4:09 pm Aug. 12, 2011
Like many of today's action stars, the post–World War II actor Robert Ryan was defined by his physique. His sunken, beady eyes, pronounced brow and heavy bags under his eyes gave him a simian appearance. That animalistic quality is the cornerstone of Ryan’s aggressive persona. Like Humphrey Bogart, Ryan looks like a refined savage, one whose tendency to explode manifested itself in cutting one-liners, pensive squints or plain physical violence.
Film Forum’s comprehensive retrospective of Ryan’s films highlights many of his most memorably volatile performances. From Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Ryan played the leering but not-unrefined brute with such panache that he steals almost every scene he’s in, regardless of who he’s playing against.
Of all the films in Ryan's extensive career, Odds Against Tomorrow most clearly shows the ethos that defined Ryan’s onscreen persona. Ryan plays Earle Slater, a down-on-his-luck war veteran and ex-convict from the South who is now living in New York City. Earle is approached by Dave Burke (Ed Begley Sr.), a fellow ex-con, to pull off a bank heist. The only hitch is that Dave has also enlisted the help of Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte), a young African-American musician, gambler and father who needs money to support his family and pay off his bookies. Earle doesn’t like the idea of working with a black guy but he’s willing to do it if it makes him money. (“It’s just one roll of the dice. Doesn’t matter what color they are as long so’s they come up seven.”) But that doesn’t mean that he trusts Johnny.
Earle's bigotry only partially explains why he dislikes Johnny. It’s also because of the fear of obsolescence that drives so many of Ryan’s best characters. Earle’s girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters) asks him why he needs to make money by robbing a bank. She doesn’t see just how humiliated Earle is at the thought of being replaced by younger men, like the soldiers he meets in his favorite bar one night. When one of these two younger men accidentally jostles him, Earle refuses to let the boastful soldier make it up to him by paying for his drink. When one of them goes so far as to call him an “old veteran,” his ears perk up and he offers to show the offending young’n what a real punch feels like. The villainous, self-righteous look on Ryan’s face as he prepares to deck the kid is astonishing. He savors the line, “Any pah-tic-ulah hand,” before knocking the kid’s lights out.
In Odds Against Tomorrow, the recurring fears of being left behind that Ryan often grappled with onscreen have been realized. Compare Odds with Caught, a 1949 film noir centered on Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes), a middle-class woman who dreams of becoming a millionaire’s trophy wife. That dream comes true after Leonora marries Ryan’s Smith Ohlrig, a rich man who, as his analyst claims, needs to crush whomever he can’t control. Smith only marries Leonora to prove his analyst wrong. He doesn't even love her. After Leonora learns that married life is not what she wants it to be, she becomes embittered, giving Smith even more reasons to lash out at her. He expects her to laugh at all of his jokes and only pay attention to him. When she doesn’t, Smith panics. And then he taunts her, which she understandably doesn’t respond to very well. Once Smith sees that he can’t control Leonora, he breaks down and has a heart attack.
Knowing that he has everything but Leonora is too much for Smith, just as it’s too much for Earle to know that men like Johnny are going to replace him sooner rather than later in Odds Against Tomorrow. The film's director Robert Wise does a fantastic job of highlighting that resentment with a close-up of the feral look of dejection on Ryan's face as he watches an animated Belafonte explain his plan to rob the bank. The look echoes Earle’s desperate declaration of, “They’re not going to junk me like an old car,” from earlier in the film.
Earle’s insecurities often come out in the cruelest ways when he’s dealing with women. This is because, as in Caught, Ryan’s men expect a level of generosity from women that they're rarely capable of in the first place. In Odds Against Tomorrow, Earle tells Lorry that he needs to be able to make money his own way. He refuses to baby-sit for Helen (Gloria Grahame), their next-door neighbor, even slamming the door in her face. Later, he seduces Helen, gruffly pulling her shirt open to expose her brassiere. This is after Lorry rebuffs Earle and tells him that in spite of what he may want to think, time has already run out for him.
As Earle shows, Ryan’s characters often take their aggression out on women because it’s easy. His protagonists in movies like Caught, Born to Be Bad, Clash By Night and Beware, My Lovely all lash out in desperation at targets they think they can destroy. Lorry asks Earle, “Aren’t things ever easy for you?” and he replies, “Only when I get mad. Then they get too easy. I think that’s why I get mad, to make it easy.”
This is why it’s so important to see Ryan get dumped, like he does in Caught and Odds Against Tomorrow. His misplaced aggression winds up hurting him more often than it helps him. But that self-destructive tendency is also what makes his characters so pathetically relatable. Dave spells out why Ryan made such a good monster early on in Odds, when he tells Earle why he wants to work with him: “I want a man who needs the money to set himself up. I want a man with guts. I want a serious guy in trouble and that’s you and that’s me and that’s the both of us.”
Ryan was a great leading man, and his best characters all suffer from the burden of being more macho than the next guy.