"Robert Ryan is one of the enduring faces of film noir. His string of portrayals, seething and intense, of clenched fists and violence barely restrained, was the perfect complement to the psychologically complex criminals that populated the noir landscape. Ryan’s private face, however, was very different. Behind the scenes, he was considered a reliable, professional actor, but outside of work, he was known as much for his social activism.
Ryan got his start in film in 1940, and started to receive bigger breaks when Pat O’Brien took him under his wing during the filming of Bombardier. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in January of 1944 and served till the end of the war as a drill instructor. He returned to RKO and was assigned to pivotal, if not starring, roles almost immediately.
His first noir role came in the 1947 film The Woman on the Beach, where he played the “other man” to noir veteran Joan Bennett. He received an Academy Award nomination for his next role, as the bigoted veteran in Crossfire. This was also the role that most directors remembered in the future, and Ryan received offers for many similar roles through the years.
He made two more films noirs in 1948, Jacque Tourneur’s Berlin Express and Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence. In the latter, Ryan is chilling as the limping, sweating veteran bent on revenge and menacing Van Heflin and his wife, Janet Leigh. 1949 saw the release of three more noir films featuring Ryan. In Caught, Ryan plays a thinly-veiled Howard Hughes, who was running RKO at the time. In the film, Ryan’s character is fanatically possessive of his younger wife, who runs off to be with James Mason. Ryan’s next film was The Set-Up, which not only gave the 40-year-old the juicy role of an aging athlete, but also took advantage of his boxing training. The Woman on Pier 13 (originally shot as I Married a Communist) was a jumble of numerous writers, at least three directors, and Howard Hughes’s McCarthyist politics. Ryan plays a man blackmailed into criminal activity by a communist operative working in America.
Ryan plays it straighter in 1950’s Born to Be Bad, as a writer seduced past his own misgivings by Joan Fontaine. (This film was recently restored by the George Eastman House). Ryan returned to gangsterism in 1951 with The Racket, which re-teamed him with Robert Mitchum. He finished up the year working again with his Born to Be Bad director Nicholas Ray in On Dangerous Ground. Ray takes his noir to the country, following on-the-edge cop Ryan, who has been re-assigned a rural, snowy posting to escape his job-related violence.
Ryan played a cynical film projectionist opposite a world-weary Barbara Stanwyck in Fritz Lang’s version of the Clifford Odets play Clash by Night in 1952. The same year Ryan played a murderous amnesiac handyman fixing up Ida Lupino’s house in Beware, My Lovely. Ryan rounded out his noir oeuvre in Sam Fuller’s Japan-based remake of The Street with No Name, House of Bamboo (1955) and in Robert Wise’s racism-based bank robber drama Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).
After this, Ryan’s film career never reached the heights of popularity it once had, and he appeared in several cameos throughout the last 15 years of his life, including films such as King of Kings (1961), The Longest Day (1962), Billy Budd (1962), The Battle of the Bulge (1965), and Anzio (1968). It was at this time that he found great satisfaction on the stage, earning rave reviews in shows as varied as Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and Our Town. His reputation and his grizzled appearance earned him roles in the landmark Westerns The Professionals (1966) and The Wild Bunch (1969). He saved perhaps his best screen performance for his last, as Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh (1973), released four months after his death.
Ryan’s legacy lives on in his screen work, as well as many of his socially conscious activities, including his work with the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Friends Service Committee, and the united World Federalists. He also, along with Steve Allen, co-founded The Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy. The independent school he founded with his wife, The Oakwood School, still operates in the San Fernando Valley."