randolph Scott in Return of the Badmen (1948), his combat against James Stewart in The Naked Spur (1953), his leading the town against Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and his Ike Clanton against James Garner’s Wyatt Earp in Hour of the Gun (1967). In fact, though, even when leading he was either a downright bad guy (Horizons West) or good guy with tough-guy tendencies (Day of the Outlaw). He was just so good at menace.
All his movie Westerns except the spaghetti he did in 1968 (his part was little more than a cameo anyway) have been reviewed on this blog, and you can read more about each film there by clicking the links in the list at the bottom of this post. We’ve also looked at the two Wagon Train episodes he did. Here, today, I’ll just say a little about each role, with some comments on his acting ability.
Ryan was born in Chicago in 1909, was raised a Catholic, was educated at Dartmouth, where he held the heavyweight boxing title for all four years of his attendance, and did a series of jobs, among others as a stoker on a ship that traveled to Africa, a WPA worker and a ranch hand in Montana, before taking up acting in 1937.
In November 1939 Ryan signed for Paramount. His first role was in a boxing picture. Before Paramount dropped him, he had two (very) small roles in Paramount Westerns: he was a Mountie constable in North West Mounted Police and he was ‘Eddie – Citizen in Car (uncredited)’ – with a natty pencil mustache – in Texas Rangers Ride Again. You can watch both films and easily miss him. Well, it was a Western start.
After a spell on Broadway, Ryan moved to RKO. He played a friend of Fred Astaire in The Sky’s the Limit in 1943 and he was promoted to star status in Tender Comrade the same year where he was Ginger Rogers’s leading man, a picture directed by Edward Dmytryk – it was quite a hit.
For most of 1944 and ’45 Ryan served in the Marines (where he befriended Richard Brooks and also took up painting) so he didn’t get to appear in an RKO Western till 1947. In that year he got second billing to star (and co-producer) Randolph Scott in Trail Street, directed by reliable Ray Enright. It was Ryan’s first ‘proper’ Western role. It wasn’t a stunning performance, partly because he plays a goodie. He is Allen Harper, capitalist with a heart of gold who is generously aiding Kansas farmers – for this is a classic ‘honest homesteaders vs. greedy big ranchers’ plot. Ryan, rather than Scott, got to hover between the two girls (good girl Madge Meredith and saloon gal Anne Jeffreys). The dilemma is resolved when Anne gets a bullet in the back from the baddy in the last reel, which seems a bit harsh, but 40s Hollywood morals couldn’t allow a common saloon girl to win the hero’s hand, so Ryan won the fair Madge (who, however, was sentenced later that same year to five years for complicity in an assault on her manager.
Ryan’s big breakthrough came in 1947 when he was cast as an anti-semitic killer in another RKO Dmytryk picture, the film noir Crossfire, based on a 1945 novel by Brooks. The movie was highly successful at the box office, and also received several Academy Award nominations including Best Supporting Actor for Ryan.
But it wasn’t a Western. That came the following year when he was back with Randolph Scott (and Anne Jeffreys and Ray Enright) in Return of the Bad Men. And for the first time Robert Ryan really shone in an oater. It was a splendid whoop-de-woo Western with a blazing final shoot-out in a ghost town. It was one of those pictures that assembled as many outlaws as you cram in and joining Bill Doolin, the Dalton brothers, three of the Younger gang and Billy the Kid was Ryan as the Sundance Kid. He stole the show, even from Scott. His Sundance manages to murder an old unarmed Indian, strangle a blonde heroine and shoot a stranded accomplice in the back, among other assassinations, all in half an hour. He outshone the rather B-Western screenplay to the point where you wonder what he is doing there. Brilliant. Robert Ryan had found his true métier: Western bad guy par excellence.
His next Western wasn’t quite so scintillating. It was another bad men tale and Best of the Badmen (1951) featured, with top-billed Ryan, Robert Preston, Walter Brennan, Bruce Cabot, John Archer, Lawrence Tierney and Robert J Wilke – so the title was right. It was directed by unscintillating William D Russell and had rather too much plot, and furthermore Ryan was back to being tough but decent good guy.
Things got better the following year when he led the cast in Universal’s Budd Boetticher-directed Western Horizons West. It’s quite rare for the lead star to be an out-and-out villain but Ryan was splendid as the almost megalomaniac Dan Hammond, back on his Texas ranch from the CSA, who wishes to build an empire regardless of the cost to his family and friends or even of human life. The movie was not Boetticher’s finest but Ryan’s sheer power in the role completely dominates the picture – even overshadowing co-stars such as Rock Hudson, Raymond Burr, John McIntire and James Arness.
