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Archive for the ‘Robert Ryan’ Category

Young, Mitchum and Ryan

Like my previously discussed Arthur Kennedy obsession, my love for Robert Ryan is just as great. It’s odd to think that less than a year ago, I barely knew who he was. But seeing The Wild Bunch (1969) changed all that. Ryan captivated me as the reluctant bounty hunter, Deke Thorton. to the point where I lit up every time he appeared on screen. While I love everyone in that film, I found myself concerned about his character the most. He intrigued me like you wouldn’t believe (it doesn’t hurt that he’s also really handsome) and therefore, my newfound obsession with Robert Ryan was born.

Besides his involvement in The Wild Bunch, Ryan is perhaps best known for his portrayal of the murderous anti-Semite, Montgomery, in Edward Dmytryk’s excellent 1947 film-noir, Crossfire (showing Saturday March 22nd at 8:15 am on TCM). Take one look at his filmography and you’ll see that more often than not, Ryan played psychotic heavies in about 80% of the films he was cast. This is probably due to Crossfire, in which he plays Montgomery as a man brimming with anger and hate, but in measured doses. He doesn’t, as they say, chew the scenery. Monty seems to be good-natured, until someone pushes the right buttons and his psychotic side comes forth. One of Ryan’s strengths was playing villains. No matter what the part, Ryan brought an intelligence to them. His villains were never over the top–instead, Ryan characterized them as thoughtful and quiet, never one dimensional cardboard cutouts. They thought before they spoke or lashed out. And while you hated them, you also felt a bit of sympathy towards them for being so evil. In movies such as Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) or House of Bamboo (1955), Ryan always stole every scene he was in. His mere presence was enough to capture your attention.

Robert Young as FinlayThe plot of Crossfire deals with the murder of Samuels (Sam Levene), who also happens to be Jewish. Investigating it is Captain Finlay (Robert Young), who suspects Mitchell (George Cooper) of committing the act, while another GI, Keely (Robert Mitchum), goes out on a limb to prove his friend’s innocence. Others getting tangled up in the mess are Mitchell’s wife, Mary (Jacqueline White), “nightclub hostess”, Ginny (the always sexy Gloria Grahame) and her dishonorably discharged husband (Paul Kelly). The missing piece of the puzzle is Montgomery, who not only killed Samuels at the beginning of the film, but also murders another GI, Floyd (Steve Brodie), the only witness at hand.

Crossfire first emerged as a novel entitled, The Brick Foxhole. It was written in 1945 by Richard Brooks, who would go on in later years to direct such classics as Blackboard Jungle, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and my personal favorite, Elmer Gantry. In the book, Conversations With the Great Moviemakers, Brooks, an ex-marine, explains that his novel was inspired by the group of men he was stationed with: “In my outfit, marines didn’t like black people, didn’t like Jews, didn’t like homosexuals, didn’t like Catholics. They didn’t like anybody except marines, Protestant marines, especially if they came from Texas or Atlanta.” In The Brick Foxhole, the character of Samuels was a homosexual and since the Hayes code disallowed “sex perversions”, he became Jewish. However, it turned out to be a timely change, especially with the horrors of the concentration camps beginning to surface.

Robert RyanLike other actors of the era, Ryan enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1944, and while he never saw combat, he did become a drill instructor at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. It was during these years that Ryan read The Brick Foxhole. Afterwards, he got into contact with Brooks and told him that he would like to be considered for the role of Montgomery if it were ever made into a film. Brooks agreed. At that point, Ryan’s film career was rather short. He had been signed to Paramount for a brief period in 1940, but was dropped by the studio when they claimed that he was unsuitable for films. Now he was signed to RKO, where he appeared in second billed parts of a general nature. Perhaps Ryan saw Montgomery as a huge step forward–and it was. It not only garnered him rave reviews, but nabbed him the only Oscar nomination in his entire career. Ironically enough, Ryan would look back at the part with mixed feelings. While it did bring him to the public’s attention, it also lead to his being typecast as a villain. The public’s enthusiasm for Montgomery always mystified him, as he failed to see “the bone chilling evil I presumably projected.” Perhaps because in real life, Ryan was the complete opposite of his crazed characters. To say he was tolerant of other nationalities would be an understatement. Ryan despised racism, and was a supporter of many liberal political causes. He and his wife Jessica also founded a school, Oakwood, as they felt their children weren’t getting a proper education from the public and private systems. Whether through his acting or his social causes, Ryan wanted to make some kind of contribution to the world.

