Hyper-Masculinity/Hidden Frailty: The Robert Ryan Aesthetic in Film Noir

In honor of the 40th anniversary of Robert Ryan’s death July 11, 1973 with a special nod to Karen & The Dark Pages for their spectacular tribute to this incredibly real man!

robert ryan

“Ryan was unfailingly powerful, investing his tormented characters with a brooding intensity that suggests coiled depth. Cut off from the world by the strength of their ‘feelings’ his characters seem to be in the grip of torrential inner forces. They are true loners. Ryan’s work has none of the masked, stylized aura of much noir acting. He performs with emotional fullness that creates substantial, complex characters rather than icons.”Foster Hirsch-FILM NOIR: The Darker Side of the Screen

Clearly Robert Ryan’s infinite presence in film and his numerous complex characters manifest an embracing universal ‘internal conflict’ of masculinity. I tribute certain roles the actor inhabited during his striking career. Though he was cast more often in the part as the imposing heavy, the depth and breadth of Ryan’s skill with his rough-hewn good looks should have landed him more roles as a lead male capable of such penetrating levels of emotion. He had a depth that suggests a scarcely hidden intensity smoldering at the surface.

Robert Ryan as Montgomery in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire 1947
Act of Violence Ryan
Robert Ryan in Act of Violence ’48

A critic for the New York Times reviewing Act of Violence (1948) wrote about Robert Ryan’s persona as the madly driven veteran bent on revenge, Joe Parkson calling him “infernally taut.”

Frank Krutnik discusses ‘Masculinity and it’s discontents’ in his book In A Lonely Street, “In order to make the representation of masculinity in the noir thriller, there follows a schematic run-through of Freudian work on the determination of masculine identity.” Claiming Freud’s work can be co-opted into film with an emphasis of it’s relevance to analysis of the cultural machinery of patriarchy.” He discusses patriarchal culture which relies heavily on the maintenance of a gender-structured ‘disequilibrium’ with it’s roots in the myth of the Oedipal Complex. Involving not only the power-based hierarchy of male service to masculine power but the established normative gender values which inform both the male and female figure.

act of violence ryan and leigh
Act of Violence Robert Ryan as Joe Parkson co-starring Janet Leigh

Many of the characters in Ryan’s noir world are informed by a cultural ‘determinacy of the phallus’ that authorizes toughness and strips the limits of desire as an obligation to masculine identity. Patriarchal power structure predetermines a fixed and limited role that creates a destiny of submission and impotence in Ryan’s characters. But within the framework of these extreme male figures lies an intricate conflict of varying degrees of vulnerability and fragility.

Ryan manifests this duality within hyper-masculine characters. Outwardly physical, confrontational, and hostile, Ryan is a master at playing men who suffer from alienation and inferiority surrounding their own ‘maleness’ and self-worth. He was never just a dark noir brute or anti-hero but a complex man actualized through layers of powerful dramatic interpretation. His performances suggest a friction of subjugated masculinity bubbling within.

Ryan and Stanwyck in Clash By Nightjpg
Ryan as Earl Pfeiffer and Barbara Stanwyck in Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night

The trajectory of the male through the Oedipus Complex encompasses the male subjectivity which is a principle issue in the noir ‘tough-thriller.’ The ‘existential thematic’ link to the Oedipus myth concerns questions of male desire and identity as they relate to the overarching law of existing patriarchal culture substituted for the original fearsome ‘divinity.’ This element is one of the driving psychological themes underlying in any good classic film noir.

In this post I put my focus primarily on Ryan’s characters within the framework of each film and while I discuss the relationship between him and the central players I do not go as in depth as I usually do discussing his co-stars or plot design.

I apply this thematic representation to much of the roles engendered in the films of Robert Ryans‘ that I’ve chosen to discuss here. A patriarchal power structure establishes the tragedy of man’s destiny, a fixed and limited role in the character’s own destiny as there is a predominant power that threatens them into submission and sheds light on their own impotence. So many of the noir characters in a Robert Ryan noir world are shaped by a cultural authority structured through ‘determinacy of the phallus’ that authorizes toughness in the male identity that strips away the limits of desire, as an obligation to ‘masculine identity.’

Ryan’s stoic boxer Stoker in Robert Wise’s The Set Up

I’m focusing on particular Ryan’s roles within a noir context that depict archetypal hyper-masculine tropes and the problematic strife within those characters. Whether Ryan is playing the deeply flawed hero or the tormented noir misfit, his characters are afflicted with an inherent duality of virility and vulnerability, an inner turmoil, alienation, persecution and masochism. It’s a territorial burden that Robert Ryan so effortlessly explores.

These films show Ryan’s trajectory through forces of menacing restraint and poignant self-expression. Within a noir landscape, the schism of stark virility and tenuous masculinity exposes the complexity of alienation, masochism and frailty. Robert Ryan’s performances are a uniquely fierce and formidable power.

I’m discussing: The Woman On the Beach (1947) haunted & emasculated coastguardsman Lt. Scott Burnett, Caught (1949) neurotic millionaire Smith Ohlrig, The Set- Up (1949) noble over- the-hill boxer Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson, Born To Be Bad (1950) misanthropic & masochistic novelist Nick Bradley, Clash by Night (1952) cynical misogynist projectionist Earl Pfeiffer, Beware, My Lovely (1952) morose psychotic vagrant handyman Howard Wilton,On Dangerous Ground (1952) unstable, alienated violent cop Jim Wilson, Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) racist persecuted ex-con Earle Slater.

Within the framework of these ‘extreme’ male figures lies an intricate conflict with varying degrees of vulnerability & fragility within the male psyche. The narratives don’t necessarily flesh out this conflict plainly, but Ryan’s performances certainly suggest and inform us about the friction of this subjugated theme bubbling to the surface as he manifests the duality within his hyper-masculine characters. Robert Ryan was a master at playing men who suffer from alienation and inferiority surrounding their own ‘maleness’ and self-worth.

Robert Ryan

Ryan is never just a dark noir ‘brute’ or anti-hero but moreover a complex male who is actualized through layers of powerful dramatic interpretation. A complexity of stark virility and ‘tenuous maleness’ as the narrative witnesses Ryan’s trajectory transforming him through various dynamic forces of menacing restraint and poignant self-expression. Outwardly physical, confrontational, hostile and ultimately masculine, and the schism that is inwardly emotional, alienated, self deprecating, masochistic and fragile within the film noir landscape. Robert Ryan’s performances still maintain a uniquely fierce and formidable aesthetic of the ‘suffering-marginalized man.’

Lieutenant Scott Burnett: The Woman on the Beach ’47

Lt Scott Burnett

Writer/Director Jean Renoir had graced the American film noir style so eloquently. Fritz Lang had re-envisioned Renoir’s La Chienne with his Scarlet Street (1945) starring the sophisticated Joan Bennett whose vocal delivery drips like honey. Then revisiting Renoir’s La Bête humaine (1938) Lang dreamed up Human Desire (1954) with Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame.

In Jean Renoir’s moody The Woman on the Beach (1947) Robert Ryan plays Lieutenant Scott Burnett a coastguardsman tragically haunted by the trauma of surviving a torpedo attack killing his ship mates. As he tries to recover his hold on sanity, tormented by nightmarish dream sequences which are other-worldly and surreal. Once again Joan Bennett inhabits the treacherously dark forces of the femme fatale in the form of Peggy Butler, whose character is beguiling and ambiguous. Eventually the plot reveals that she is nothing more than a conniving tramp, though Scott’s hero fixation envisions her as the tormented damsel in an abusive marriage.

The Woman on the Beach (1947)
Peg-“If you’re so afraid of ghosts Lieutenant, what about that life jacket you’re holding?”
Scott-“What do you mean about ghosts?”
Peg-“I was merely suggesting that you might be afraid of them.”
Scott-“But I’m not, I was just wondering about the wreck.”
Peg-“That’s funny, a person like you should be afraid.”

