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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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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.’

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