“Somebody’s throat has to be cut.”

Ryan02

I could never imagine actually being beaten up by Robert Ryan and yet I’ve always been a little afraid of him – and never more so than when he smiles.  That cruel smile, those full lips pulling back to reveal a set of ivories as imposing as the Dover coast, and that soundless chuckle promised something, it always seemed to me, far worse than death.  Throughout his career, the performances that really mattered… the embittered bigot of CROSSFIRE (1947), the vengeful veteran of ACT OF VIOLENCE (1948), the congenial conspirator of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955), the expatriate gang boss of HOUSE OF BAMBOO (1955), the seething career criminal of ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959) and the vulture-like master d’arms of BILLY BUDD (1962), to name a few… were always cut with a lethal sense of fun, real cat and mouse type stuff.  And make no mistake about it – everybody else was the mouse.

Ryan03

My favorite Robert Ryan performance – and brother is that distinction hard to single out – is as the misanthropic movie projectionist Earl Pfeiffer in Fritz Lang’s CLASH BY NIGHT (1953).   “Mr. Earl” is one of Ryan’s more benign characters – he doesn’t kill anybody and he only puts his hands out in front of him for the purposes of self defense – but he’s among his most dangerous.  “Didn’t you ever want to cut up a beautiful dame?” Earl asks buddy Jerry D’Amato (Paul Douglas) about twenty minutes into CLASH BY NIGHT – asks with a smile, of course.  A commercial fisherman, Jerry has brought along to the Bijou his new girlfriend, Mae (Barbara Stanwyck), who has returned to her home town under mysterious circumstances.  Although Mae talks the talk of calling the projectionist a jerk we know she’s into him like nobody’s business.  Earl’s misogynist rap (of his showgirl wife, he says “Some day I’m gonna stick her fulla pins, just to see if blood runs out”) communicates confidence to Mae, who is reeling from a life of disappointments and the recent death of the one man (married, unfortunately) who promised to protect her from the world.  In time, Mae marries Jerry and has a baby with him.  The baby gets Mae’s heart, Jerry gets the semblance of family but Earl gets the rest.  We can see that coming all the off but it takes Mae a while to admit it to herself and even longer to admit it to Jerry.

Ryan04

Ryan had been among the cast of CLASH BY NIGHT when the Clifford Odets play ran on Broadway in 1941.  In that short-lived production, directed by Lee Strasberg, he had played Jerry’s kid brother (Keith Andes in the film), with Lee J. Cobb in the part given to Paul Douglas for the movies.  The play went nowhere fast between Christmas of ’41 and the following Valentine’s Day but RKO bought the property, hired Alfred Hayes to rewrite, shifted the setting (at the behest of producer Jerry Wald) from Staten Island to California’s Cannery Row, cast Stanwyck, Douglas and Ryan in the leads (with a young Marilyn Monroe pushed up from the minors in a juicy supporting role) and offered the package deal to Fritz Lang.  Made by Lang between SCARLET STREET (1945) and THE BIG HEAT (1953) and shot by Nicholas Musuraca (who’d transitioned with ease from the Val Lewton-produced CAT PEOPLE, THE SEVENTH VICTIM and CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE to Jacques Tourneur’s OUT OF THE PAST and Harold Daniels’ ROADBLOCK), CLASH BY NIGHT is run through with film noir shadows, acidic dialogue (“You can’t make me any smaller.  I’m pre-shrunk.”) and an oppressive air of defeat and doom… yet it never condescends to fashionable fatalism.  It is one of the most agonized films of its era yet the damage done stems not from noir machinations but from the desperation of its dramatis personae for love.

Ryan07

“If I ever loved a man again, I’d bear anything,” Barbara Stanwyck’s wounded Mae declares in CLASH BY NIGHT.  “He could have my teeth for watch fobs.”  End to end, the film’s dialogue makes continued use of mutilation motifs.  “Batter his brains out,” the cuckolded Jerry is advised by his Uncle Vince (J. Carrol Naish); when the hulking Jerry confronts his unfaithful wife, she backs into a corner and threatens “I’ll smash your face with the first thing I can lay my hands on.”  Elsewhere, young lovers Marilyn Monroe and Keith Andes square off in mock fights that invariably cross the line into actual physicality yet theirs is the one relationship in CLASH BY NIGHT to pin your hopes on.  While deception and betrayal are key tropes in film noir, here the cards are all laid on the table early on, with each character unflinchingly honest about his or her shortcomings.  “My heart’s in the wrong place,” Earl declares at his first meeting with Mae, who in turn tells Jerry she’s no good for him.  If anything, the characters betray themselves.  Mae marries Jerry but lets Earl take her down in a violent clutch during which she slips her hand under his “wife beater,” her fingers appearing positively skeletal through the thin fabric, as if she is reaching deep within her lover, plumbing for anything like a soul.  And the kicker is, Earl has a soul, he’s got a hell of a soul, but he’s too scarred, too broken, too enamored of getting the last word to ever fire it up for real.  As a projectionist, smiling Earl is a delivery boy for dreams he can never share.  You could say he’s on the outside looking in or the inside looking out and both would be equally true.  Lang’s frequent bridging shots of the roiling Pacific or gathering thunderheads marks his characters as elemental but Earl’s private Hell is to remain forever out of his element.

