Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Set-up

Robert Wise's 1949 bleak and brutal film noir The Set-up is one of the best boxing films ever made. I was actually very surprised to learn that it was actually adapted from a narrative poem! Arts and Letters Daily now points me to a long essay on Joseph Moncure March, the poet and screenwriter who wrote it, which discusses this poem in great detail. It is also available on a very nice DVD with commentary by Martin Scorsese who speaks about its influence on his own work and also its very innovative narrative style - the story is told in (almost) real time. Actually the film is bookended by shots of a clock which actually shows the total time elapsed which is almost the same as the total length of the film itself. This is also one of Robert Ryan's greatest performances which makes you wish he had got more lead roles to play. In my opinion he was way ahead of actors and regular noir-leads like Robert Mitchum, Dana Andrews or Glenn Ford.


puccinio said...

Robert Ryan had plenty of great roles like ''Caught''(by Max Ophuls), ''On Dangerous Ground''(by Nicholas Ray), ''The Naked Spur''(by Anthony Mann), ''House of Bamboo''(by Samuel Fuller), ''Day of the Outlaw''(by Andre deToth) and many others. And then he appeared in his later years in ''The Wild Bunch'', a classic of New Hollywood but with a cast of Old Western character actors and headed by William Holden.

Ryan was sadly typecast as a villain but in real life he was by many accounts a nice guy. He was a left-wing Catholic who protested against HUAC, Nuclear Armament and had a long happy marriage. The role which launched him, as the anti-semite heavy in ''Crossfire'' really troubled him because he hated his character and yet as an actor had to convey the humanity of such a person. He appeared in quite a few Anthony Mann's westerns and an interesting non-western called ''God's Little Acre'' that's over-the-top but fascinating.

He also appeared in more films by Nicholas Ray than any other actor. Sadly the only significant film is ''On Dangerous Ground''. But he's excellent in the other films as well - ''Flying Leathernecks''(it's watchable for what it's worth), ''Born to Be Bad''.

The other great role is as John the Baptist in ''King of Kings'', a flawed but fascinating epic account of the Life of Jesus. It's interesting today because of the unusual approach to the storyline. The first scenes are practically documentary-like and Jesus comes in a little later and the like. It has moments of kitsch of course(so much so that Orson Welles refused to have his name credited as narrator, so disgusted was he with the film's treatment of Jesus).

Robert Ryan was a lot like Richard Widmark, as Martin Scorsese himself noted. He was a character actor but also had the presence and command of a star. He could hold his own with the likes of Bogie, Cagney or John Garfield but he also loves to sink himself into challenging roles. A lot like Robert DeNiro in his films with Scorsese.

Like ''The Naked Spur'', part of the fun is watching two of the great actors of all time, Jimmy Stewart and Robert Ryan(playing a Mephistophilian figure) snipe and lash at each other. And Ryan isn't diminished at all by Jimmy Stewart(the nominal star of the film) but then Stewart as an actor loved working with great co-stars.

puccinio said...

Another great Ryan role is in Jean Renoir's last American film, ''The Woman on the Beach''.

It's a very surreal film(in the actual sense of the term) that Renoir himself admitted probably belonged in the 20's in the years of German Expressionism.

Ryan plays a "beach cowboy", that is a guy who works on the coast guard who rides a horse on patrol who suffers from bad dreams and then meets the title woman(incarnated rather than played by the sublime Joan Bennett) who's the long suffering wife of a blind painter(Charles Bickford in a magnificent performance). It's unlike anything Renoir ever made though it's similar to ''La Bete Humaine''.

It's plot is obscure and obtuse and the ending is the last thing you'd expect. The score is by Hans Eisler(who later scored Alain Resnais' ''Night and Fog'' and worked with Brecht on all his final works).

In it's time the film was seen as the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back since it was a big failure and worse, a non-mainstream failure(it was independently produced by Joan Bennett and her husband Walter Wanger) and Renoir realized that his time in Hollywood was bust. But he loved the cast and enjoyed working with Robert Ryan.

He's also mesmerizing in ''Clash by Night'' opposite Barbara Stanwyck, ''Bad Day at Black Rock'' and an underrated film in the ''Crossfire'' mold - ''Act of Violence'' by Fred Zinnemann.

Just imagine, he was never as popular as say, Charlton Heston but he worked with Renoir, Ophuls, Lang, Ray, Fuller, Mann and Peckinpah. There's a real place in heaven for him. And since Mr. Ryan believed in God, God bless Robert Ryan.

Alok said...

Wow, thanks for a great career rundown! Ophuls and Fuller have been on my list for quite some time. I will also put the Andre de Toth and will see if I can get Renoir though I doubt it is available on DVD. Caught is also I think not yet available.

He was also great in Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow. A regular heist plot but still a very stylish film with a fantastic and very unusual Jazz soundtrack too.

I remember watching The Set-up and Clash by Night one after the other...I had quite a few nightmares after that! Normally these would have been normal (if still powerful) melodramas but with him it becomes a much more, um, mysterious, even who is at the the characters in Dostoevsky. It was his own investment into the character and story which made them so affecting...I doubt if the writers or directors even thought of that character in the same way before casting him.

Yes he did work with so many great directors and I think he is remembered and respected by film lovers if not by the more average film goer. I just wished that he got more roles like the ones Mitchum played at RKO for example. I just imagine how much he would have brought to those regular genre pictures, many of which are still quite good and a few like Out of the Past masterpieces even. Mitchum had just patented a pose and a particular gaze and he just kept on doing the same thing over and over again. (Though he did act in one of my perennial favourite films The Night of the Hunter and he is of course brilliant in it too.)

A good example is Crossfire...his character on the page is just a cardboard villain, an awful bigot, but with him the audience begins to wonder what the source of his bigotry might be, trying to see behind his actions to look for his motivations etc and in the end it is his character which comes out to be the most human and most complex of all, bringing out this element of bitterness and self-loathing that he was so good at doing. Ryan was incidentally didn't feel good playing that and similar roles later in the career but unfortunately for him he got quite a few of those.

puccinio said...

I think you're selling Mitchum a little short. Mitchum like Brando would deliberately ham it up when he realizes that the film is beneath him and that was their way of paying back the producer or the director for wasting their time. But if they find the right role they'd be dead serious.

Mitchum worked with Nicholas Ray on ''The Lusty Men''(which he also co-wrote) and it's one of his deeply felt, most mature performances. Similarly ''Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison''. He's also stunning in an against-type late role in David Lean's highly underrated ''Ryan's Daughter''.

Robert Ryan's capacity as an actor tended to be towards realism towards conveying the humanity of his characters while Mitchum had this anarchic sensibility creep into his performances. Mitchum himself in real life openly preached about the virtues of Marijiuana and was jailed for it and he openly talked about how he sucked as an actor but he was also politically insensitive(like he said that "we should nuke Vietnam" his worst moment) but he also had a strong dedication to acting that won him the admiration of people like Charles Laughton, David Lean, Huston and others.