Tag Archives: Robert Ryan

Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, USA, 1959)

odds poster (1)

A heist film where the heist itself is secondary to the exploration of racism, of which there is no greater indictment in 1950s American Cinema than this great Robert Wise film, Odds Against Tomorrow. According to Phillip French in The Guardian, ‘This was the favourite film of Jean-Pierre Melville, who saw it 120 times before directing his noir masterwork Le deuxième souffle’.

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‘You little pickanninny’

 

The film’s noirishness comes not only from depicting lives being lived underground, mainly at night, in jazz bars and seedy hotels; where the edges of criminality are crossed and re-crossed, in a black and white often filmed in infra-red stock so that the skies themselves seem black, but also by making race the film’s over-arching theme: from the moment an ex-con affectionately picks up a young girl playing on the sidewalk and says, ‘you little pickanniny, you gonna kills yourself playing like that, yes you are!’, the first line spoken in the film,  to the last one, where two policemen look at the charred bodies of the two failed bank-robbers played by Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte and say, ‘which is which, take your pick’.

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Every noir trope in the book

In the grand scheme of things the colour of one’s skin might not matter, but in the day to day it can push you out, kick you over and burn you up to the point of extinction. Odds Against Tomorrow depicts that trajectory in a noir style, using practically every noir trope in the book, making the most of the black and white photography it deploys and experiments with, and making black and white the very subject of the film.

 

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A film in which even a child’s playground is rendered a world of shadows and violence

The plot revolves around a heist organised by Burke (Ed Begley), a disgraced cop who feels he’s got a sure thing pulling a bank robbery in a small town in upstate New York with a big enough pay-off to dig him out of the hole he finds himself in: ‘They sure changed the colour of your skin when they rehabilitated you at Sing Sing’; ’50 grand can change it back!’

To get the job done, he brings in Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) for muscle and Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) to drive the getaway car and also to impersonate the diner delivery boy who is the key to opening the back door of the bank. Both initially refuse but are then driven to accept: Earl due to the self-hatred incurred by living off his girlfriend’s money; and Jonny by the mob’s setting of a deadline on which to pay his gambling debts or risk violence to his ex-wife and child, something to heed as this is a film in which even a child’s playground is rendered a world of shadows and violence (see above). The trio, tenuously held together by greed at the beginning, is fatally fractured by Earl’s racism: ‘You didn’t say nothing about the third man being a nigger!’. This is a film in which racism infects and destroys everything, even a bank heist.

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Central Park

Has New York ever seemed so bleak, lonely, alienating?  Has Central Park ever been so empty? Wise and cinematographer Joseph C. Brun show an external world of skyscrapers, with puddles full of junk, and the junk that doesn’t end in puddles windswept past our protagonists, often pictured alone in empty streets, framed against black skies and looming skyscrapers.

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Empty Streets

Indoors, people tend to be filmed from a low angle looking up at characters cramped in by life’s burdens and low ceilings (see below), and in wide-angles that distort the edges of this world whilst highlighting the spaces between people.

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cramped in by life’s burdens and low ceilings

There are a lot of zooms also, deployed here not only to show us what the characters see but to emphasise the great distance between people, barely within sight and far away but connected, coming into view from great distance.  Even upstate New York’s normally majestic countryside is here used to isolate the characters, and when we get a closer look we see that here too people’s lives are framed by flotsam, jetsam, barbed wire, shadows (see below).Screen Shot 2017-12-21 at 13.43.03

In what must be one of the earliest instances in the history of Hollywood Cinema of a black star packaging their own films, Harry Belafonte produced and gave himself a great, multi-layered and spectacular role. His Johnny is a man of great talent and beauty, catnip to women but angered by the knowledge that, as he sings in the last line of the clip below, ‘I just can’t make that jungle outside my front door.’

Johnny refuses the assimilationist tendencies pursued by the ex-wife he still loves, angered by what he sees as her bringing up their child believing in another white man’s con. He’s torn by a love of a fast life he can’t afford — his white sports car, the clothes, the clubs, the horses — and his attempts to at least be a good father. In this tension he’ll be brought so low that even a punk faggot messenger boy on the edges of the mob will feel he’s got enough power over him to make a pass. The clip of that moment excerpted below — a rare moment of gay visibility in in one of the few genres that would accommodate it — encapsulates  a contest of power and conflict by two types of subalternity in which power, desire and anger commingle, and is one of the many great moments in the film.

