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Tag Archives: Robert Ryan

The Set-Up (March 29, 1949)

The Set-Up
The Set-Up (1949)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

My favorite sports movies are all boxing movies. Body and Soul (1947), The Harder They Fall (1956), Rocky (1976), Rocky II (1979), Raging Bull (1980), When We Were Kings (1996). The list goes on and on.

I love watching boxing, which is one reason I love movies about it, but that’s not the only reason I love boxing movies.

Boxing is an individual sport that lends itself well to film drama. Most of the movies about team sports that I like are comedies — The Longest Yard (1974), Slap Shot (1977), Major League (1989). That’s not to say there aren’t good dramas about team sports. There are plenty, like Hoosiers (1986), Eight Men Out (1988), and Friday Night Lights (2004), but there’s something about one fighter facing another in the ring that makes for a great drama. And the brutality and widespread corruption of the boxing world makes for great film noirs.

The Set-Up is based on Joseph Moncure March’s long, narrative poem of the same name, which was written in 1928. (March’s other enduring work is the narrative poem The Wild Party, also written in 1928, which was republished in 1994 with illustrations by Art Spiegelman.)

March’s The Set-Up is a masterpiece of hard-boiled writing, and especially impressive considering that it’s written in verse.

Pansy had the stuff, but his skin was brown
And he never got a chance at the middleweight crown.

Mean as a panther,
Crafty as a fox,
He could hit like a mule,
And he knew how to box.
A dark-skinned jinx
With eyes like a lynx,
A heart like a lion,
And a face like the Sphinx:
Battered, flat, massive:
Grim,
Always impassive.

The film version is only loosely based on March’s poem. Significantly, it sidesteps the racial angle by casting a white actor, Robert Ryan, in the lead. It also renames its pugilist protagonist “Stoker.”

Robert Ryan

Judged solely on its own merits, however, The Set-Up is a great film. It’s one of the great noirs, as well as one of the best films about boxing ever made. It’s lean and mean — just 72 minutes long — and unfolds more or less in real time.

Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Ryan) is gearing up to face a 23-year-old opponent in the ring. Stoker is 35 years old, which in his business makes him an old man. (John Garfield’s character in Body and Soul was also facing his own mortality as a boxer at the age of 35.)

Stoker’s wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), wants him to retire. His days as a fully functioning human being are numbered if he keeps fighting for measly purses and absorbing massive amounts of punishment in the process.

Stoker tries to reassure her, but his eyes tell their own story a little later in the film as he watches a punchy fighter repeat himself for the dozenth time before leaving the locker room for his fight. Gus, a trainer played by Wallace Ford, shakes his head and says, “I guess you can only stop so many.”

The boxing milieu depicted in The Set-Up is exceptionally sleazy. The arena where Stoker faces his opponent, Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling), advertises “Boxing Wednesdays, Wrestling Fridays,” and is located in Paradise City, a low-rent strip of arcades, dance halls, and chop suey joints.

Worst of all, Stoker’s manager, Tiny (George Tobias), has arranged with local hoods for Stoker to take a dive without telling Stoker about his plan. He’s that certain his man will lose.

Robert Wise’s direction is tight and unpretentious. His cinematographer, Milton R. Krasner, lenses some of the most starkly beautiful black & white images ever captured on film. There’s a scene early in the film where Stoker walks across the street from his rented room toward the arena with his bag in his hand. He moves straight toward the camera, and he looks like the archetype of every lonely hero who has faced a tragic fate without blinking.

Robert Ryan is key to the film’s authenticity. The 6’4″ actor was on the boxing team at Dartmouth College and had a 5-0 win-loss record, with 3 KOs. He continued to box while serving in the Marine Corps.

The Set-Up is a brutal, violent film, but despite its real-time plot that uncoils with ruthless efficiency, there are still quiet and reflective moments, like the sequence in which Audrey Totter walks the streets of Paradise City through a gauntlet of drunks and mashers. She eventually winds up on a bridge over a highway and slowly rips up her ticket to the fight and watches the scraps float down as a streetcar rumbles by.