Mitchell’s flashbackCrossfire succeeds because of Ryan’s psychotic portrayal. When Keely (Mitchum) finds Mitchell (Cooper) and drags him into a darkened theater, Mitchell recalls a flashback from earlier in the night. Since he was drunk, his memory is hazy–yet, we see Montgomery and Samuels standing together, drinking. There’s a bit of an argument between the two and suddenly, Montgomery snarls, “No Jew is going to tell me how to two drink his stinking liquor!” It takes just the slightest word to set him off and expose the ugly hatred that lurks beneath. This is in contrast to the public persona of Montgomery that we see at the beginning of the film. When talking to Capt. Finlay, Monty has an almost wide-eyed and earnest innocence about him. But as the story progresses, more and more of Monty’s true nature is revealed. Right before the pivotal scene where Monty kills Floyd, he lashes out at him, yelling, “I don’t like Jews and I don’t like anyone who likes Jews!” For him, guilt by association is just as bad as being Jewish. But the one point that Crossfire lacks is the reason of why Monty hates the Jews so much. The most we ever get about his background is courtesy of Keely (Mitchum), who mentions that not much is known about him, except that Monty was a loner from all the way back. Did a Jewish person do something to him in the past? Or was he brought up to hate them? We’ll never know. Perhaps the book expounds on his character more, but for the film, it’s a pretty big flaw.

Gloria Grahame as Ginny

Besides Ryan’s standout performance, also of note is Gloria Grahame. Like Ryan, she was dumped by her old studio (MGM) and picked up by RKO. As Ginny (because she’s from Virginia–a fact that will be proven false later in the film), she’s both tough and vulnerable. As the “nightclub hostess” who gets involved with Mitchell, she lets her guard down when he offers to dance with her in the garden of the club where she works, The Red Dragon. Grahame is not only perfect for the role, but she’s also the perfect noir femme fatale. She’s sexy and seductive, with a bit of innocence thrown in for good measure. I absolutely love her in every movie of hers I’ve seen and her role in Crossfire is no exception.

Ginny and Mitchell share a danceFour’s a Crowd - Grahame, White, Young and KellyGinny’s husband
3 Scenes of Trouble: the innocent dance, the investigation and Ginny’s husband

One of my favorite scenes in the whole film occurs when Capt. Finlay and Mitchell’s wife, Mary, arrive at Ginny’s apartment to question her. Taking Ginny out of her nightclub element brings out her defensive side, only softening to admit that she did like Mitchell because she felt sorry for him. Finlay’s questioning is further complicated by the sudden appearance of Ginny’s husband, who admits that he had a conversation with Mitchell earlier in the evening. While he’s a slight character and their relationship is only a subplot, I find Ginny and her husband (I don’t think he was given a first name in the film)the staircase scene to be fascinating, a perfect example of how pre-war marriages failed when the men came home. It’s a subject examined more thoroughly in 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives (the failing marriage between Dana Andrews and Virginia Mayo), but here it’s sort of a postscript, albeit an interesting one. In one of the most disconcerting scenes, Ginny’s husband continues to talk about his failing marriage while Capt. Finlay and Mary walk away, leaving him alone. He admits that he still loves Ginny, although she despises him. But no one cares about his words or him. It’s as though the war has turned him into a lost soul.