In the early 50s Ryan left RKO and went to Metro. MGM Westerns were not always very good but Ryan was lucky to land roles in two of the greatest the studio ever made. And once again, he was magnificent in them – as the seriously bad guy.
The series of Westerns Anthony Mann made with James Stewart were superb. Viewers will have the favorites but The Naked Spur will often be thought of as the best of them. Certainly it will be hard to think of one with a better bad guy. The Mannish rugged terrain, with William Mellor cinematography, the driven, almost manic Stewart, the sense of menace and tension and the fine writing (Oscar-nominated) all combine to make this a superb picture but Ryan was particularly fine as the clever, malevolent, manipulative Vandergroat. It may be Ryan’s finest Western – and that’s saying a lot.
Some may not consider Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) a Western because of its 20th-century setting. It is one to me. It was certainly one of John Sturges’s best works and the small ensemble cast in a small town, yet in a ‘big’ picture was brilliantly handled. Spencer Tracy didn’t really ‘do’ Westerns but is very powerful here. Yet somehow Ryan, as leader of the sinister townsmen (they’re nearly all men) is outstanding. As Brian Garfield said of the picture, “Unflaggingly gripping, it’s a masterpiece of suspenseful entertainment” and he added, “Robert Ryan is, as usual, magnificent.”
Later the same year Ryan appeared in a Fox Western but though The Tall Men was directed by Raoul Walsh and should have been a lively, fast-moving affair, The Tall Men was a plodding, slow-paced picture, with stars Clark Gable and Jane Russell jawing seemingly endlessly in a winter cabin and the whole thing bogging down in boredom. Third-billed Ryan was wasted in a relatively minor part, and though he was certainly the best actor on the set, it was far from a glorious highlight of his Western career.
Fox put out another Western the year after, directed by less stellar Robert Webb but a lot better than The Tall Men, partly because Ryan had the lead. It was The Proud Ones. It was a big production, in CinemaScope and Color De Luxe, photographed by Lucien Ballard, and shot on Fox’s attractive Western town lot and in some fine Arizona locations. It’s a a classic tough-marshal-cleans-up-the-town Western, set in Keystone (read Tombstone). The film suffered a little from the casting because it sets up a conflict between the marshal (Ryan) and his quick-on-the-draw deputy, whose father the lawman had killed. Will the deputy draw on the tough marshal? But Jeffrey Hunter played the conflicted deputy and he wasn’t quite up to the task. You can see him thinking ‘I must act conflicted’, but that’s just it: he’s obviously acting, while Ryan just looks and sounds completely right in his part. Anyway, it was another splendid performance from Ryan.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to choose Ryan’s best performance in a Western. But when you watch his 1959 picture Day of the Outlaw, it’s hard not to say this was the top. Directed by André De Toth (probably his best Western) and co-starring a magnificent Burl Ives, it was a Wyoming winter story about a small town invaded by an outlaw gang (led by Ives).
Ryan plays obstinate and steely rancher Starrett, utterly determined that he and his town will survive. Technically he is the ‘good guy’ but he is as hard as nails. It’s a stunning performance. Wonderfully well shot by the great Russell Harlan (of Red River fame) in a glowing black & white, this picture simply seethes with menace and tension and is as brilliantly acted as it is photographed, directed and written.
Ryan did some TV. He debuted on the small screen as Abraham Lincoln in Screen Director’s Playhouse. He did four different episodes of Zane Grey Theatre, two of Wagon Train and two of Frontier Justice, and very good he was too, once again completely dominating the rest of the casts. But he never went for a fixed place on a series, as so many of his fellow-actors did at the time. He said, “The only money in TV is in the series, and I want to stay out of those. Sure, I might make a million or so in a series, but I’d wind up being ‘Sidewinder Sam’ for the rest of my life.”
His next big-screen Western, though, was pretty well a flop. Written and directed by Burt Kennedy (who made a much better writer than he did director), The Canadians (1961), again for Fox, was one of those Mountie-always-gets-his-man Canadian ‘Westerns’ but it was ponderous, slow and unconvincing. For the first time Ryan looked bored and seemed to be just going through the motions. It rivals Custer of the West (see below) as the least of Ryan’s Westerns (well, apart from the spaghetti).