Robert Wise had a long and interesting career in Hollywood. While The Set-Up will never be a crowd-pleaser like West Side Story (1961) or a family favorite like The Sound of Music (1965), it’s still one of Wise’s best films, and one of the all-time great noirs.

Act of Violence (Dec. 21, 1948)

Act of Violence
Act of Violence (1948)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence opens with a shot of New York City at night. The Chrysler Building is silhouetted against a dark gray sky. Bronislau Kaper’s musical score is ominous and intense. Robert Ryan crosses the street toward the camera. He’s wearing a hat and a trench coat, and his stride is determined despite his limp.

The sound of his limping walk is distinctive. Step, drag, step, drag, step, drag, step, drag. It’s a sound that will haunt the film.

He walks upstairs to a shabby rented room and pulls a semiautomatic pistol from a dresser drawer. He slaps a magazine into the pistol, checks the barrel and the ejection port, and then the title of the film appears onscreen in block letters.

Act of Violence title

Now that’s the way to start a movie. Zinnemann, his cinematographer Robert Surtees, and his editor Conrad A. Nervig build more suspense and engagement in the first minute of Act of Violence than most movies are able to muster in their entire first reel.

It helps that the film drops us right into the action. Most movies in the 1940s began with screen after screen of opening credits; a time-honored cinematic tradition. Act of Violence and Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night are the only films from 1948 I’ve seen that eschewed that hoary convention, and both films immediately arrest the viewer.

After the opening, Ryan’s ominous character Joe Parkson takes a Greyhound bus to California, where the viewer meets the other star of the film; Van Heflin. Heflin plays Frank Enley, a World War II veteran, housing contractor, and family man with a beautiful young wife named Edith (Janet Leigh) and an adorable baby boy. (Janet Leigh was just 21 when this film was made. Heflin and Ryan were both in their late 30s.)

We know right from the beginning that Joe Parkson wants to kill Frank Enley, but we don’t know why. For awhile, all we know is that Enley was Parkson’s CO in the war, and that Parkson has a vendetta against him.

Van Heflin and Robert Ryan

M-G-M didn’t produce very many noirs, but when they did, they were glossy affairs with high productions values and great actors, like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Undercurrent (1946), Lady in the Lake (1947), and High Wall (1947).

Act of Violence is a stylish thriller that looks and feels ahead of its time. The cinematography is meticulously constructed and dripping with noir atmosphere, but it never feels studio-bound and uses real-world locations beautifully. The sound effects in the film sometimes do a better job of creating suspense than any musical score could.

All the actors in Act of Violence are really good. Van Heflin was a sad-eyed Everyman, and Robert Ryan had a physically intimidating presence, but enough charisma to make even his most villainous characters magnetic. Apparently Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart were originally slated to star in Act of Violence, but I can’t picture anyone but Heflin and Ryan as these characters.

Janet Leigh has a pretty thankless role, but she has enough star power to make it interesting. Phyllis Thaxter doesn’t have much to do as Joe’s girl Ann, but she’s fine. Mary Astor is wonderful in an unglamorous role as a barfly obsessed with “kicks” who Frank meets on a business trip to Los Angeles, and the always-creepy Berry Kroeger is great in a small part.

I thought Zinnemann’s previous film, The Search (1948) was a minor masterpiece, and I feel the same way about Act of Violence. Zinnemann’s best work may have been ahead of him, but Act of Violence is an exceedingly well-made, visually inventive thriller with enough moral ambiguity to keep it interesting. I think our cultural views have evolved since World War II in ways that make the central conceit of the film even more ambiguous than it probably seemed when the film was first released.

I don’t want to go into more detail for fear of spoilers, but for me there’s a great deal of meaning packed into Enley’s statement to his wife, “A lot of things happened in the war that you wouldn’t understand. Why should you? I don’t understand them myself.”

The Boy With Green Hair (Nov. 16, 1948)

The Boy With Green Hair

The Boy With Green Hair (1948)
Directed by Joseph Losey
RKO Radio Pictures

If you only know Dean Stockwell as the craggy character actor who appeared in TV shows like Quantum Leap and Battlestar Galactica, it might be hard to believe that he was ever an adorable little 12-year-old boy.