Leo Tover   (The Snake Pit ’48, The Day the Earth Stood Still ’51) and Harry J. Wild’s cinematography frame a mysterious an eerie landscape surrounding the calm beach side milieu, with pervasive ghostly mists that foreshadow the ambiguity of the story. When we first get a glimpse of Joan Bennett on the fog soaked sands collecting drift wood from an old ship that’s run aground, she appears ethereal like the ghosts that haunt Scott’s dreams. A foreshadowing symbolism that suggests he lives in a world that may or may not be real. 

In The Woman on the Beach, Ryan is not the stalwart triumphant hero of other ‘tough noir’ films, his Lieutenant is a sympathetic protagonist, a misfit knight who dwells in the ambiguous noir landscape of unclear and convoluted motivations by the other characters populating his world. Is his girlfriend Eve strictly with him because she wants to take care of him? Is Peggy using him to arouse her husband’s jealousy?

Scott exists in an atmosphere of anguish, bad dreams and self-doubt. His girlfriend Eve (Nan Leslie) refers to him as being ‘sick’ as if he were suffering from a flu, so careful not to invoke his mental state of mind, an insult to his ‘masculine integrity.’ Feeling disconnected from reality and the ‘normal’ people around him, Scott begins a neurotic romantic triangle in this isolated fog bound setting once he stumbles upon Peggy Butler.

Ryan and Bennett

While riding horseback on the beach, Scott comes upon Peggy who is married to a famous, now blind painter Tod Butler (Charles Bickford) who sees his paintings as an obsession/possession like his wife Peg. Both hold his psyche hostage even more than his blindness.

Just as Ida Lupino’s blind Mary Malden could read Jim Wilson’s sadness, Peggy Butler can instantly see that Scott is a tormented soul.

Peg-“If you’re so afraid of ghosts Lieutenant, what about that life jacket you’re holding?” Scott-“What do you mean about ghosts?” Peg-“I was merely suggesting that you might be afraid of them.” Scott“But I’m not, I was just wondering about the wreck.”

Peg-“That’s funny, a person like you should be afraid.”

This statement puts an emphasis on the expectation of Ryan’s character’s masculinity. As a Lieutenant he is the symbol of a hyper-masculine figure’ courageous and forceful not fearful or weak.

Tod feigns an eagerness to be friends with Scott, making fun of his apparent weariness which roughs up Scott’s male pride. Tod transparently baits the beleaguered Scott into seducing his frustrated wife, playing on his obvious vulnerability, it begins a torturous game with which to taunt her and test Scott’s male integrity.


Peg claims to despise her husband but stays because of his blindness and the guilt she feels for having caused his loss of sight by throwing a broken bottle at his face during one of their volatile battles. Scott suffers from a streak of ‘guilty’ as well for having survived the torpedo attack. Both Scott and Peggy are human ‘wrecks.’ But she is luring him into another potential disaster. She’s the dark predatory female figure making this a classical noir allegory of a man afflicted assailed by a female predator.  

Ryan’s trajectory is divergent from his role as Jim Wilson in On Dangerous Ground. Here Ryan starts out submissive and becomes fierce, while in the latter he starts out hostile and becomes tamed. Yet both find redemption at the end of each story, a noir necessity for any struggling protagonist hero.

Ryan’s Lieutenant Scott Burnett starts out in a weakened state, almost docile and yielding, falling under the spell of Peg who desires him, but is still very entangled in the destructive love/hate relationship with her alcoholic husband. Slowly Scott starts to shed his chains and find his strength.

Woman on the Beach Ryan and Bennett
the elements of noir invade the melodrama of eternal triangulation

There is a clear distinction between Tod Butler’s heightened sense of violence and Scott’s submissiveness from the trauma of war as he is suddenly coerced into shedding his abject fears transmuted into a masculine heroic force. Valiantly trying to protect Peg from the mental and physical abuse he sees Tod inflicting on her, Scott becomes frenzied by his longing for Peg. This leads to a suspenseful scene in the vein of Hitchcock where he wants to prove that Tod is lying about his blindness, making him walk along the rocky edge of a cliff.

Ryan Woman Beach
Burnett is about to take Butler on a nice walk by the rocky cliffs to test his blindness

In the film’s most dramatic scene, Scott’s obsession with Peggy sends him into a frightening rage directed at Tod in a fishing boat set amidst the chaotic ocean waters on a stormy night. Ryan brings a dramatic measure of fury that prepares him for the kind of character Nicholas Ray would exploited five years later in On Dangerous Ground (1952) 

At the outset of the film, it is Tod Butler who is bitter, hostile and controlling as he plays a game luring Scott into their marital love/ hate hostility, as Tod tells Peg- ” I can smell your hate, it’s no different than your love.”

Scott warns Tod- “You’ve got to set Peggy Free… You treat her like a slave you murdering little sneak!”

If confrontations at the climax in film noir are supposed to resolve dilemma, and suggest a breaking of the  forceful psychic alliance between romantic figures in conflict with each other, then only Scott emerges as the one who has exorcized his demons by the end of The Woman on the Beach.

Ryan’s character is the only one who has the potential to recover from the temporary bonds of obsession and psychosis. He is film noir’s ‘good man’ who suffers from trauma and momentary disorientation in an unstable world. Where as Peggy and Tod Butler are a couple with a long standing history of Folie à deux two perverse characters who should have eluded redemption.

“We lived in a sort of strange state of excitement. Always off balance high pitch, tense. Always just at the breaking point.”


They’ve carried this volatile sexual release into their new combustible chemistry closed in by Tod’s blindness. Scott is old fashioned, simple and chivalrous also suffering from a sort of entrapment.

“Tod can be unbelievably fierce and brutal or tender… Too tender.”

But Scott finally sees her as one of his ‘ghosts’ a phantom of his imagination, when he asks her in the beginning as they banter about ghosts, “What are you anyway?” (Like Bennett was for Edward G. Robinson in The Woman in the Window 1944)


Ryan is the ultimate haunted male emasculated by the trauma he’s endured as a powerful male figure during a time of war, becoming transformed exorcised and redeemed by the circumstances of his ordeal.

Smith Ohlrig: CAUGHT ’49


In Max Ophül’s Caught (1949) Cinematographer Lee Garme’s (Scarface 1932, Nightmare Alley 1947) contributes his visual style to the film’s gloomy and claustrophobic environment. In this film Ryan synthesizes the role of dangerous and reclusive millionaire Smith Ohlrig. It is suggested the character is a thinly veiled reference to the idiosyncrasies of Howard Hughes.

Ryan plays opposite Barbara Bel Geddes as the naive mellow voiced Leonora Eames a young girl from meager beginnings. She lives in a shabby apartment seduced by glamor magazines, working as a department store fashion model who believes the only road to happiness is to marry a rich man. For Leonora money and power are supreme symbols of worship. Aside from the obvious melodrama, Caught is Ophül’s ferocious condemnation and cautionary tale warning of the excesses of wealth and the social nihilism it breeds. Creating a deranged atmosphere that mocks ‘the American Dream.’

Smith Ohlrig is a paranoid neurotic who thinks that everyone surrounding him is after his money as he seeks to consume and annihilate the things he can’t control. Taking Leonora as his naive bride is an act of sadism, as he knows he will inevitably punish her for her fantasies of wealth. Ohlrig also dominated by Freud’s ‘castration anxiety’ nurtures great fear of losing what ever he possesses. As Leonora threatens to take away his power in terms of the culturally legitimate parameters of desire and identity he begins to sadistically penalize her for her aspirations and beliefs by alienating her and withdrawing his attentions. Essentially keeping her as a snared bird in a gilded cage that he tortures in captivity.

leonora Caught

Oedipal myth describes the inheritance of cultural authority by the male and perpetuated by men who have been endowed with a symbolically sanctioned power which is attended to by the fear of castration. There is a mechanism of the master plan of patriarchy that envisions a role that sexed subjectivity plays within it. Oedipus is the repressed ideas pertaining to family drama, and the primary figures which must find their place within that world. It involves the submission of the subject to the structured process, the ideology of gender specified identity.