 

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Robert Ryan as Earl: At ease with his body and confident in what he’s got to offer Gloria Grahame’s character

The extent to which men’s bodies are put on display — and the various ways in which that display is made meaningful — is extraordinary. One would expect Harry Belafonte’s looks to be made much of. How could a film starring one of the handsomest men of the 1950s avoid that? However, see also Robert Ryan’s Earl Slater in the two clips with Gloria Grahame excerpted below. Earl’s an aging con, out of prison and unable to find a job because of that. He’s being kept by his girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters) who’s crazy in love with him. He knows it too, and there’s a suggestion that he’s not without feelings for her. But as he says, ‘I spoil everything I can’t help it. I just have to spoil everything’. He spoils it with her when he so much as tells her that what she likes about him is the fucking she gets but what will happen when he gets old? ‘You’re already old!’ she says as she flees the room crying. After that he feels free to get it on with the upstairs neighbour he’d turned down earlier, the glorious Gloria Grahame, who makes the most of her two short scenes here (see clip below).

First meeting with Gloria 

Earl’s  a man whose only power has been that which his big and powerful body has afforded him…and he’s ageing. He’s worried about getting old but know he’s still got enough power to beat the young soldier at the bar (a young and skilled Wayne Rogers in one of his early roles, over a decade before M*A*S*H made him famous). In the clip above, see how the camera shows him taking his shirt off, first for us and then so that Gloria Grahame can make her usual memorably sexual entrance and say, ‘what’s going on in there, an orgy?’ And you get the sense that, if there was, she’d like to join in; and if there wasn’t, she’d like to start one with him.

In the second clip excerpted below note how this time Earl is receptive, sweet-talks her into coming into the apartment and then note the way he sits on the chair, showing her the body he’s got to offer, and his confidence in what that body can do to and with her. It’s a scene full of sexual tension and danger that emanate from a male body on display, a male body powerful enough to have killed a man.

Second Meeting with Gloria

One of the things that makes this film so great is that it is patterned and cohesive but also that the expressive rendering of those elements that clearly contribute to the whole leave room for the ineffable. The scene below is about the emotional strain Johnny’s under. As Annie (Mae Barnes) tells us at the end of the sequence, ‘that boy is in big trouble’. But the reason he’s in big trouble is not just that he owes money he doesn’t have to the mob, it’s that loving his child and ex-wife as he does makes him vulnerable. ‘Don’t Ever Love Nobody,’ he screams at the crowd. Thus the song, ‘All Men Are Evil’ points to the way that Johnny is and is not. It dramatises the ambivalence, the way human beings are complex, multifaceted, with feelings and impulses that are often contradictory. But joy in the ineffable offered by the clip below is to me simpler and more complex than that. It’s the movement in Mae Barnes chest and shoulders as she moves to the music before beginning to sing her song. What does that convey: confidence, sass, ease, defiance. I’m not sure why I love it so.

There are many other things one can discuss about this film: It was written by Abraham Polonsky,  my favourite writer of hard-boiled dialogue in the Studio Era (e.g. ‘life is just addition and substraction — everything else is conversation’, from Body and Soul). Polonsky was blacklisted in those years and had to use a front. The film was credited to John O Killens before Ponlonsky’s credit was restored in 1996.

In a very interesting piece for Sight and Sound, filmmaker Paul Ticknell also discusses the film’s relation to the heist film. ‘Odds Against Tomorrow is best described as a noir-ish heist movie,’ he writes. ‘The heist movie often concerns itself with process – a minute but exciting examination of some spectacular robbery or kidnap. It also likes to linger over the fallout when the job goes wrong. But Odds Against Tomorrowshows little interest in the planning and mechanics of its heist – a bank robbery in a small industrial town outside New York. What really distinguishes the film is its concentration on what goes wrong beforehand – so much so that the robbery only occurs at the very end of the film’.

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Gloria eyes Robert Ryan

The film also features the most extraordinary use of the vibraphone I’ve ever seen in film and the jazz score for the film continues to be highly praised. The film was screened as part of a restrospective featuring great jazz scores at MOMA in New York and J.B. Spins’s review noted:

Effectively supporting the film is a moody, dramatic score composed by pianist John Lewis, best known for his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet and his Third Stream jazz-classical innovations. There were actually two official Odds Against Tomorrow LPs, both involving John Lewis. The first was the actual soundtrack of Lewis’s jazz-flavored orchestral themes and cues. It was recorded by a large ensemble, including Jim Hall, Joe Wilder, and Lewis’s three colleagues from the MJQ (Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Connie Kay), with Bill Evans filling the piano chair.