Well, he was. Even with a shaved head, which is how he first appears in The Boy With Green Hair, in the 1940s Stockwell was cuter than a barrel of baby pandas.

The Boy With Green Hair was Joseph Losey’s first feature-length film. It’s a lovely little Technicolor parable that opens with the song “Nature Boy.” (You know, the one about “a very strange, enchanted boy”?) Nat King Cole’s recording of the tune was a big hit in 1948, and was the #1 single in the United States for seven weeks. The melody of the song recurs throughout the film.

It’s the story of a boy named Peter Fry (Stockwell), whose parents are dead, but no one seems to want to tell him. He’s shuttled around from home to home, always carrying a letter to show his foster parents (who he refers to as his “aunts and uncles”), although he’s not aware of the contents.

Eventually he settles down with “Gramp,” a former vaudevillian and magician (and current singing waiter) played by likeable old Irishman Pat O’Brien.

Peter thrives under Gramp’s care, feeling good enough about life that he no longer has to sleep with a baseball bat (though he keeps it on the floor next to him just in case). One day, however, his school holds a charity drive for war orphans. As Peter stands in front of a poster with a black and white photograph of an “Unidentified War Orphan,” he’s forced to confront the truth about his parents. They died in the London Blitz, and Peter can no longer deny the horrors of war. All of a sudden, war orphans aren’t just “over there,” they are right here, and he is one of them.

O'Brien and Stockwell

Not long after this revelation, he wakes up one morning with bright green hair. Punks with brightly dyed hair turned heads in the 1970s, and it was even more unheard of in the 1940s. Peter is instantly ostracized by people who happily tousled his hair when it was brown. His teacher, Miss Brand (Barbara Hale), tries to make him feel OK about his condition. He may be the only kid in class with green hair, but there’s also only one boy who has red hair. But nothing stops the bullying and name-calling. The world is cruel to those who are different.

The Boy With Green Hair is told in flashback, as Peter sits in a police station with a shaved head, telling his story to kindly child psychologist Dr. Evans (Robert Ryan). The message of the film might seem simple, but Losey’s direction and Stockwell’s assured performance elevate it to something haunting and strange that can’t be boiled down to a single slogan. It’s a movie that tells a serious, allegorical story about a child that other children can understand.

Return of the Bad Men (July 17, 1948)

Return of the Bad MenReturn of the Bad Men was the fourth and final film in a series of westerns that director Ray Enright made with legendary horse opera star Randolph Scott. The previous three were Trail Street (1947), Albuquerque (1948), and Coroner Creek (1948).

Most modern viewers will know Randolph Scott primarily for his final role — in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) — and be blissfully unaware of the roughly one hundred films he appeared in prior to it.

Ride the High Country is a great western (it co-stars Joel McCrea), but it’s not Scott’s only claim to fame. The westerns he made in the ’50s with director Budd Boetticher are highly regarded among connoisseurs of western cinema. He also appeared in plenty of workmanlike westerns like the ones directed by Ray Enright that aren’t great works of art, but are well-made entertainment, and a cut above the average B western.

Return of the Bad Men takes place in 1889, in the Oklahoma Territory. The U.S. government has just opened up two million acres of prime land for settlers. At high noon on April 22, 1889, the great Oklahoma Land Rush will begin. On the tails of the settlers, however, are a bunch of no-good outlaws (the “bad men” of the title) who only hope to prey on honest folks.

The land run sequence is exciting, although I suspect that most of the footage is taken from an earlier RKO picture, the Oscar-winning Cimarron (1931).

One of the settlers is a beautiful young widow named Madge Allen (Jacqueline White) who has a young son named Johnny (Gary Gray). She also has a boyfriend, Vance Cordell (Randolph Scott), who only wants to marry his sweetheart and move her and her son out to California.

But when Madge’s father, John Pettit (Gabby Hayes), the folksy and tough-talking president of the local bank, picks up stakes and moves from Braxton, Oklahoma, to Guthrie, Oklahoma, Vance, Madge, and Johnny follow. Once in Guthrie, a cavalry officer appoints Vance U.S. Marshal. As a former Texas Ranger and peace officer, he’s the most suitable man to keep order.