Within that dynamic, Leonora is attracted to the lure of this functioning role, needing to be taken care of by a strong male figure of considerable wealth to attain fulfillment and status. Ohlrig having a distorted logic around his own primacy bares resentment of this legacy and only seeks to control her as one of the objects he possesses. His ‘maleness’ gives him access and hierarchy to the ordered roles in society

While modeling a mink, Ohlrig’s slimy assistant Franzi (Curt Bois as a coded gay character) asks her to show him the mink’s lining, he’s procuring for his boss, inviting her to a party on Ohlrig’s yacht. That night she bumps into him on the darkened pier, a rugged man ominously dressed in all black. He takes her on a midnight drive instead of going to the party.

Leonora marries Ohlrig only to discover that he’s an abusive neurotic who turns her life at their opulent mansion into a veritable prison.


Within the framework of the narrative Ryan emerges as a powerful enigma amidst the usual noir elements, as he appears simultaneously raging & wrathful at the same time faulty & pathetic. Ohlrig’s character is perhaps the most dynamic illustration of the duality in Robert Ryan’s hyper-masculine/fragile world.

The paranoia Ohlrig expresses during one of his sessions with psychiatrist (Art Smith) seems to anticipate Ryan’s purely noir performances in films like Crossfire 1947, Act of Violence 1948, and On Dangerous Ground 1952.


His psychiatrist baits him about the true nature of his nervous condition or what Ohlrig calls his ‘heart attacks’ which is an inner voice telling him, “I’m not at all powerful, I’m weak, take pity on me. Give me what I want… I must destroy everyone I can’t own!”

Ryan’s Ohlrig wears a mask like cruel stone, clenches his teeth and tells his psychiatrist, “I have these attacks because I have a bad heart!” He can’t face the apparent reality of his afflicted soul.

While Ohlrig confesses that he has fears about people only wanting him for his money, though warned by his doctor against it, the conversation acts as catalyst for the spontaneous marriage proposal to Leonora. The marriage is head lined as a ‘Cinderella Story.’

Ryan’s gloomy eyes flicker like reflective pools of internal discord surrounded by the tense atmosphere, bathed in chiaroscuro and low lighting. Driven by an irrational jealousy, controlling streak and paranoia he erupts whenever his frustrations command his emotions. Like a spoiled child he seeks to possess everything and everyone around him with an Oedipal narcissism and possessiveness as he desires to own everything.

Leonora is an object, like a trapped butterfly in a glass case she is portrayed in a luxurious set piece, as the exasperating Franzi torments her by pounding on the piano an incessant Viennese Waltz snapping at her, “Tough, tough darling.” She begs him to stop until finally slapping him, only to hear him retort, “That’s alright, it saves ‘him’ from getting it. That’s what I’m paid for.”


When the miserable and neglected Leonora grows weary of waiting up for her cruel and brooding husband every night while he conducts his business, only to face humiliation and abuse she leaves Ohlrig. She takes a job as a receptionist for the kindly Dr. Quinada (James Mason) who cares for the poor on the East End of the city. The two fall in love, but a brief reconciliation with Ohlrig leaves Leonora pregnant.

Their unborn child ultimately shackles her to the sadistic Ohlrig becoming a pawn  and a way to control his wife who feels she needs the stability of her husband’s wealth to secure any future for her child. Ohlrig tortures her in the remaining months of her pregnancy. Waking her up at odd hours of the night, giving her no peace.


He treats her like shunned property, the result is nightmarish as she becomes his prisoner, telling her, ‘All I care about is breaking you!’ and if he has to use their child to do it he will.

Ohlrig refuses to give her a divorce unless she awards him full custody of their child. Within the vicious environment that he has created it is Leonora’s sudden defiance that ultimately causes him to descend even further into a neurotic fugue. His self-destructive behavior causes him to collapse under one of his psychosomatic attacks. Ryan gives such credence to the role of Smith Ohlrig as he straddles the duality of forced masculine control with the pathetic inherent weakness of a neurotic enslaved by his own debilitating consternation. Smith Ohlrig is yet another of Robert Ryan’s ‘violent-male’ with a ‘fragile-ego.’

The camera often shows Ryan’s violent body speech in low, wide angles while he manifests his contained rage, revealing his sense of domination, amidst the conflicting disorientation as he fumbles for his ‘pills.’


Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson: THE SET-UP ’49

Directed by the great Robert Wise, The Set-Up (1949) actually anticipated another favorite boxing noir of mine, Rod Serling’s Requiem For a Heavyweight (1962) staring Anthony Quinn as a similar fighter Mountain Rivera. Milton Krasner’s (All About Eve ’50) black & white low-key cinematographer contributes a brutal Walker Evan’s like realism. With documentary style fight scenes possessed with gripping authenticity and city lights aglow with ironic signs that declare the unsettling mood. Lit up with words like ‘Dreamland’ or Hotel ‘Cozy’ that break through the dark and shadowy spaces. A simple story that shares the humanistic stoicism of an earlier era of the American Dream.

By contrast to the petty greed of the characters who undermine the fighter’s stake in the virtue of self-esteem, Stoker himself possesses a nuanced and unexpressed nobility that is keenly projected by Robert Ryan. Ryan possesses the physicality of a fighter having been a heavyweight for three years at Dartmouth College. He brings a piteous dignity to the character of ‘Stoker’ Thompson making him a pure example of the  ‘Existential Hero.’

Robert Ryan The Set-Up

The assortment of odd and sinister characters who inhabit the city  scampering around the sidewalks, or inside the arena. Men in tasteless hats and ties animating the streets, sweaty men seated ring side, stuffing their fat faces with cheap hot dogs and popcorn. Women with apoplectic expressions seething with a craving for sensationalism. And the criminal element lurking around every corner waiting to exploit all of it. A ritual of sadism as the crowd shouts ‘kill him’ or the blind man who yells ‘go for his eyes!’

Robert Ryan is superb in this tragic role as a washed up yet tough stoic, compassionate and deeply ethical boxer named ‘Stoker’ who still harbors dreams of winning a title match. He’s an honorable man fighting to keep his dignity who just wants to be a ‘winner.’ Men have to prove themselves the most to other men, as men are the ultimate assessors of masculinity. You could say that boxing is one of the extreme exploitative tests of men’s ‘masculinity.’


The gritty noir environment is set in the Paradise City boxing arena, where young men on the rise get to prove their male prowess and old warriors in decline get shoved out by the feeding frenzy of greed and exploitative blood lust. It’s a grim picture of the competitive institutionalized realm of professional male posturing which forces them to re-qualify their masculinity continuously.

Stoker is an everyman surrounded by bottom feeders. The story is inhabited by an ensemble of unsavory hungry characters who superbly fill out the film’s sleazy environment with its quirky cast. George Tobias  (The Tattered Dress ’57) normally figured for comic relief is perfect as the conniving and unscrupulous manager. The cigar smoking ‘Tiny’ who sells Stoker out to a smarmy gangster named Little Boy (Alan Baxter) telling the crook that Stoker will take a fall in the 2nd round, but doesn’t tell his boxer that he’s struck a dirty deal take a dive.

Robert Ryan The Set Up

Stoker’s second handler ‘Red’ is played by strained voice Percy Helton (Kiss Me Deadly) a spongy faced gnome who chews on the stick end of cotton swabs like they were toothpicks. Both these seedy characters satellite around Ryan like virulent flies who see that Stoker is past his prime, a 35 year old man who no one expects to win against the new kid he’s fighting on the card that night. So sure is Tiny that Stoker will get knocked out, that he figures he won’t have to Stoker in on the secret set-up he’s made with Little Boy.

Thugs Set Up

Audrey Totter plays Stoker’s wife Julie, a woman who loves her husband but is weary of living out of cheap hotel rooms waiting for her husband to be knocked down for good. 

A compassionate ‘loser’ whose desperate determination to prove his ‘masculine integrity’ by winning rather than taking a ‘dive’ leads to a humiliating beating in a grimy back alley only to be transformed and redeemed in the end. The Set-Up suggests that in Stoker’s world there is no honor, security or real fulfillment from boxing while stressing the gratification of the raunchy spectators as being inherently barbaric exceeding the actual fighters themselves.