Robert Mitchum as KeelyWhich brings me to the other air of sadness that pervades Crossfire: the adjustment to normal civilian life that the returning soldiers faced. In the beginning of the film, when Keely tells Capt. Finlay about Mitchell, he explains that his current occupation is that of a printer and mentions that instead of the Purple Heart, he now works with purple ink. It’s a good example of how heroic men who once fought for our country are now reduced to menial jobs, since they received no formal job training afterwards. It really depresses the entire film. No matter what the “happy” ending is for Mitchell and his wife, their future is still going to be bleak. Not only is there his involvement with Ginny (as innocent as their relationship is, I would hate to find out my husband went to a “nightclub hostess”!) but he’s just a lowly painter as well. I’m sure his salary is hardly enough to support a wife on. It’s for these reasons that I find post-war movies to be interesting, since I think all the disillusionments really shaped the nation for the years ahead, finally culminating rebellious spirt of the 1960’s.

Robert Ryan as Montgomery

When it was released, Crossfire was a hit. Not only did it win Best Social Film at the Cannes Film Festival and the Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Picture, but it was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor and Actress for Ryan and Grahame, Best Director for Dmytryk, Best Picture for Adrian Scott (producer) and Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay. Grahame, Dmytryk and the film itself lost out to the year’s other “social” picture, Gentleman’s Agreement (Celeste Holm won the Best Supporting Actress statue and Elia Kazan won for Best Director), while Ryan lost to Edmund Gwenn in Miracle of 34th Street. A snarling killer is no match for a lovable man masquerading as Santa Claus!

Sadly, the success of Crossfire brought negative attention to the people involved: Dmytryk, RKO producers Paul Jarrico and Scott, and Robert Ryan. The head of RKO at the time, Dore Schary, quickly dismissed any claims against Ryan by using his Marine Corps background to get him off the hook. The others weren’t so lucky–while Dmytryk rebounded after his inclusion on the Hollywood Ten list and Jarrico went on to make the only blacklisted film, Salt of the Earth, Scott found himself completely ruined.

Robert Ryan as MontgomeryGloria Grahame as Ginny
Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame make Crossfire a classic

Despite this, Crossfire is still a movie that manages to hold up today. While many people say that it’s a bit heavy-handed in it’s handling of racism, I tend to think of it as an excellent film noir murder mystery first and an anti-racism film second. As with many films, it’s the fantastic performances by the entire cast that make Crossfire worth watching. But it’s especially due to Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame, who were so rightly nominated for Oscars. They’re what gives the film it’s punch, creating two characters who try to suppress their true feelings, only to wind up wearing them on their sleeves. I’m not sure if any other actors/actresses could be good in those roles–both Ryan and Grahame give their characters that extra something that elevates them above the rest. It’s especially uncomfortable to watch Ryan’s Montgomery, since he’s such a hateful person, but it’s countered by knowing that he was the complete opposite of that persona in real life. That’s the mark of a great actor–to take yourself out of your element and make it completely believable.

In a curious side note, that brings this article together in a really roundabout way, The Brick Foxhole was reprinted and reissued in 1952 as a cheap paperback. However, the actor that graced the cover was not Robert Ryan, but…Arthur Kennedy. How about that?

Link: Another vintage magazine advertisement for Crossfire (large, good quality)

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I’ve come to realize that part of the problem of updating this blog is, well, me. For the past few entries, I’ve been trying to write substantial entries and it’s slightly hard because I’ve been trying to supress my somewhat rough-around-the edges nature. Combine that with the fact that like, two people, visit this on a daily basis (not counting the person who found this site by looking up the phrase “Trog stories + spanking”. Seriously, are there people looking for that kind of stuff? If you’re still hanging around–who are you? And are there really stories like that? Really? Joan Crawford delivering a good ol’ fashioned wallop on Trog’s furry behind? Let me know who you are and where the goods are to be found. Not that I’m interested in that kind of stuff. Really.)

