Recently Rated Movies #52: Ryan's Hope

Desperate Hunger + Jack in the Box on Thursday Noon + Ciabatta Grilled Chicken Sandwich = Goddamned Food Poisoning. Felt like crap the last couple of days. Back in the saddle tonight...

The Proud Ones
Dir.: Robert D. Webb // 1956 [Fox Movie Channel]
Cinema 4 Rating: 6

I know what film convinced me that Robert Ryan was a crappy actor: Captain Nemo and the Underwater City. I saw it several times as a youth, and was always flustered with Ryan's portrayal of the title character, especially since I had fallen in love with the character in both book and film. For me, James Mason was Nemo, even if he is not as described in Verne's novel, and I also developed an appreciation for Herbert Lom and José Ferrer in the same part. But I felt Ryan's performance was lazy and, perhaps, uninterested, as if he felt the role was ridiculous and beneath him. The role is not, of course, but the film definitely was beneath him, and most likely behind him already in his mind as he made it, which probably resulted in what I perceived as a bad job of acting.

This is wholly erroneous, because Ryan was a terrific and complex actor, which I discovered as I grew up and saw many of his most famous films: The Wild Bunch, Crossfire, Billy Budd, The Dirty Dozen. (I prefer The Naked Spur out of his entire filmography, but I am a solid Anthony Mann nut.) In the past year or so, I have caught a lot of his earlier Westerns, and have definitely found myself happily caught in the middle of a personal Ryan revival. The opportunity to catch The Proud Ones on Sunday morning left me thinking about how one's opinion of an actor can hinge on such incidents: a youthful collision with a bad moment in the person's career, such as Ryan's late-career filling of the Nemo part.

Because, while Ryan's performance as Nemo may have actually been lazy and possibly bad, his job as Marshall Cass Silver in The Proud Ones shows his true dimensions to a sharpened degree. What could have been an apparent knockoff of Gary Cooper's High Noon role in the hands of a lesser craftsman becomes a showcase for Ryan to imbue his stoic lawman with craftiness and intelligence, arguably exceeding Cooper's Oscar-winning portrayal. This is no knock on Cooper; this is a different character in a roughly similar situation -- at least, each lawman is stuck in a scenario where he seems to be a doomed figure when the rest of their respective townsfolk refuse to get involved -- but Cooper's sheriff seems to rely more on sheer guts, desperation and the fortunate saving grace of some doubly timely intervention by his wife. Ryan's Marshall Silver also doesn't have to initially face his killer gang alone: faced with a worsening eye condition that could leave him blind and with a citizenry unwilling to back him up politically and physically, he uses his wits to slowly convert a youthful wildcat (Jeffrey Hunter) into his fold, even when the kid is more than willing to kill the Marshall, believing throughout most of the film that Marshall Silver shot down his gunslinging father in cold blood. At numerous other points in the film, Ryan's Silver relies unswervingly on his wits, using what he knows about the town, its surroundings and its citizens, to aid him in his battle against his tormenters.

And this was the biggest pleasure in The Proud Ones. One can go through several seasons of numerous western series and not get the same sense of their towns being as lived in as the town of Flat Rock, Kansas. Every character seems absolutely possessed by this feeling of belonging in exactly that place at that point in time. It's a tough trick to achieve, making the viewer believe that even the incidental characters are real people that exist even outside the frame of the story, and the screenwriters succeed in that, while also giving a plausible historic mood to the events leading to the film's actions. The film itself, though, is no High Noon. But what film, outside of High Noon itself, is? The Proud Ones proves in the end to be merely good, and while no lost classic, but it contains numerous treasures within, not least of which is Robert Ryan's steadily crafty performance.

There is a reason one must revisit the impressions of one's youth and judge them by the critical standards of an adult intellect. In the case of judging Mr. Ryan when I was ten years old, I was sorely incorrect and unlearned. I still don't like him as Captain Nemo (I saw it again last year), but through the keening intelligence I have seen him display in about two dozen other performances, I have now surfaced from my trip in the Nautilus of Premature Judgment...


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