Ryan08

As written by Odets, CLASH BY NIGHT ended with a murder – I won’t say who’s.  As realized by Fritz Lang, CLASH BY NIGHT goes a different way in its own tormented final frames – I won’t say how.  Lang and Hayes toy with noir conventions, tweak and thwart them, undermining audience expectations in a bid, it seems, to get moviegoers as worked up and frustrated as their characters claim to be.  Underrated both as a Fritz Lang movie and as a spotlight for the still-rising star of Robert Ryan, CLASH BY NIGHT is nonetheless essential viewing for fans of both artists and those who want to understand what all the fuss is about.  Tune in or TiVo when Turner Classic Movies runs CLASH BY NIGHT as part of its Robert Ryan Centennial next week and dig one of the movies’ most intriguing shitheels, who’s never more trouble than when he turns that frown upside down.

CLASH BY NIGHT airs on TCM on Tuesday, November 10th.  Check your local listings for broadcast times.

0 Response “Somebody’s throat has to be cut.”
Posted By Patricia : November 6, 2009 8:51 am

The raw emotion Ryan brings to this role make it the most frightening for me. It’s not a movie I can bring myself to rewatch often.

Posted By Patricia : November 6, 2009 8:51 am

The raw emotion Ryan brings to this role make it the most frightening for me. It’s not a movie I can bring myself to rewatch often.

Posted By Kl!ph : November 6, 2009 10:20 pm

Don’t forget the psycho he played !n Beware, My Lovely (1952).

Posted By Kl!ph : November 6, 2009 10:20 pm

Don’t forget the psycho he played !n Beware, My Lovely (1952).

Posted By medusamorlock : November 7, 2009 11:16 am

There’s something so taut in Ryan in this kind of role…you want to try to save that teddy bear in that lead photo! Can’t wait to watch “Clash by Night” on Tuesday!!

Posted By medusamorlock : November 7, 2009 11:16 am

There’s something so taut in Ryan in this kind of role…you want to try to save that teddy bear in that lead photo! Can’t wait to watch “Clash by Night” on Tuesday!!

Posted By Danni : November 10, 2009 9:03 pm

Ryan is always the marginalized, misunderstood and defiant loner. You tend to condemn him on site for being so damn alienated and so damn secure about it. What is fascinating is that he sustained this persona throughout his career and explored the dark depths along with the writers and directors who made films with him in mind. In a sense he’s a refreshing counterpoint to the glossy seductive but often vapid charm of standard Hollywood leads. Robert Ryan, he sure could play despicable!

Posted By Danni : November 10, 2009 9:03 pm

Ryan is always the marginalized, misunderstood and defiant loner. You tend to condemn him on site for being so damn alienated and so damn secure about it. What is fascinating is that he sustained this persona throughout his career and explored the dark depths along with the writers and directors who made films with him in mind. In a sense he’s a refreshing counterpoint to the glossy seductive but often vapid charm of standard Hollywood leads. Robert Ryan, he sure could play despicable!

Posted By moirafinnie : November 11, 2009 2:48 pm

RHS, I loved your description of Robert Ryan‘s character as “a delivery boy for dreams he can never share” in this film. No one in Odets’ story is allowed many moments of peace or pleasure, but the most tormented always seemed to be Robert Ryan‘s restless bully, tossing off ultimatums and judgments of others throughout the drama, when all he really wants is to share the misery he feels and assuage his own blistering pain. I can’t say this is my favorite Ryan role (or Odets work), but it is unforgettable.

I sure would like to know what the temperamental Tallulah Bankhead thought of Ryan in the stage production of Clash by Night that won Ryan good reviews and a contract at RKO.

Thanks for making me re-think Clash By Night in such a vivid way as a result of your well written description.