Madge just wants her son to grow up in a peaceful, law-abiding world. Her deceased husband was a peace officer killed in the line of duty, and she refuses to marry Vance until he puts things right in Guthrie, trains officers to take his place, and retires.

Meanwhile, a whole mess of outlaws is amassing against the peaceful homesteaders of Guthrie. They’re led by Wild Bill Doolin (Robert Armstrong) and there’s even a woman among them, Doolin’s niece Cheyenne (Anne Jeffreys). When the rough-and-tumble bad men tell her that busting banks is man’s work, she responds that Belle Starr did OK.

The crew of outlaws includes plenty of famous names — the Younger brothers, Cole (Steve Brodie), Jim (Tom Keene) and John (Robert Bray); the Dalton brothers, Emmett (Lex Barker), Bob (Walter Reed), and Grat (Michael Harvey); Billy the Kid (Dean White); the Arkansas Kid (Lew Harvey); Wild Bill Yeager (Tom Tyler) — but the only member of the crew who has much of a chance to distinguish himself (besides Cheyenne) is Robert Ryan as the Sundance Kid.

Sundance is the most vicious of the lot and becomes Vance’s archenemy over the course of the film. Robert Ryan was on his way to becoming a big star after his memorable role in Crossfire (1947). There’s nothing particularly remarkable about his role in Return of the Bad Men, but he plays a charming villain well, and the growing antagonism between Ryan and Scott provides the dramatic push of the film.

Enright keeps the pace fast in Return of the Bad Men. The editing is quick, and the camera frequently moves within shots, which is not the case with a lot of B westerns. For a B western the production values are good, the acting is solid, and the characterizations are well-done.

Below is a clip from the film. I suppose I have to put a spoiler warning on it, since it’s the climactic fight of the film. I think the biggest potential spoiler about it is a single line of dialogue that alludes to the fate of a couple of characters, because if you consider finding out whether the guy with the white hat or the guy with the black hat wins the final fight in a B western a “spoiler” … well … let’s just say I envy your childlike naïveté:

Berlin Express (May 1, 1948)

Jacques Tourneur’s crisp thriller Berlin Express presents occupied Germany in miniature. Every nation associated with Allied-occupied Germany is represented by the film’s characters — the United States, France, Germany, England, and Russia.

It’s filmed in the semi-documentary style that was popular in the late ’40s. Europeans speak to each other in their own languages, with no subtitles (there is a voiceover narrator to explain to the viewer what’s transpiring), and much of Berlin Express was filmed on location in Paris, Frankfurt, and Berlin. (According to IMDb.com, it was the first Hollywood production in Europe after World War II.)

Berlin Express has stylistic elements of the German “Trümmerfilm” (“rubble film”), like Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us) (1946). The German rubble films used the war-ravaged backdrops that were plentiful in German cities heavily bombed during the war. Berlin Express doesn’t have the same gravitas or overwhelming sense of tragedy as the rubble films, but the location footage gives it a sense of authenticity not found in most run-of-the-mill thrillers.

Compared with Jacques Tourneur’s previous film, the film noir masterpiece Out of the Past (1947), Berlin Express is a lesser effort, but Tourneur is a pro, and every one of his films that I’ve seen has been a work of solid craftsmanship.

The MacGuffin in Berlin Express is a note that falls into the hands of the Deuxième Bureau that reads: “21:45 / D / 9850 / Sulzbach.” The first part seems to refer to a time of day (9:45 PM), but there are Sulzbachs in every occupied zone of Germany. What’s happening? And where will it happen?

Enter a multinational motley crew of characters traveling aboard the Berlin Express. In compartment A is Robert J. Lindley (Robert Ryan), a United States Government Agricultural Expert. In compartment B is Lucienne Mirbeau (Merle Oberon), a secretary from France. In compartment C is Herr Otto Franzen (Fritz Kortner), once a German industrialist, now a dealer in scrap iron. Compartment D is unoccupied, but is being held for a “person of importance.” Compartment E is shared by two men, a former British soldier named James Sterling (Robert Coote), and a military aide for the Russian Occupation Authority, Lt. Maxim Kiroshilov (Roman Toporow). In compartment F is Henri Perrot (Charles Korvin), once a member of the French Underground, now a man of commerce. And finally, in compartment G, is Hans Schmidt (Peter von Zerneck), whose occupation is a mystery to the viewer (the whistle of the train covers what the narrator is saying, which is a cute touch).