Columbia’s The Professionals in 1966 was co-written and this time produced and directed too by Ryan’s friend Richard Brooks. I think it was the best Western of (an admittedly non-stellar) year. Ryan took a relatively minor part as the horse expert in a team of mercenaries including Woody Strode, led by Lee Marvin but rather upstaged by Burt Lancaster, as they journey into Mexico to rescue Claudia Cardinale from Mexican bandit Jack Palance. It wasn’t the greatest film and Ryan’s part was quite low-key, but it was far from bad.
John Sturges went back to Tombstone in 1967, this time casting James Garner as Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday in a post-OK Corral tale Hour of the Gun. It was one of those films that mendaciously claims at the start to be historically accurate and ‘the way it really happened’ and then proceeds to recount a load of complete baloney. Still, if you take it for a Western movie and not a documentary, you will enjoy it. It tells of how Wyatt and Doc go after Ike Clanton and go south of the border to Nogales to get him. Nonsense, of course, and Ryan’s Clanton isn’t the least bit like the real one, but still Ryan is pretty darn good as the tough rancher with low-slung gunbelt ready to draw on the famed lawman and his consumptive sidekick. Even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
Early the following year Ryan appeared, as a favor, in another dud, the tedious Custer of the West, directed by Robert Siodmak and starring an overacting Robert Shaw as Custer. Ryan has an odd part in an overlong episode of the film as the deserter Mulligan which is totally extraneous to the plot and furthermore is poorly written with meandering, pointless dialogue (Bernard Gordon and Julian Zimet).
Well, no Western actor, not even the greatest of them, made exclusively great pictures. They were all sooner or later (even Gary Cooper) in a turkey.
So many Western stars went to Spain to appear in an Italian western in the late 60s and Ryan didn’t resist the siren call either. He only did one, with Alex Cord and Arthur Kennedy, Un minuto per pregare, un istante per morire, released in the US in May 1968 as A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die, aka The Prodigal Gun. Complete junk of course, and not worth watching even for Ryan, who played ‘New Mexico Gov. Lem Carter’.
Let us move rapidly on.
Robert Ryan more than made up for this lapse when he took the role of Deke Thornton in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. By now he was pushing sixty but this was one of the films where age helped. All the characters were dinosaurs, out of time in the new world, and Ryan’s Thornton magnificently complemented the grizzled gunmen William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Ben Johnson. It was inspired casting. IMDb says that “Robert Ryan’s incessant complaints about not receiving top billing so annoyed director Sam Peckinpah that he decided to “punish” Ryan. In the opening credits, after freezing the screen on closeups of William Holden and Ernest Borgnine’s faces while listing them, Peckinpah froze the scene on several horses’ rear ends as Ryan was listed.” But I’m not sure I believe that. More credible was this story:
“William Holden threatened to walk off the set if Peckinpah continued to verbally abuse the crew in his presence. Robert Ryan threatened to punch the director after he made Ryan spend ten days in costume and makeup without filming any scenes or allowing him a few days off to campaign for Sen. Robert Kennedy. Ernest Borgnine also promised to ‘beat the shit out of Peckinpah if the director didn’t allow him some relief from the throat-clogging dust that was affecting the actor’s breathing on location.”
At any rate it was a wonderful Western, in which it is hard to single out one of the players. Ryan was as good as the others, and that was very good indeed.
Well, we’re nearly at the end of the trail. It would have been more fitting if Ryan had made The Wild Bunch his last Western but unfortunately he agreed in 1971 to do one last one, Lawman, directed and written by a pair of Englishmen, Michael Winner and Gerald Wilson, who clearly understood little of the noble genre. They made a picture that was frankly trashy, this despite the fine cast. Burt Lancaster was cast as the steely lawman of the title determined to arrest the ne’er-do-well son of powerful rancher Lee J Cobb (overacting, as he could). Ryan plays the washed-up local marshal. He is the only one who manages to overcome the dismal script and he shines. The others, even Lancaster and Cobb, just can’t do anything with such dire words. It all looks cheap and 70s tawdry. The ending is utterly implausible, even by 1970s Western standards. It was a really bad film, yet Ryan managed to emerge from it with some credit.
Even before the shooting of Lawman, Ryan had discovered he had inoperable cancer of the lymph glands (he was a heavy smoker). He decided to keep working, and said, “I’ve had a good shot at life.”
Robert Ryan died in July 1973.
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