But Stoker gains a moral victory in an amoral universe. He’s a foredoomed hero who simply refuses to take a fall or accept defeat and doesn’t know when to quit. A noirish ‘Atlas’ of Greek mythology who bore the sky or in this case the ‘mantle of masculinity’ on his shoulders only to be turned to stone by Perseus or left broken in a dingy alley.

Robert Ryan’s Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson bares a streak of optimism and quiet pride. He’s ‘tough’ enduring and deeply ethical as he unconsciously strives to transcend the corruption inherent within the realm of ‘institutionalized masculinity’ that is the world of boxing. Where sanctioned fighting and winning is an extended expression of male dignity. The philosophy and art of boxing inherently creates hyper-masculine figures with a need to express their unyielding ‘violent male’ prowess in order to prove to other ‘men’ they can excel as warriors within the strategy of masculinity. While ‘Stoker’ might be considered a hyper- masculine figure with the posturing of ‘toughness’ it’s more the world he inhabits that places him in that light.

set up wife
Audrey Totter in The Set Up

Stoker lives in a world where everyone but his wife is a slimy, unsavory and opportunistic character possessed of greed, savagery and duplicity. There’s no one Stoker can trust except for his wife Julie who has become jaded and embittered as she sees his world for what it is. Everyone else betrays him. The film peers into the milieu with an authentic lens which captures it like an unholy Stygian netherworld gorged on cheap hotel rooms, dark and dirty streets, grungy game rooms, dingy gyms, down on their luck contenders and petty hoods who control the destinies of these poor souls slugging their way toward some semblance of dignity and pride. Stoker fights with courage and conviction, while his unscrupulous manager undermines him, selling him out and setting him up. It’s a headlong decent into deceit and betrayal.

One of the key elements intrinsic to any noir formula is the ‘alienated man’ as the protagonist. In The Set-Up Ryan exudes a kind of quiet nobility in a world where everyone around him is hustling to get their piece of the action. His only dream is to finally prove he can win. He’s only ‘one punch away’ from the title.

Julie- “Don’t you see Bill, you’ll always be just one punch away”

Manager Tiny-  “How many times I gotta say it? There’s no percentage in smartenin’ up a chump”

Stoker loves his wife Julie. She contemplates leaving him, while he’s at his last bout. Walking the dark streets, she looks from atop an overpass at an approaching train. You almost get the sense that she might jump off killing herself and ending the strife. She tears her ticket to the fights up and scatters the pieces of paper life confetti into the lingering cloud of engine steam floating over the tracks below. It’s a powerfully evocative scene that speaks of despair and reflection.

As when Julie passes by a carnival hall watching a group of rowdy teenagers play with a boxing game that uses a set of dye cast action figures to mimic real boxers. At first it tickles her but then fear washes over her as the reality of her husband’s fate looms as just a larger actualization of this brutal play acting.

While this is more thematic of a man vs man story which I will cover briefly after these 8 films, I like including The Set-Up within the framework of my argument because Stoker’s character is stand-alone as a strain of hyper-masculinity measured with the duality of his inherent weakness. Stoker does not see the vulnerability of trying to qualify his manhood through a self-destructive atmosphere of exploitation and insatiable greed.


The crowd shouting at him ‘old man’ tries to define his worth as a man measuring the years that have passed behind him. He’s slated to fight the last bout of the night’s card, following the main event. Stoker knows he’s not at his best, but he’s got immense pride and heart, always that ‘one punch away’ He’s been losing most of his recent fights, but he truly believes he can ‘take this guy’ who is a much younger fighter. This competition is set up to humiliate and demean him his masculine identity because he’s not as strong or youthful creates an environment where he must proves himself or fade away as irrelevant.

Stoker waits in the locker room with the other fighters all of whom have their own personal machinations and fears until it’s finally time for his fight. He goes into the ring with a passion and desire to claim his place as a real ‘man’ and not a loser.

Stoker starts to take a lot of punishment in the beginning of the bout. Tiny is sure it will it will be over in moments. But Stoker endures and finally gains an advantage as he heats up in the ring fending off his younger opponent Tiger Nelson played by Hal Baylor the upcoming heavyweight contender. Baylor also played the sheepish vagrant boxer Pete Gogan in Boris Karloff’s Thriller episode The Remarkable Mrs. Hawk in 1961 with Jo Van Fleet.

When Stoker doesn’t seem to be going down, Tiny finally tells him about the deal, but Stoker’s pride and his sense of integrity as an honest boxer doesn’t allow him to throw the fight. He stares at the empty chair where Julie should be sitting ring side. This drives him even more to prove himself. He is alone, alienated in his desire to win and not fail, he can not remain a loser. Being a loser would emasculate him being a winner would keep his masculinity intact and attained.

the set up

Stoker goes on to win the fight knocking out the young punk Tiger and infuriating Little Boy who doesn’t like not getting what he paid for. Stoker sees the ire in the gangster and starts to panic. Little Boy rounds up his goons including Tiger, and they set out to teach Stoker a lesson.

They finally confront him in a dark alley across from the Hotel Cozy where Julie is waiting for him unwilling to listen to the fight on the radio, not being able to enter the arena once she hears the barbaric cheers that turn her off to the whole climate of brutality.

Little Boy’s gang beat Stoker badly, but he gets one last wave of strength and throws something at Little Boy’s face. The two bit crook with all his macho posturing doesn’t even have guts of his own, making everyone else do his dirty work. It isn’t until Stoker hits his face while his flunkies are pummeling him that Little Boy picks up a brick and smashes Stoker’s hands badly, rendering him incapable of ever boxing again.

Julie sees Stoker stumbling out the alley a broken man. Battered and bloody, she runs to him and cradles him lovingly. But the event and the ordeal has transformed them somehow. He has won the boxing match and retained his dignity. But more importantly both he and Julie are winners as they are united and have a future together leaving the gritty dark realm, the injurious atmosphere that occurs in the dangerous ‘night world’ of fighting behind them.

The Set-Up-

Ryan’s ‘Stoker’ Thompson is the demonstration of an institutionally manufactured masculinity where in he must constantly re-establish his maleness in order to succeed in his world.

Nick Bradley: BORN TO BE BAD ’50

Robert Ryan Joan Fontaine Born To Be Bad

In director Nicholas Ray’s classically melodramatic noir hybrid Born To Be Bad (1950) Ryan plays against Joan Fontaine’s ‘poor moral’ female character in the shape of Christabel Caine. She is the film’s wicked woman, who wears the façade of innocence and kindheartedness.


Ryan is Nick Bradley a solitary lone wolf. He’s a writer of visionary novels rife with brutality. Nick is a man who lives on the periphery of his wealthy jet setting friends, an outlier of society and an apparent womanizer. Nick is self-assuredly honest about life. In some respects his character bares a similarity with another of Ray’s ‘male paradoxes’ Humphrey Bogart’s Dixon Steele in In A Lonely Place (1950) Both are writers who have a ‘cruel’ and controlling temperament.

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Against an almost Freudian backdrop of the ‘narcissist/masochist’ male Nick Bradley’s ego cedes to Christabel. This is a problematic sacrifice of his licit masculine identity losing the self-love of his own ‘ego’ and male motive power. Nick the subject becomes more sublime as the object Christabel takes over and consumes his ‘ego’ He starts to abandon his active position as the masculine subject by willingly setting himself up to become enthralled with the object, allowing himself to be engulfed by her.

This leads to the abandonment of Nick’s narcissistic attachment to his own ego. Ryan conveys his ambivalence well. Torn by sexual desire and repulsed by her duplicity though he understands it. The masochist seeks to other-throw the authority of paternal law and the determinacy of castration. Nick lives outside of societal constraints. In many noir melodramatic noir thrillers of the 40s there featured an extreme masochistic hero such as the troubled, almost defeated by love obsessed writer Nick Bradley. He manifests a ‘problematic’ worn down and unsteady masculinity.