Posted By moirafinnie : November 11, 2009 2:48 pm

RHS, I loved your description of Robert Ryan‘s character as “a delivery boy for dreams he can never share” in this film. No one in Odets’ story is allowed many moments of peace or pleasure, but the most tormented always seemed to be Robert Ryan‘s restless bully, tossing off ultimatums and judgments of others throughout the drama, when all he really wants is to share the misery he feels and assuage his own blistering pain. I can’t say this is my favorite Ryan role (or Odets work), but it is unforgettable.

I sure would like to know what the temperamental Tallulah Bankhead thought of Ryan in the stage production of Clash by Night that won Ryan good reviews and a contract at RKO.

Thanks for making me re-think Clash By Night in such a vivid way as a result of your well written description.

Posted By Robert Kawasaki : November 15, 2009 9:43 am

Robert Ryan, Good, Bad and Ugly.

Robert Ryan has a much reputation for playing bad guys. There are countless efforts.

Montgomery in CROSSFIRE
Smith Orlig in CAUGHT
Earl Pfeiffer in CLASH BY NIGHT
Ben Vandergroat in THE NAKED SPUR
Howard Wilton in BEWEAR MY LOVELY
Reno Smith in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK
Sandy Dawson in HOUSE OF BAMBOO
Earle Slater in ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW
John Claggart in BILLY BUDD
Charley Ellis in AND HOPE TO DIE

However, his bad guys are not simple bad guys. At least they had their reasons to be bad. They were troubled, despaired, and hampered in some ways. They always became the mirrors of our own images. We can almost feel if we aren’t careful, we will be like them. Ryan’s characterizations were always real and authentic. He always added many elements to his bad guys so they were bad, ugly, and in a same time tragic or even little sympathetic.

Ryan was real artist to express depth of human nature, because of that, his fame never will diminish.

Posted By Robert Kawasaki : November 15, 2009 9:43 am

Robert Ryan, Good, Bad and Ugly.

Robert Ryan has a much reputation for playing bad guys. There are countless efforts.

Montgomery in CROSSFIRE
Smith Orlig in CAUGHT
Earl Pfeiffer in CLASH BY NIGHT
Ben Vandergroat in THE NAKED SPUR
Howard Wilton in BEWEAR MY LOVELY
Reno Smith in BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK
Sandy Dawson in HOUSE OF BAMBOO
Earle Slater in ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW
John Claggart in BILLY BUDD
Charley Ellis in AND HOPE TO DIE

However, his bad guys are not simple bad guys. At least they had their reasons to be bad. They were troubled, despaired, and hampered in some ways. They always became the mirrors of our own images. We can almost feel if we aren’t careful, we will be like them. Ryan’s characterizations were always real and authentic. He always added many elements to his bad guys so they were bad, ugly, and in a same time tragic or even little sympathetic.

Ryan was real artist to express depth of human nature, because of that, his fame never will diminish.

Posted By bangmelove289 : November 15, 2009 4:47 pm

Robert Ryan always gavve his villains that touch of humanity and vulnerability despite thier badness there was always an element of attraction

Posted By bangmelove289 : November 15, 2009 4:47 pm

Robert Ryan always gavve his villains that touch of humanity and vulnerability despite thier badness there was always an element of attraction

Posted By Robert Kawasaki : November 25, 2009 8:44 am

Attractive badness was one of Robert Ryan’s patents. CLASH BY NIGHT is certainly one of the best examples of his patent.

I would like to mention other superb example of this attractive badness. Its a French film call LA COURSE DU LIEVRE A TRAVERS LES CHAMPS(Also as known as AND HOPE TO DIE) which is directed by solid Rene Clement in 1972. The film is lesser known, and poorly received by many, especially in English speaking regions. However, some critics often thought as this film as a minor classic of the neo-gangster genre. In Japan, many people admire it and they would surely rank this movie as one of Robert Ryan’s best films. The film is somewhat surrealistic, and its abstractness failed to capture fancy of audience who would expect pure entertainment from gangster films. However, at any rate, LA COURSE DU LIEVRE A TRAVERS LES CHAMPS is a beautiful film. Brutality of the gang was compared with innocence of the youth, and explained through naive motivation such always could be found in children’s game. This effort makes the film quite poetic and interesting.

Ryan plays the leader of this gang which is filled with social misfits. They live on an isolated island just outside of Montreal. They have their own strange code of moral, moreover, they live like a family. Ryan’s Charley is the father figure, and he enjoys total authority over planning their jops such include kidnapping and murder. In this sense, this guy is certainly a bad man, yet Ryan infuses quiet grace and sensitive tenderness into his character. His Charley is a life time thief and a looser, yet he is capable of treating younger misfits with a tenderness just like his real children. Nevertheless, he is quite crafty and cunning indeed. Who else could play such a complex character but Robert Ryan?