Anyway, I found that I can’t be that kind of blogger anymore. It’s like a “nightclub hostess” (wink wink) trying to reinvent herself as a grand lady. You can take the girl out of the nightclubs, but you can’t take the nightclub out of the girl. So if there’s a shift in narrative, you now know why. Congrats, give yourself a cookie.

Original movie poster for The Dirty DozenWhich leads me to something that both Paris Hilton and I have in common (it’s not a sex tape, appearing in movies that leave theaters empty or performing in burlesque shows with the Pussycat Dolls–although the latter kind of sounds like it would be fun, as long as I don’t have to take it all off): making lists. I know a lot of people say lists are for lazy people and I know that others out and out despise them, but I love them. And with that, I give you 5 Good Reasons on Why The Dirty Dozen Isn’t Just a Movie For Guys. It’s on TCM tomorrow night–Thursday, February 21st at 8 pm–and if you’re a girl who has ever skipped over this because you’re thinking about that scene in Sleepless in Seattle where Tom Hanks and some other guy are crying over this movie, while Rosie O’Donnell and Tom Hanks’ real life wife (her name escapes me now. I’m not even sure if it’s those two. I saw that movie when I was a teenager. I can barely remember what happened yesterday) are bawling over An Affair to Remember, it’s time to clear your memory and start fresh.

(For the record, I would watch The Dirty Dozen over An Affair to Remember any day. I’m not that big on chick flicks, mainly because I wind up crying and I HATE crying in front of other people. You should have seen me after The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. You would have thought my dog just died. I usually have to lie that I’m getting something to drink and then run into the kitchen so I can bawl silently into a dishtowel and dishtowels aren’t tissues. They really leave your skin raw. Towel burn. It’s a really unattractive look.)

Anyway, 5 Good Reasons Why The Dirty Dozen Isn’t Just a Movie For Guys:

Kicking ass and taking names!1. Lee Marvin. Not only is he an awesome actor, but he’s probably the granddaddy of men with prematurely grey hair (Oh please, everyone swoons over Anderson Cooper and his grey hair. Lee Marvin totally beat him by what? 30 years? Take that, Anderson). Director Robert Aldrich originally wanted John Wayne to take on the Major Reisman role, but The Duke turned him down and went on to make The Green Berets instead. And since Aldrich has a knack for using the same actors in his films, Lee Marvin took the role instead. To which I say, Thank God! I have nothing against John Wayne, but Lee Marvin has that quiet intensity. He doesn’t come out and say he’s going to kick your ass, he just does it. And that’s hot.

2. The credits. I know you’re thinking, “The Credits?” But Robert Aldrich has a knack for making the credits into a work of art (also see: The Flight of the Phoenix and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte). As Reisman walks past “The Dirty Dozen”, the names of the cast roll past the screen. Okay, they’re not in order of how he announces them, but it’s still visually pleasing. It really grabs your attention and as someone with undiagnosed ADD, this is important. Of course, credits alone aren’t going to make the movie. It helps that…

3. The Dirty Dozen a really funny movie. Originally, it was supposed to be a flat-out adventure movie. Aldrich and Lukas Heller (who co-collaborated on many of Aldrich’s scripts) remade the movie into a comedy/action picture. And it works! Would The Dirty Dozen be legendary without Donald Sutherland impersonating a General or without the Dozen taking on Col. Everett Dasher Breed’s (played by one of my favorites, Robert Ryan) squad in a war game? Oh, hell no. When I first watched it, this exchange between Reisman and the psychopath Maggot (Telly Savalas) completely won me over:

Reisman: Any questions?
Maggot: Sir? Do we have to eat with N******?

(Maggot is then jumped by Jefferson (Jim Brown) while Reisman leaves the room. He closes the door and you can hear a huge fight beginning to break out.)

Sergeant Clyde Bowren (Richard Jaeckel): What’s going on, sir?
Reisman: Oh, the gentleman from the South had a question about the dining arrangements. He and his comrades are discussing place settings now.