Of course, this is an espionage thriller, so it should go without saying that not everyone is what they appear to be, and there will be at least one big reveal or switcheroo before the credits roll.

Berlin Express was made during that curious little space in time when World War II was over but the Cold War had not yet kicked into high gear. Its villains may not seem very plausible or consequential to modern viewers, but for my money, a good thriller is a good thriller. The voiceover narration is a little heavy-handed, but for the most part Berlin Express keeps things tight, fast-paced, and properly thrilling.

Crossfire (July 22, 1947)

Crossfire
Crossfire (1947)
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
RKO Radio Pictures

In 1947, social-issue pictures were starting to come out of Hollywood that tackled a formerly taboo subject — antisemitism.

This might not seem like such a big deal today, but it was a big deal at the time.

No matter how artful or moving some of its products are, the film industry is still a business, and any subject that challenges the status quo or that might hurt ticket sales is extremely difficult to make a film about. And despite the fact that in the ’40s the majority of studio heads were Jewish, they preferred to release films that depicted a homogenous, idealized vision of America.

Richard Brook’s 1945 novel The Brick Foxhole is about a homosexual who is beaten to death by his fellow Marines. Producer Adrian Scott convinced the studio bosses at RKO Radio Pictures that an adaptation of the book would pass muster with the production code if the gay character in the novel were changed to a Jewish character.

Crossfire is a social-issue picture wrapped in a murder mystery. It’s likely that many ticket buyers didn’t realize the film would contain a message about antisemitism, and were attracted by the “three Bobs” in the credits (Robert Ryan, Robert Young, and Robert Mitchum) or the lurid promise of violent death in the poster.

Whatever drew people into the theater when the film opened, however, nothing kept them away in the weeks that followed. Crossfire was a big hit, and was eventually nominated for five Academy Awards, although it lost out to Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, Twentieth Century-Fox’s more “prestigious” take on antisemitism. (In the case of best picture, best director, and best supporting actress, the awards went to Gentleman’s Agreement. In the case of best supporting actor and best adapted screenplay, the awards went to Miracle on 34th Street.)

Edward Dmytryk, the director of Crossfire, once said in an interview that he used “film noir” techniques primarily to save money, and because he wanted to spend more time working with the actors than doing setups. Dmytryk and his cinematographer, J. Roy Hunt, worked six and a half hours a day, and did about seven setups a day.

Ryan, Mitchum, and Young

Dmytryk was an excellent director, and Crossfire is an exceedingly well-made film.

He shot Crossfire in 20 days, less than the 22 days he was allowed with his $500,000 B-movie budget. Because of this, RKO was able to beat Twentieth Century-Fox’s Gentleman’s Agreement to the box office. (But not, ultimately, in the Oscar race.)

The darkness and shadows that creep into each shot disguise the simplicity of the sets, and the performances from all the actors are exceptional, especially Robert Ryan as the vicious, Jew-hating soldier named Montgomery, and Gloria Grahame as a lonely B-girl named Ginny.

The beating death of the Jewish man, Samuels (Sam Levene), that opens the film takes place in darkness, so the culprit is not seen. But the mystery doesn’t really persist. Montgomery is the likely suspect right from the beginning. His sneering dismissal of the “kind of guy” Samuels was makes his guilt seem pretty obvious during the scene in which he’s interrogated by the police detective, Finlay (Robert Montgomery).

The film quickly switches gears, however, and focuses on the search for a missing soldier named Mitchell (George Cooper), whom the police suspect of the murder. The jaded and world-weary Sgt. Keeley (Robert Mitchum) helps Detective Finlay, but ultimately shields Mitchell, helping him hide in a movie theater while Keeley and his buddies try to sort out what really happened.