The MJQ with Lewis on piano also recorded a full jazz album in which they stretch out and elaborate on some of his Odds themes. The soundtrack album is pleasant enough, but the MJQ record is an underappreciated classic, at times much more upbeat than its original source material (let’s hope for another reissue in the near future). Not appearing on either record is a brief vocal performance by Mae Barnes appropriately singing “All Men are Evil.”

It’s aspirations are evident in what it borrows from, and we can see how the ending is an homage to/ borrowing from Cagney’s great last gasp in the marvellous White Heat (see below). But there it was all ‘Top of the world, Ma’; here it’s race can’t be discerned from charred corpses, inside we’re all the same.

Odds Against Tomorrow is a great work that, in spite of all the praise heaped on it recently, remains relatively neglected and deserves to be more and better seen.

 

José Arroyo

The Lives of Robert Ryan by J.R. Jones

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Robert Ryan had small sad eyes inset on a chiselled face atop a long lean frame. The body seemed a promise of America: large, agile, powerful – he often played cowboys (The Naked Spur, The Wild Bunch) and looked the part – but his eyes often contradicted his physique. There we often saw fear, hatred, suspicion, racism, cowardice, defeat, loneliness, want, despair. Ryan’s face is also one of the most memorable of post-war American film noir (Crossfire, Act of Violence, The Racket, Odds Against Tomorrow). It’s like his eyes were the beatniks to the Eisenhower America that was his body, one a critique of the other; a self ill at ease, in tension – often in contradiction with itself and certainly the ‘other’: Crossfire, Bad Day at Black Rock, Odds Against Tomorrow.

Ryan’s career trod that fine line between being one of the most famous actors in America but not quite being a star — the kind of ‘name’ that often headlined low budget movies (Best of the Badmen, 1951) but was relegated to support in the big pictures — between playing villains and tough-guys, which, as embodied by him, became almost indistinguishable. In his heyday, when he was billed above the title in a big-budget movie, he often played the bad guy (Bad Day at Black Rock, 1955). In his fine new biography of the actor, The Lives of Robert Ryan,  J.R. Jones writes, ‘’Long after Ryan had grown frustrated with his sinister screen persona, he continued to play men twisted by hatred or bigotry if they promised great drama that would change minds’.

He had the good fortune to work with directors we continue to be interested in: Jean Renoir (The Woman on the Beach, 1947), Joseph Losey (The Boy With Green Hair, 1948), Jacques Tourneur (Berlin Express, 1948) Max Ophuls (Caught, 1949), Nicholas Ray (Born to be Bad, 1950; Flying Leathernecks, 1951: On Dangerous Ground, 1951), Fritz Lang (Clash by Night, 1952), Bud Boetticher (Horizon West, 1952), Anthony Mann (The Naked Spur, 1953), Sam Fuller (The House of Bamboo, 1955) and many others..

act-of-violence-ryan

It was also luck that landed him at RKO at a time when the studio was in dire need of leading men due to the war; and at a time when — partly due to resources, partly to post-war malaise – RKO began to specialise in the kind of lower-budget mood films, ones where shadows articulated the distress and longings of a generation of men themselves struggling with –processing — a knowledge — sometimes a personal experience of — transgression, of the quasi- criminal, that men who’d lived through the war so often didn’t want to speak about; that’s what Ryan’s small, deep-set eyes, so full of sorrow and tenderness, so quickly prone to anger and violence, could so beautifully express. Jones’ book charts the extent to which ‘he invested the genre with a string of neurotic and troubling portrayals that still reverberate through popular culture’.

I learned a lot from reading J.R. Jones The Lives of Robert Ryan (Wesleyan University Press, 2015). The book is very good at delineating Ryan’s childhood. Ryan came from a well-to-do family, one well-established in the city’s Democratic machine, oiling it appropriately and getting well-greased in return by benefitting from the patronage the party, when in office, could offer. Ryan’s family ran a construction company, The Ryan Company, one that in the late twenties was worth $4 million. Whilst his background in sport in general and boxing in particular was heavily publicised by his home studio, there were other aspects that were seen as being less useful to his persona: his class background, his degree at Ivy-League Dartmouth, the fact that Nelson Rockefeller was a fraternity brother at Psi Upsilon.

the naked spur

I was intrigued to read that Ryan had got a relatively late start as an actor, 28, and that he’d studied with Max Reinhardt. Ryan delighted in the acrobatics of Douglas Fairbanks and adored comediennes like Fanny Brice and showmen like George M. Cohen. But in terms of acting, the book highlights his admiration for Spencer Tracy (‘one of the great masters,’ loc 2937, Kindle), Henry Fonda (with whom he founded the Plumstead Playhouse, a regional theatre company) and Fredric March (‘Ryan’s hero’, loc 5317).