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From the outset, Nick sees right through Christabel’s benevolent pretense, yet he is oddly drawn to her like a moth to the proverbial flame. Seeing a kindred spirit in her ruthlessness, he begins to antagonistically seduce her, his provocations set forth in hopes of getting her to bare her true self. His awareness of her duality and the way he confronts her secretly self-indulgent and ‘sinful’ impulses arouses a sexual urge in Christabel. The desire Nick sparks will pursue her throughout the film as it’s her inability to choose between her lover, the unrestrained outlier Nick Bradley and her outré wealthy and ‘safe’ husband Curtis that becomes her downfall.

Her sociopathic opportunism drives a wedge between Donna Foster and Curtis Carey (Joan Leslie & Zachary Scott) causing them to break off their impending marriage, ultimately disrupting the comfortability of their conventional lives and coercing the inherent weakness of their relationship out in the open. Christabel can then acquire/steal Curtis for herself and guarantee a life of luxury and status.

And while the main conflict of the film centers on the triangulation between these specific characters, it’s Robert Ryan’s misanthropic virility as Nick Bradley who is able to easily glimpse into Christabel’s psyche, fueling the trajectory of his compulsion to liberate her that give’s the film it’s compelling edginess.

Their attraction is dark and inscrutable and feeds her cunning hidden side, while she works to infiltrate the conventional world that Donna and Curtis inhabit. She objects to the presence of a  ‘brutal character’ in one of Nick’s novels, this is when he tells her “If you ever draw an honest breath, I want to be there to see it. I’ve never seen anybody choke to death.”


Nick lives outside the systems of convention, he is a primal sensual figure, a bull dwelling amid a pasture of sheep. Christabel desires Nick sexually, attracted to the same conflict he possesses, and for all his solitary machinations, she exposes the duality that exists within him. He reveals himself to be a masochistic who can not break free from the lure of Christabel, shadowing her with a debilitated compulsion though it’s obvious that she will never be contained.

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Although she longs for his ferocious and lustful realism she is a creature of habit, with no empathy at all compelled to lie and manipulate at all costs. Eventually Nick refuses to be her ‘back street boy’ and walks away from Christabel for good. In this way, his character is redeemed, and set free from his masochistic enslavement. Re-establishing his manhood and place in the ‘normal’ world.

Continuing with Nicholas Ray’s themes of alienation and inner-turmoil that spring from his They Live By Night (1948) In a Lonely Place (1950) and Born To Be Bad (1950)

Earl Pfeiffer: CLASH BY NIGHT ’52

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Onto Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night (1952) adapted from the play by Clifford Odets still retaining much of Odet’s message of cruelty and defeat. Ryan played the part of Mae’s brother Joe in the original stage play with Tallulah Bankhead.

Ryan who has now been painted with a noir brush, plays a movie house projectionist named Earl Pfeiffer whose caustic cynical nature and hostility toward women makes him a pretty gruff character. He’s a trouble maker, sarcastic hard-hearted and a merciless Lothario who selfishly taunts his simple minded friend Jerry (Paul Douglas) with distasteful jokes. Earl is instantly drawn to the bold, free living and liberated Mae (Stanwyck) and shamelessly tries to seduce his friend’s new girl.


Mae (comments on an actress up on the screen)-“She’s beautiful”

Earl-“What that celluloid angel? They oughta cut her up a little. She’d be more interesting.” Jerry-“Cut her up?” Earl- “Didn’t you ever want to cup up a beautiful dame?”


Pfeiffer is an unapologetic misogynist playing off of the extraordinarily gutsy Barbara Stanwyck who inhabits the role of Mae Doyle a complex character herself. Stanwyck’s ‘women’ brought a powerful new dynamism to American Film Noir. After all, the genre portrayed female strength as unabashedly sexual, wildly aggressive; the message… no man is safe. Mae Doyle is a self-aware and self-critical woman, turbulent madly independent and ruthlessly honest about it.


Ryan’s performance as a hostile loner who is self-motivated and disagreeable is potent, as is Stanwyck’s Mae Doyle. They are a match made in discord like that of Born To Be Bad’s Nick Bradley and Christabel Caine. As writer Donald Spoto says “A combination of brash carnality and skewed masochism.”

Mae is a streetwise savvy woman who comes back to her small provincial home town, the Cannery Row style fishing village of Monterey California, after fleeing a shadowy past. She meets up with Jerry a simple-minded fisherman who remembers her from the past, though her sophistication kept her out of his league.

Mae marries the unworldly yet good-natured Jerry not out of love but seeking a sort of solace and safety after having lived a dubious life. Jerry is “a man who isn’t mean and doesn’t hate women.”

Mae tells Peg (Marilyn Monroe) “Confidence, I want somebody to give me confidence. Somebody to fight off the blizzards and the floods. Somebody to beat off the world when it tries to swallow you up!”

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Earl and Mae develop a love/hate chemistry based on their mutual cynicism that blossoms into romantic upheaval and chaos. Earl has a masculine strength that Mae does not perceive in her gullible husband Jerry.

Earl is the ‘alienated man.’ He is brutal and ruthless in his manner and intellect yet conflicted by his own sense of impotence and alienation setting forth the duality of his hyper-masculinity. Revealing himself as the misogynist/masochist. He tells Mae, “Somebody’s throat has to be cut!” but then cries to her “Help me Mae, I’m dying of loneliness!”

Robert Ryan (left) and Barbara Stanwyck (right) in Fritz Lang’s CLASH BY NIGHT (1952). Courtesy Photofest. Playing 8/19.

Ryan’s pain constantly flickers beneath his clenched mask, his imposing form can not control the situation. He delivers a powerfully complex performance as an unhappy personality whose misery is expressed in acts of cruelty. Earl’s imprisonment is his being trapped in a civilized society the film’s naturalistic environment of middle class life, makes him appear as a caged beast in captivity. The realism of everyday life akin to a Elia Kazan landscape with it’s sociological point of view. Trapped too like an animal, is Mae who even warns Jerry before they marry that she sees herself as a wild thing with fangs.

Earl has been poisoned by his odd marriage to a Burlesque dancer. He’d like to stick pins in her, “Just to see the blood run out.” Mae eventually has a child with Jerry but becomes restless within her marriage, like many of the unfulfilled wives in Lang’s arsenal. The film is fueled by the volatile ambivalence inherent in relationships between men and women. The true heavy of the story turns out to be the abstract notion of marriage itself.

While the film doesn’t have some of the grittier elements that are part of the noir canon, strangeness, criminal activity, dark city-scapes, it’s the eternal triangulation of the plot and it’s stunning performances which are subtle as they are powerful creating a tumultuous environment. It’s both director Lang and cinematographer Nick Musuraca’s (Golden Boy, The Stranger on the 3rd Floor, Cat People ’42, Out of the Past ’47, Blood on the Moon) careful tracking of movement and space that shape a dramatic mise-en- scène which make Clash By Night fit very comfortably within the framework of a noir aesthetic.

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As Pfeiffer, Ryan generates a tortured intensity while he pursues Mae. The film is fueled by the volatile ambivalence inherent in relationships between men and women. Pfeiffer’s hyper-masculine energy acts as the ‘eroticization of violence’ within his brutal persona, which attracts Mae who sees him as dangerously masculine, a divergent image from her husband’s benign presence.

In the end Earl becomes too self destructive and melancholy. Earl and Jerry have a climactic blow up in the projection booth where Earl tries to strangle Jerry. Mae gets thrown against Earl’s movie projector. She is finally disgusted with Earl’s brutality and so rejects him, returning home to a safer life with her husband yet giving up her sexual freedom in the atmosphere of 50s America which cautions us toward redemption and apology.

While Jerry is the ‘good’ man who operates in the wide ‘open’ spaces of the natural order, Earl functions in a closed-in environment of lethal cynicism. As a projectionist it is symbolic of the artificial domain he is trapped within, unable to embrace the real world without his ruinous indignation.

Robert Ryan breathes an authentically fatal spark into Clash By Night’s Earl Pfeiffer who is equally magnetic as he is pathetic, self-destructing in a world incapable of containing such sadistic nihilism.