It is a wonderful tribute for Robert Ryan, because he could curve almost every personal stamp on LA COURSE DU LIEVRE A TRAVERS LES CHAMPS. He is bad, smart, confident, ambitious, yet compassionate, romantic, and most importantly attractive.

Posted By Robert Kawasaki : November 25, 2009 8:44 am

Attractive badness was one of Robert Ryan’s patents. CLASH BY NIGHT is certainly one of the best examples of his patent.

I would like to mention other superb example of this attractive badness. Its a French film call LA COURSE DU LIEVRE A TRAVERS LES CHAMPS(Also as known as AND HOPE TO DIE) which is directed by solid Rene Clement in 1972. The film is lesser known, and poorly received by many, especially in English speaking regions. However, some critics often thought as this film as a minor classic of the neo-gangster genre. In Japan, many people admire it and they would surely rank this movie as one of Robert Ryan’s best films. The film is somewhat surrealistic, and its abstractness failed to capture fancy of audience who would expect pure entertainment from gangster films. However, at any rate, LA COURSE DU LIEVRE A TRAVERS LES CHAMPS is a beautiful film. Brutality of the gang was compared with innocence of the youth, and explained through naive motivation such always could be found in children’s game. This effort makes the film quite poetic and interesting.

Ryan plays the leader of this gang which is filled with social misfits. They live on an isolated island just outside of Montreal. They have their own strange code of moral, moreover, they live like a family. Ryan’s Charley is the father figure, and he enjoys total authority over planning their jops such include kidnapping and murder. In this sense, this guy is certainly a bad man, yet Ryan infuses quiet grace and sensitive tenderness into his character. His Charley is a life time thief and a looser, yet he is capable of treating younger misfits with a tenderness just like his real children. Nevertheless, he is quite crafty and cunning indeed. Who else could play such a complex character but Robert Ryan?

It is a wonderful tribute for Robert Ryan, because he could curve almost every personal stamp on LA COURSE DU LIEVRE A TRAVERS LES CHAMPS. He is bad, smart, confident, ambitious, yet compassionate, romantic, and most importantly attractive.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : November 25, 2009 9:55 am

Robert, I have a copy of the American cut of And Hope To Die and I like it for the odd, compelling mess that it is. And Robert Ryan – clearly ill – is great as the American gangster who forms an uneasy alliance with Jean-Louis Trintignant. I’d love to see the uncut version, although I wonder if that retains Ryan’s vocal performance.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : November 25, 2009 9:55 am

Robert, I have a copy of the American cut of And Hope To Die and I like it for the odd, compelling mess that it is. And Robert Ryan – clearly ill – is great as the American gangster who forms an uneasy alliance with Jean-Louis Trintignant. I’d love to see the uncut version, although I wonder if that retains Ryan’s vocal performance.

Posted By Robert Kawasaki : November 26, 2009 7:19 am

Thank you for your comment Richard. The uncut version of LA COURSE DU LIEVRE A TRAVERS LES CHAMPS is 135 minutes long. It is available in Russia, France, and Japan. Sadly none of those DVD offers us English subtitles. Also, neither of them contain Robert Ryan’s real voice. His voice was dubbed by an unknown French actor.

Reportedly, the American cut is 99 minutes long. I have never seen it, but I would imagine, because of its shortage, it failed to deliver the true essense of the film. I strongly suggest you to observe the uncut version. Lets hope that in near future, the complete version of the film with English subtitles will appear on the market. Like you say, it is odd, compellingly messy in good way, imaginative, and beautiful. Despite somebody is speaking for him in French, Robert Ryan is great in this one.

Posted By Robert Kawasaki : November 26, 2009 7:19 am

Thank you for your comment Richard. The uncut version of LA COURSE DU LIEVRE A TRAVERS LES CHAMPS is 135 minutes long. It is available in Russia, France, and Japan. Sadly none of those DVD offers us English subtitles. Also, neither of them contain Robert Ryan’s real voice. His voice was dubbed by an unknown French actor.

Reportedly, the American cut is 99 minutes long. I have never seen it, but I would imagine, because of its shortage, it failed to deliver the true essense of the film. I strongly suggest you to observe the uncut version. Lets hope that in near future, the complete version of the film with English subtitles will appear on the market. Like you say, it is odd, compellingly messy in good way, imaginative, and beautiful. Despite somebody is speaking for him in French, Robert Ryan is great in this one.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.