Now, that’s original screenwriting. It was also my first clue to how The Dirty Dozen wasn’t just an ordinary war movie. Good dialogue wins me over and if you can make me laugh within the first half hour of a war movie, then you’ve probably earned a spot on my all-time favorites movie list. Good job.

4. It boasts great performances by the other cast members: Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Ralph Meeker and Richard Jaeckel (all favorites of Aldrich) give good, solid performance as higher-ups in charge and as members of the Dozen, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Clint Walker (who really doesn’t like to be pushed and he’ll be happy to tell you that–repeatedly) and in a bit of WTF? casting, Trini Lopez (according to the trailer, his character Jiminez is “filled with hate”, which he’s totally not. He’s the only member of the Dozen who cracks a smile. Give the man his guitar strings!), Of course, there’s also John Cassavetes as the somewhat insane, crazy eyed Franko. He was the only cast member to receive an Oscar nomination (Supporting Actor, lost to fellow Dozen cast member George Kennedy for Cool Hand Luke), which is a shame. The Academy could have certainly started giving out group nominations, which is exactly what this cast deserves.

5. The climatic scene where The Dozen finally infiltrate the Nazi castle. It’s the whole point of the story, but it’s sure fun to get there. This is where the majority of the action lays and while it’s exciting, it’s also heartbreaking to see the members of The Dozen go down one by one. I’m not going to say which ones live or die. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself going “NO!” as each member gets killed. You can thank that reaction to good character development. borgnineryan.jpgIf Aldrich and Heller had just left the script as it was, you probably would have a had a bunch of cardboard cutouts and you wouldn’t have cared if they lived or died. But by the end of this movie, you feel for each of the guys. You cheer them on. During the war games section, you’re rooting for them to show up the tyrannical rule of Col. Breed. Once unified by their hatred for Reisman, they’re banded together by the end using the “mess with one of us, and you mess with ALL of us” philosophy (this theme would be further explored to a much more violent extent in Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western classic The Wild Bunch. Oddly enough, Borgnine and Ryan could thank The Dirty Dozen for their roles in that movie–they were both cast on the strength of their performances in this film).

And of course, I failed to mention that the final moments of this movie have a really, really awesome explosion scene. I know how odd it is for me, as a woman, to cheer on this type of movie making–but I can’t help it. I love a really good explosion scene. Other ones of note are in Castle Keep (1969) and Catch-22 (1970). The dynamite factories must have been working overtime in the late 60’s/early 70’s.

It’s also interesting to mention that Aldrich was repeatedly told “Save the women, get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and Director” and he refused. His answer was “War is Hell”. It’s a pretty fair conclusion. The Nazis didn’t discriminate gender when they were throwing Jews into the concentration camps, did they? There’s a reason Robert Aldrich is my favorite director and his decision to keep the final scene intact is one of them.

So there you have it. A somewhat short list (I actually could have gone on forever, but I didn’t want to give all the good stuff away) of why I love The Dirty Dozen. You don’t have to be a guy to enjoy this movie. No, you just have to be someone who enjoys good moviemaking, great character development, witty dialogue and have a sense of humor while your at it. Movies shouldn’t be gender-specific. True movie lovers ignore genres and look for a substantial plot instead. And if you limit your genre watching, you’ll grow stagnant! And who wants to do that?

And come on, what woman doesn’t like to sit around and watch a bunch of guys kicking ass? The guys that make up The Dirty Dozen are MEN–give me that over the modern, sensitive pretty boys any day*.

*Okay, I wouldn’t go for any of the nutjobs like Maggot or the rapists. But Bronson’s Wladislaw wasn’t that bad. He shouldn’t have gotten caught doing what he did, that’s all. And I’m sure Jiminez would sing you love songs. Maybe. Unless he got really ticked off and decided to strangle you with a guitar string.

Tomorrow, Why I Love Clifton Webb.

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