Howard Wilton: BEWARE, MY LOVELY ’52

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In the same year as On Dangerous Ground, Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino team up once again, in Producer Collier Young along with his then wife Ida Lupino and Director Harry Horner’s (The Hustler 1961) Beware, My Lovely (1952) With a screenplay by Mel Dinelli (The Spiral Staircase, The Window) Cinematographer George Diskant (The Narrow Margin ’52) creates a schizophrenic environment, within the set piece of a menacing Gothic house that doesn’t exactly manifest the warmth of hearth and home.

Beware, My Lovely began as a stage play and then moved onto a radio play in 1945 as part of the popular radio program Suspense starring Agnes Moorehead and Frank Sinatra in his first dramatic radio performance.

Ryan carries off Howard Wilton with such disturbing presence as the unhinged vagrant handyman who terrorizes Ida Lupino’s World War 1 widow Helen Gordon in the confines of her own home.

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The story plays out as a paradox of a deeply troubled man buckling under the failings of proving himself intensely masculine only to spiral erratically out of control as a pitifully confused mental case.

Howard Wilton, a psychotic itinerant handyman flees in terror when he discovers the strangled body of his last employer on the kitchen pantry floor. Unaware that he has killed her in a moment of black out rage he moves onto another town, finding work at the house of kindly war widow Mrs. Helen Gordon (the versatile Ida Lupino)

Howard is a morose and paranoid loner who sweats, paces the floor, scratching specks of dirt off window panes and fretting about where his coat should be hung up as not to get it dirty. He has a streak of obsessive complusiveness and Ryan carries that subtle detail off beautifully. From the beginning he maneuvers to insinuate himself into Helen’s quaint world. He slowly exhibits erratic behavior as he is short fused and does not like to be laughed at. Suffering from memory lapses Howard is simultaneously menacing and pitiful.

He looks into the iconographic mirror as well as his reflection in the water bucket, gazing at his image. The camera focuses on an expression that denotes a fractured self. Though he has black outs and can’t remember the murders he does have a sense he has harmed people.

When he complains about his coat being hung in a storage closet he is pleased that Helen moves it to a better closet upstairs. This is his way of placing himself within the dynamic of a structured family more significantly as it psychologically rates him as more than just a worker. We see little signs of this behavior shortly before his insane siege. He asks to help trim the Christmas tree, an endearing ritual and another attempt at being taken into Helen’s family. Howard Wilton is yet another ‘alienated man.’

Howard holds a photo of Helen’s dead army officer husband, triggering an inner twinge of jealous resentment and longing. At the mirror he tries to fix his hair exactly the same in order to compete with her husband as he tries to mimic respectability. He has an inferiority complex and fear of rejection, needing to belong. The photo obviously threatens and antagonizes him, as his delicate psyche is a mine field waiting to be set off. Howard is a displaced alienated morose and volatile landscape of psychosis.

As Howard becomes very defensive about doing a good job, he begins a paranoid rant about not being appreciated by his other employees in the past, he crushes a delicate ornament in his tight grip His extreme delusion brings him to an inner manic fugue, jaw clenched eyes glistening with confusion. Sweating, his disorientation tightly winds like a coil of misfiring nerves set to ignite into psychotic fury. He hears Helen on the phone, imagining she is complaining about his work. She asks him if he’s in trouble and if he’s talked to any friends about it. He tells her, “I haven’t any friends”

She offers to be his friend, even if he’s working for her. She likes him and that means more steady work.

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“I’ll only be here a day Mrs. Gordon, clean your house do my job and be gone and forgotten, as far as your concerned. Looking for the next job where ever that is.”

In a telling comment, “Most people only have me once.”

As his sense of persecution and rejection unfold… Helen tells him that she knows what it’s like to be lonely.

Ryan has a way of holding an expression at the right moment that conveys a boiling intensity, inner conflict and angry instability. Within his eyes you can see Howard’s despair, disturbance and alienation.

Helen’s malicious niece Ruth (Barbara Whiting) taunts Howard while he’s polishing the wooden floor. He doesn’t like being laughed at.

Ruth-“Well aren’t you a bundle of nerves!… Listen you, I don’t see many men around polishing floors. It’s a woman’s job! Seems to me there’s better ways for a ‘MAN’ to make a living.”

This sparks his rage as it strikes at the central chord of his sense of inferiority. In a frenzy he goes around locking the doors. Helen can now see that he’s a very sick man and suggests that he leave her house.

“You’re not going to make me feel weak the way they did” (referring to the army)

“That room full of ‘MEN’ I’m just as strong, just as good as they were. I failed and they offered me coffee and donuts. They tried to tell me they were doing it all for my own good. That I wasn’t well. While the others were signing up I had to sit there like a tired old man and sip coffee.”

Men have to prove to other men quite often more than women about their masculine worth, they must consistently qualify themselves. Howard begins to shed some light on his psychosis putting emphasis on his history and his ailing masculinity and self worth. Ryan conveys Howard’s humiliation so perfectly with his discordant inner conflict that wells up from the ordeal of his being discounted constantly as a man by ‘other men.’ His anger then transforms him into a dangerous psychotic who punishes the vulnerable women around him.

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Ryan modulates his emotions between contained rage and utter anguish. She tells him that she thinks he should go home now. “I don’t know where my home is” He has memory lapses, he blacks out and his frail ego can not handle the weight of his violence reactions to his weakness.

“I don’t want to hurt you. I might you know.” Diskant’s camera always has close ups of Ryan who is a bit out of focus, just as his psyche is.

“You don’t know what it means to find yourself in the middle of a room, the middle of a busy street, or some house I’m working in. A thing like that happens and I wonder where I am, what I’m doing and sometimes… I’m looking down at someone. Someone who’s been hurt, and they’ve been hurt very badly. And I wonder if I’ve done it. If what I’m looking at is real or in my mind.”

Ryan draws a lot of sympathy for his portrayal of Howard, considering he’s such a negative and frightening force. Much of the camera work is expressionistic as it serves to emphasize Howard’s disorientation in the real world. Camera shots using superimposition of the dead body in the reflective water bucket is utterly creepy while Howard stares into it as well as showing us his distorted image in a Christmas ornament.

Helen attempts to escape when Howard tries to strangle her causing her to faint. When Helen comes to she finds him calmly going about his work like nothing has happened, totally unaware that he has had a violently insane episode.

With the pressures of Howard trying to affirm his masculinity within the institution of the military combined with a predisposition to mental illness it creates a fractured male identity that splits off when his manhood is challenged. Robert Ryan is powerfully mesmerizing as a psychotic who is pushed by the frailty of his own male ego to the breaches of insanity.



Cleo Moore as bad girl Myrna with Robert Ryan playing the dark Nick Wilson

We find Robert Ryan in a moving portrayal of alienation and loneliness in Nicholas Ray and an uncredited Ida Lupino’s noir police film/melodrama On Dangerous Ground (1952) Written for the screen by A.I Bezzerides  (Thieves Highway ’49, Kiss Me Deadly ’55) and directed by Nicholas Ray known for his ‘unstable universes.’ Ray displaces Ryan’s character, a dark imposing figure silhouetted by the chilly snow laced countryside. A story about despair and salvation with a protagonist whose corners of his mind are as dark as the gritty streets that assail him. the heat and riot of a corrupt society. Once again cinematographer George E.Diskant uses a vivid monochromatic b&w pallet to paint this moody story of alienation and redemption.

Ryan plays Jim Wilson a New York City cop, maladjusted loner driven to the dark places in his mind, on the edge of a nervous, emotional collapse. As Frank Krutnik says in his book, In A Lonely Street, ” The ‘cop’ takes over and represses the ‘man.’ “

Wilson is disillusioned by life’s inequities, filled with a volatile rage just simmering at the surface. Again a solitary character living in a dismal apartment, he is cut off from the world by his lurking sense of alienation. He’s growing vastly unstable and exudes a misanthropic venom that’s hard for his fellow police officers not to take notice of. Wilson is so beaten down by all the violence he is surrounded by in his line of work that he emerges a derelict rogue cop capable of immense brutality. As illustrated in a staggeringly contained yet harsh scene possessing sado-masochistic undertones with his violent and aggressive pursuit of a suspect he corners. He begins inflicting punishment and pain on him saying, “Why do you punks make me do it to you!”