There’s a superb anecdote about the making of The Iceman Cometh (John Frankenheimer, 1973) where Jeff Bridges is cast but not sure he wants to do the film, as he’s then thinking of maybe pursuing a career in music, until Marvin calls him, yells ‘stupid ass!’ and hangs up. One could learn a lot from working with Fredric March, Lee Marvin, and Robert Ryan. ‘As an actor,’ says Bridges of Ryan, ‘he stood alone for me’. Of their scenes together, Jones writes, ‘Bridges is the one who looks nervous, giving the role his all but often giving too much; Ryan, ever the minimalist, pared his performance down to the bare essentials but made every reaction count. Spencer Tracy had upstaged Ryan in much the same fashion nearly twenty years earlier, in Bad Day at Black Rock’.

So much attention has been devoted to The Method that one forgets that there are other traditions of acting in American cinema, ones that come via the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, repertory theatre, television or even, as in Ryan’s case, Reinhardt. One can see a commonality and lineage amongst these groups of actors (Tracy, March, Fonda, Marvin, Ryan, Bridges) and that these traditions are also ones that deserve closer scrutiny.

Ryan was part of a rare handful of film stars – Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Fredric March, Charlton Heston –that was truly passionate about acting and that kept trying to learn and expand their range by returning to the stage, often in classic roles. Ryan played Coriolanus on Broadway and was Anthony to Katharine Hepburn’s Cleopatra in rep; he did several Eugene O’Neill classics (Long Days Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh) and other more homegrown staples of the theatrical repertoire (Born Yesterday, The Time of Your Life, The Front Page, Our Town etc.). He even inaugurated a Berlin musical on Broadway in 1962 playing the title role, Mr. President.

Ryan was a lifelong liberal and, as a child of the Democratic machine in Chicago, he knew the power that comes from mucking in and getting involved in politics. J. R. Jones notes his involvement most of the famous liberal candidacies of his day: He supported Helen Gahagan Douglas’ run for an open Senate seat against Richard Nixon’s dirty smear tactics, and would later support Adlai Stevenson and J.F.K ; he got involved in the civil rights struggles through his friendship with Harry Belafonte; he spoke out against the Vietnam War and supported Eugene McCarthy; in fact, he stumped for all the high profile left liberal causes of his day, like so many movie starts did. J.R. Jones interestingly points out, however, that unlike many of his peers, he was a political pragmatist. He did not, for example, vote for Henry Wallace. ‘Wallace wanted to give equal rights to women and racial minorities, abolish the Un-American Activities Committee, and dismantle America’s nuclear arsenal, all attractive positions to Ryan.’ But he thought votes for Truman would throw the election to the Republicans and he lived the dogma he’d been raised on: ‘Vote the Party, not the Man’.

What is to me more interesting is Ryan’s political involvement at a grass roots level. Jones meticulously delineates the efforts of Ryan and his wife, Jessica Cadwalader, a free-thinker and novelist, with the launching of the Oakwood School, the various negotiations with neighbours, the conflicts with the Board of Governors, the ultimate success in getting the right head teacher. According to Jones, ‘Ryan often told people the school was the most important thing he’d ever done’.

Jones’ The Lives of Robert Ryan is richly researched and very illuminating. Jones got access to an undated twenty-page manuscript Ryan had written on his family and early life for his children. He also got access to manuscripts Ryan’s wife Jessica had left behind on Hollywood and the movie business. He charts Ryan’s career and is even able to give figures for the salary he got for most pictures.

ryan bobby soxerI finished reading the book wishing Jones had delved more deeply into the films themselves. For example, of my own favourite, The Set-Up, Jones tells us that according to his wife, Ryan ‘takes more pride in that movie than any other he ever made’. We’re shown how the film was based on a narrative poem that became a New York Times best-seller in 1928 and that Ryan had first read it in college; how the original protagonist was changed from black to white for the movies; how, like Hitchcock’s Rope, the duration of the narrative is the film’s running time, how the film influenced most other boxing films including Scorsese’s Raging Bull; how the film made Ryan a beefcake favourite with the bobby-soxers, and how after he saw it Cary Grant told Ryan, ‘My name’s Cary Grant. I want you to know that I just saw The Set-Up and I thought your performance was one of the best I’ve ever seen’. Re-reading the section on The Set-up I realised that it’s very good on the film’s production, its style, its reception and conclude that if he’d devoted as much time to each film, the book would be impossibly long.

Jones tells us more than a lot, in a carefully annotated style that provides evidence for what he says. It is to his credit and that of Robert Ryan’s enduring fascination that we want to know more.

 

José Arroyo