Mitchell was pretty drunk, and can barely remember what happened at the party that evening. But the last words we hear Montgomery say in Mitchell’s flashback to the party — “What’s the matter, Jew boy? You afraid we’ll drink up all your stinking wonderful liquor?” — cement Montgomery’s guilt.

Grahame and Cooper

Mitchell’s sad and lonely journey through the night is classic noir stuff. His strange encounters — like the ones he has with B-girl Ginny and later with her “husband” (played by Paul Kelly), whose name we never learn — are haunting.

While Crossfire is occasionally preachy, this can be forgiven, especially considering the time when the film was released.

Unlike Brute Force (1947), which showed what American fascism could look like at the upper echelons of authority, Crossfire is a portrait of the rank and file of fascism — the dumb, mean, resentful men who “just carry out orders,” and do so happily. Ryan doesn’t overplay his role, and he’s all the more scary for it.

The Woman on the Beach (June 2, 1947)

Jean Renoir’s last Hollywood film, The Woman on the Beach, which is based on Mitchell Wilson’s 1945 novel None So Blind, is one of the oddest and most intriguing American films I’ve seen from the ’40s.

On paper, the plot sounds like a perfect vehicle for RKO star Joan Bennett, who was coming off the success of two wonderful noirs that she made with Fritz Lang, The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Like both of those films, Bennett’s character in The Woman on the Beach is a seductive and alluring woman who may not be what she seems. And paintings — a major theme of both The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street — figure prominently in The Woman on the Beach.

But the similarities end there. The Woman on the Beach is a film that confounds expectations. It’s sometimes surreal, sometimes suspenseful, and never went in the direction I was expecting. Some of this could be due to studio interference. After a disastrous advance screening in Santa Barbara, the studio forced Renoir to reshoot and recut the film. The final cut is just 71 minutes long. There are numerous plot strands that seem to be left dangling by the end of the film. But overall, it’s still well-made and involving enough for me to recommend it.

Lt. Scott Burnett (Robert Ryan) is a haunted man. He’s sound of body, but he’s plagued by nightmares of the wreck he survived while serving in the Pacific. One of his nightmares opens the film, and it’s a brilliant and surreal juxtaposition of watery peace and fiery, swirling violence.

Scott is grinding through his last week at the U.S. Coast Guard Mounted Patrol Station. (He’s terrified of the ocean, so it makes sense that he’s serving in a Coast Guard station with no ships, just horses.) He’s engaged to be married to a pretty local girl named Eve (Nan Leslie), but as soon as Scott meets the dark and mysterious Peggy Butler (Joan Bennett) while she’s gathering driftwood on the beach, any film noir aficionado can tell you that things aren’t going to go the way Scott and Eve have been planning them.

Peggy instinctively understands Scott’s loneliness and fear. She invites him home to meet her husband, the blind painter Tod Butler (Charles Bickford). Bickford’s performance is masterful, and a key to the success of the film. At first I thought that Bickford was really bad at playing a blind man. He moves about effortlessly, seems to know where everything is, and it frequently seems as if he is making eye contact with the other characters. But it’s hard to tell for certain.

And sure enough, his blindness is called into question before too long. Peggy reveals to Scott that she severed Tod’s optic nerves during a drunken argument, but that sometimes she suspects he has just been feigning blindness ever since. Scott can’t believe that a man whose whole life was devoted to art would just give it up out of spite. Peggy tells Scott that he doesn’t know her husband.

In an unguarded moment when Peggy and Tod are alone, we hear them lay out their entire relationship in a classic exchange: Tod looks at her and says, “So beautiful outside, so rotten inside.” Peggy responds, “You’re no angel,” and Tod says, “No, I guess we’re two of a kind. That’s why we’re so right for each other.”

Scott is drawn into Peggy and Tod’s bitter little world, and begins secretly making love to Peggy while having increasingly tense get-togethers with Tod. In one remarkable scene, Scott walks Tod closer and closer to a cliff edge, trying to make him give himself away and reveal that he can really see.

The presence of Scott’s fiancée Eve seems almost like an afterthought, especially during the second half of the picture, and the way the story ends isn’t completely satisfying. But these are minor quibbles. The Woman on the Beach is a beautifully made film with very interesting performances from its three leads.

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