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A self destructive and neurotically volatile scene in noir that shows Jim returning to his desolate apartment later that night after the savage beating creating a gripping vision of loneliness and despair.

Here the duality of Ryan’s Jim Wilson, is brought to the fore within the framework of his ‘violent-masculinity.’ While it is partly a crisis of spirituality the culmination of the dehumanizing nature of his job as a cop, it’s the conflict of his maleness that struggles against the innate sensitivity that creates the internal conflict for him. This is what drives his sense of alienation and the need to lash out. A.I Bezzerides script suggests a longing for the connectedness to humanity. The imbalance of the self-destructive force within ultimately must denounce its unyielding defenses and embrace the vulnerability of compassion.

With Ryan’s complex characterizations, when the sadism isn’t physical it’s psychological as in Caught 1949

Also important to take notice of is the diverging treatment Jim Wilson gives Cleo Moore’s Myrna Bowers in comparison to Ida Lupino’s Mary Malden. When he first interacts with Myrna, a prostitute he’s questioning on a case, he’s belligerent and his misogyny bears it’s teeth as she provocatively smokes her cigarette blowing the smolder flirtatiously in his gruff face. Myrna-“And if I don’t talk you’ll squeeze it out of me with those big strong arms… won’t you.”

Myrna-“And if I don’t talk you’ll squeeze it out of me with those big strong arms… won’t you.”

He shows contempt for her line of work repulsed by her abandoned constraint. Her dangerous femininity is in stark contrast to that of his gentle handling of the virginal Mary Malden. The two women synthesize the duality of Jim’s expressed maleness in regards to his macho prowess. Myrna is a bad girl who doesn’t limit her desire, Mary a good girl who seems almost holy, evoking the cultural authority that authorizes his male identity.

The ‘dangerous ground’ also relates to his own emotional state as it is the isolation enforced on Wilson by his over-exposure to the dark underbelly of life in the feverish noir city. A world crawling with unsavory elements, low-life and underworld types; all closing in on him unleashing his anti-social behavior. He’s completely removed from society and alienated by his ‘force of anger.’

Jim to his partner, “So I get thrown off the force… What kind of a job is this anyway?… Garbage, that’s all we handle, Garbage! How do you live with it.”
Pop Daly: Don’t you know? That’s the kind of job it is.
Jim Wilson: You’ve been doing it for sixteen years; you ought to know. How do you do it? How do you live with yourself?
Pop Daly: “I don’t! I live with other people. When I go home I don’t take this stuff with me, I leave it outside. But you! The way you carry it around with you, you must like it!”

The intensity and emotional imbalance of Ryan’s protagonist is also expressed through subjective camera shots, as when he is driving on the road alone in the car.

Wilson’s instability is jeopardizing his position on the police force, so his supervisor exiles him by sending him off to investigating the murder of a young girl in a small Upstate New York town. Leaving the ‘night world’ behind, Jim enters daylight and the wide open rural landscapes, bright skies and ice-white landscape stunningly photographed by George E. Diskant (They Live By Night) The environment is so expressive, literally and metaphorically as it begins to transform Jim from an out of control vigilante to a contemplative disciple of morality again. From the dark closed-in spaces at the heart of his despair to the poetic contrast as he leaves the fevered city and is cleansed by the cold white open expanses.

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There he meets Mary Malden (Ida Lupino) a gentle souled blind woman who is protecting her mentally disturbed younger brother Danny (Sumner Williams) suspected of killing Brent’s little girl. Danny begins hiding out from the posse headed by the victim’s crazed father Walter Brent (Ward Bond) When Brent and Jim Wilson come knocking on Mary’s door it sparks a chase through the starkly bright snowy countryside, a far extreme from the dingy alley ways of New York City.

Brent’s grief turns into an irrational blood lust brought on by his daughter’s senseless murder. Brent’s rage also mirror’s Jim’s own violent streak. As they track the elusive Danny to the isolated farm house Jim promises Mary after she pleads with him, to protect Danny from Brent until he can bring him in unharmed and safely to justice and get the help the young boy needs.

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Lupino delivers a portrayal of an angelic woman, a kind spirit who is not restricted by her blindness with a sentimentality that never becomes affected. Mary really sees Jim Wilson’s as he truly is, breaking through his tough cop exterior and understanding that he is suffering from alienation and abject loneliness. Bernard Herrmann‘s  score applies “Viola de Amour” to characterize not only Mary’s vulnerability but imbues her scenes involving Jim with an aura of poignancy.

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Mary “Would you be lonely if you lived in a place like this?” Jim “Yes I guess so” Mary “City can be lonely too. Sometimes people who are never alone are the loneliest… Don’t you think so?” Jim “I don’t know I’ve never thought it out.”
Mary “I think you have. Sometime or other most lonely people try to figure it out about loneliness.” “And you think I’m one of ’em?”


Ryan’s portrayal of Jim Wilson a man who starts out embittered, alienated and hostile is handled with a deftness that evokes great sympathy as he reflects on his grim life and reaches out for redemption. In contrast to the brutal reality of the closed-in dirty city streets he finds kindness, serenity and self-awareness in the wide open spaces of the country catalyzing his rebirth. Mary is the gentle force that helps transform his volatile nature, taming him. Once a rough beast of prey he is redeemed as a compassionate man.





Wilson is an archetypal contradiction of masculinity as he struggles and renounces the eternal ‘violent-male’ and goes through a transformation into the ‘reflexive-compassionate male.’



With Harry Belafonte’s Harbel productions adapted from William McGivern’s (The Big Heat) novel and directed by Robert Wise, scripted by black listed Abraham Polonsky, they reel in a crime thriller caper at the end of the classic cycle of noir with Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) An effective heist film with distinct racial over tones and Ryan’s solid looming presence, living in an oppressive dark universe that haunts the corners of his twisted antagonist mind.

Perhaps the most difficult to be sympathetic toward since his ignorant Anti-Semite Montgomery in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947) Ryan ignites the screen with his belligerent and reprehensible ex-con Earle Slater who suffers from a persecution complex. Odds Against Tomorrow has a screenplay by Nelson Gidding (who worked on Wise’s The Haunting 1963, I Want to Live ’58) and John Lewis’ stark jazz score, with the gritty urban tone set by cinematographer Joseph C. Brun, Ryan gets to flex his masculinity all over the place.

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Once again, the theme of alienation informs the narrative. Earle is a brute and the closest to an anti-heroic protagonist because of his rampant racism.

Stark horns blare as the sidewalk teems with playful children. The vision of Earle Slater’s imposing figure starts to wade through them, as one little happy girl bumps into him. Earle picks up the little black girl as he gives her a broad seemingly innocuous smile  “You little Pickaninny… you gonna kill yourself  flying like that… yes you are…”

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The contrasting nature of Earle’s kindly lilting voice mixed his pure racist venom creates a terrifying disconnect within this incisive moment. It generates a visual clash of carefree affection with the vile sensibility of hatred within the context of the scene. The way Earle spouts these words seems as easy as a line from a nursery rhyme that’s so disturbing and goes to how complex Ryan is able to layer his role as the contemptible Earle.


He’s an angry boiling pot that never simmers with the exception of his tender scenes with Shelley Winters who plays his nurturing and understanding girlfriend Lorry. Only she can draw out his hidden tenderness and vulnerability and lay it bare.


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The film has the noir criminal elements Ed Begley plays Dave Burke an ex-cop gone ‘bad’ having served time living now in the lonely confines of his dingy apartment. Dave is bitter and dejected and just wants to pull a simple bank robbery, make an easy steal so he can get away from his dismal existence. He wants to enlist white racist ex-con Earle Slater and black Harlem Jazz musician and gambler Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) to assist him. At first both men bristle at the idea and say they don’t want in. But, Ingram’s got the mob breathing down his neck, and Earle is tired of his girlfriend Lorry supporting him. Burke gets mobster Bocca to put the squeeze on Johnny and Earle finally cracks up after a fight in a bar with a younger soldier (Wayne Rogers) who challenges him in the bar calling him once again “old veteran’ he becomes riled to action. He then has a disagreement with Lorry which ends with her agreeing when he calls himself ‘old.’ “They’re not gonna junk me like an old car.”


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An alliance is formed, with these race-conscious partners in crime but we are aware from the beginning that the plan will unravel any minute.

Burke summons Earle to his place to offer him a bank job easy pickings, a chance to be in on the deal worth $50,000 in small bills. It’s an easy heist in the small upstate NY town of Melton. Burke thinks they can take the bank “with a water pistol” When Earle acts like his isn’t interested in the job Burke his past.

This infuriates Earle, Ryan’s dialogue is superb as the edgy down and out loser who is dis-likable disarming and enigmatic with his brooding fury. Earle is a guy from Oklahoma driven off his family’s land by the elements and hard times. He just never quite caught a break while he acknowledges that he himself ruined his own life, he assigns blame on those he sees as standing in his way of making it. Angry at the world and hating himself, Earle is a belligerent thug with a fragile ego, persecution and inferiority complex. Another paradox of ‘violent masculinity’ struggling with inner frailty.

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Earle-“What’s so big about you!… How come you make so much noise?”

Burke triggers Earle’s ire by ‘shooting his mouth off’ about his record, essentially questioning his manhood once he gets Earle up to his ‘dump.’

Burke-“I want a serious man with guts (the objectification of maleness) that’s you, that’s me that’s both of us.”

Burke also brings in Johnny Ingram who has a gambling habit on a losing streak and is in debt to a gangster named Bacco. But Earle despises black people. He calls Johnny ‘boy’ Johnny is such a sharp contrast with his fancy car, nice clothes and smooth manner. He’s cool and composed. Pays alimony to his beautiful wife and has a gorgeous singer named Kittie on the side. (Carmen De Lavallade)

Kittie-(after kissing Johnny) “That’s good. But it was better when you wanted it.”

When Burke gets Bacco to put pressure on Johnny so he’ll take the job, Bacco’s flunkeys start hanging around his little girl forcing him to go for the heist to get them off his back.

The two men are different, one is confident and the other riddled with self-doubt. Both are failures as men.

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Earle lives with Lorry while she supports him, which works on his ‘masculine integrity.’ Picking up the dry cleaning, being asked to babysit the neighbor’s baby undermine his identity as a strong male. When Earle meets the enticing neighbor Gloria Grahame whose husband leaves her alone a lot, he’s abrupt as he answers the door bare chested like an uncivilized brute sending her away. 

Robert Ryan Gloria Grahame Odds Against Tomorrow

He doesn’t like to be dared. This challenges his manhood. He feels washed up, useless and running out of time. He can’t make it, doesn’t earn any money. This film is such an exploration in hyper- masculinity beyond the elements of a classic noir caper. There are varying degrees of gender play with Coco (Richard Bright) Bacco’s flunky who is an obvious gay male character who adds counter balance to the film’s assortment of masculine debris.

All three men are eternal losers and weak in some way or another. Burke washed out as a cop and lives in a dump. Johnny is a divorced gambling addict and Earle has been losing ever since he fled Oklahoma as a poor boy and been running ever since. Earle’s history sets forth the duality of failed manhood vs self-confidence, strength vs weakness, anger vs satisfaction, violence vs peace. Male pride humiliation fear of failure and actual failure all breed a sense of defeat…



Earle finds Lorry’s little tasks for him and her care taking demeaning.

“You know I knew you were in trouble when I fell in love with you… You don’t have to be the great man with me Earle. I don’t care about things like that” Lorry is practically coercing the frailty out him in her loving well intentioned way.

“What’ll happen when I get old?” This is when she tells him “You are old now!”

Conflicted Earle calls after her but she walks out, telling him to go straight to hell. After being called old by the soldier and Lorry he needs to re-affirm his masculinity by seducing the sexy neighbor Helen.

Helen asks Earle how it felt when he killed that man. He growls his epiphany at her “You want me to make your flesh creep!”

he continues “I knew it, it scared me but I enjoyed it… I could kill him all over again, even though I didn’t mean to.” Helen -“What did he do to you?”

“He dared me. He insulted me. He was a very smart talkin’ character and he dared me… He dared me like you are now.”


The cheating scene with Gloria Grahame’s Helen is played with a hungry edge both sexy and repellent.


The power and fear of ‘castration’ makes Earle feel like he can’t cut it as a man who has never gotten a break or truly made it, earning good money and ultimately not doomed to fail.

Helen symbolizes danger and the darkness in Earle’s soul whereas Lorry is the nurturing good part of Earle’s life. Helen becomes aroused by Earle’s violent instability while Lorry understands it. He uses Helen to assert his virility. Grahame who has a quirky sexuality that I love, imbues her character with a variation on the theme of sexual violence. As Ryan’s relates to her the murder he committed it’s like romantic foreplay to her ears.  

Later he tells Lorry “I spoil everything, I can’t help it”

He doesn’t come home one night and Lorry panics that she’ll lose him. When he comes home he finds her crying in the dark.

“I’ve been leaving all my life, since when I can first remember.” Talking about his childhood we get a glimpse into his past.

“When the wind blew us of our home in Oklahoma we left. After that I never stayed. Not in the army, not in Detroit, any place. I’d start something and it didn’t work right away, I’d blow it. And it was always something, a lousy Captain, a Pollock foreman in the auto works. Id be too slow. Well I’m getting too old to take things slow. If I don’t make it now, I never will.”-

Lorry –“Aren’t things easy for you Earle?” Earle-“Only when I get mad. I think that’s why I get mad, to make it easy.”

Shelley Winter’s Lorry clings to him in their cramped room they call home like a sad mother caring for her angry child. He finally decides to take the bank job, but he is ultimately a doomed tragic figure.

Earle Slater is a parodoxical noir protagonist, a loaded gun. He’s volatile and abhorrent with his racist beliefs. Earle is an extremely flawed but strangely compelling character with moments that could elicit sympathy. He is a different person with Lorry who doesn’t care about his flaws and believes in him. Earle clings to her breast as he falls apart she is almost maternal in her care taking.

Earle’s racism keeps him alienated from his partners, as he never truly fits in anywhere, he feels he has no where else to go. The scenes where Earle wanders the desolation of the wintered city visualized his alienation.

Earle talks vehemently about the guns they’ll need for the bank job. Guns = penises. Dismissing Johnny’s input calling him ‘boy.’ Johnny proposes a simple ingenious scheme and Dave gets enthusiastic about the idea. Earle feels humiliated by this and his anger will be his downfall. The racial prejudices and antagonisms come to the fore in the climax. When the nearly psychotic Earle starts slugging the bank employees and being a brute, refusing to let Johnny drive the getaway car. That’s when things start to fall apart. Instead Earle gives the keys to Burke, who is almost immediately shot by the police when the alarm goes off. This leads to a shoot out between Earle and Johnny ending with them fighting at the top of an oil refinery tank which blows up killing both of them, a nod to Raoul Walsh’s seminal crime classic White Heat (1949), which blows up, killing them both. 


Ryan brings to life a very real character with so many shades of human weakness. He exudes a ‘bleakness’ of the human spirit on a path to destruction because of self-hatred and generational ignorance. Ryan’s poisonous portrayal of the ‘alienated man’ is heart wrenching as it is almost too much to endure. The plot conveys the staggering affliction of combustible men like Earle yet our sympathy won’t make him any less terrifying. 

That’s how real Robert Ryan taps into the core psychology of the hyper-masculine ‘violently’ masculine figure whose complexities are imbued with a degree of nuanced verisimilitude as he traverses the noir landscape of the ‘male’ spirit.


4 thoughts on “Hyper-Masculinity/Hidden Frailty: The Robert Ryan Aesthetic in Film Noir

  1. WOO I would have liked to have met Mr Dishy Robert Ryan, but he’d be too tall for me! Also we could do without some of the wayyy too indepth analyses above. Just enjoy the pics and the man.

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