Archive for the ‘Ernest Borgnine’ Category

 

Burt-DayIMG_4674

 

This past week, Nitehawk Cinema hosted the latest Kevin Geeks Out show, focusing on Wigs, Toupees, and Hairpieces in movies. It was my great honor to be among the talented and hysterical presenters. I got the chance to talk about one of the greatest movie stars of the past century, as part of my mission to remind people of his greatness. The following is what I presented:

 

000 BURT REYNOLDS

 

It feels like high time to remember what makes Burt Reynolds so important. In the late 1970s and the early 1980s he was the number-one movie star in the country for five years straight. For that reason, Burt’s story is part of America’s story. He met everybody. His memoir is loaded with many of the most famous people of the past century. His book is like Forrest Gump, if Forrest Gump was Burt Reynolds.

 

001

 

Why am I bringing up Burt Reynolds in a show about Wigs, Toupees, and Hairpieces? There are at least two big reasons, and I’ll get to them both. I’d argue that hair is a central theme of Burt’s stardom, and it’s also part of the reason we lost track of him.

 

Burt Reynolds, with his dog Bertha. 1970.

 

002 SAM WHISKEY

 

For a good part of his career, Burt didn’t have his signature mustache. Here he is taking a bath in SAM WHISKEY from 1969. That same year, Burt grew a mustache for his role in 100 RIFLES opposite Jim Brown and Raquel Welch.

 

003 DELIVERANCE

 

But one of Burt’s signature roles had nothing to do with the mustache. Here he is in DELIVERANCE from 1972. It’s a strong movie and Burt is a big part of what makes it that way. In an alternate universe, we can imagine, Burt continued on this hairless path.

 

004 AS ROCKY RHODES IN 'THE TWILIGHT ZONE'.

 

Burt says he grew the mustache because he was tired of being compared to Marlon Brando. This is Burt from an episode of The Twilight Zone, early in his career, where he plays a sort of Brando type actor. In the book Burt tells a story about Brando cornering him at a party to accuse him of cashing in on the resemblance. Burt said, “I’m not having surgery because you don’t like the way I look. But I promise not to get fat.”

 

005 MUSTACHE PARTY

 

So, the mustache. This is the popular image of Burt Reynolds in people’s mind. At one time in American pop culture, a mustache was a symbol of maleness, of virility. Maybe it was a Teddy Roosevelt thing. But as time went on, and especially nowadays, the mustache seems to promise comedy.

Ron Swanson.

Ned Flanders.

Chuck Norris.

 

006 PLAYGIRL

 

That’s the catch-22: It’s partly because of the very sign of his legendary machismo that people stopped taking Burt Reynolds seriously.

 

007 COSMO

 

And this is another reason. In 1972 Burt posed naked for Cosmopolitan magazine. He did it right before DELIVERANCE made him a huge star. Burt did it for a laugh, but it worked against him. People didn’t get it.

 

008 Fuzz (1972)

 

As you can see from this poster for FUZZ, that photoshoot haunted his image.

 

009

 

Most people see Burt as a playboy, as a goofball. They don’t remember how good an actor he was, and how great a movie star he was.

 

010 DANCING

 

This is Burt (on the far right) dancing at a party near Steve McQueen and his wife. It’s true that Burt Reynolds was always fun. It was part of his image.

 

011 DANCING

 

Another thing about Burt Reynolds that makes him awesome, but that also works against him, is his openness and honesty. He called his own movies crap when they were crap, and even when they weren’t. He was never afraid to be the butt of the joke, but maybe people stopped noticing he was in on it.

 

012 SHATNER

 

Here’s another thing: In America, you can’t ever admit you wear a hairpiece. William Shatner is an example of a guy who didn’t hide it, and so he’s generally treated as a punchline.

 

013

 

Here’s a guy who never admits it.

 

014

 

As long as you never admit it isn’t real, you’re invincible.

 

015

 

Even when there’s relatively apparent visual proof that you’ve had work done on your hairline…

 

016

 

As long as you don’t admit it, you’re golden. The second you admit it, you’re Samson post-Delilah.

 

017 Deliverance (1972)

 

Burt says, “I’ve always been frank about my hair, because if you deny it, you’re fooling yourself.  Everybody else will do jokes about it. It’s better if you do the jokes first.” And so he did. But I think it made people forget what an effective dramatic actor he was.

 

017a

 

Fun story about Burt and the hairpiece: “One night at a bar in New York some idiot came over and made a crack about a “pelt on my head and I said, “If you can get it off before I beat the shit out of you, you can have it.”

 

017b

 

Another admirable thing about Burt is his ability to make amazing friendships. He can be best pals with a guy who turned out to be as right-wing as Jon Voight…

 

017c

 

And he can be as close as he was to Ossie Davis, who told Burt, “You’re the only actor in the world liked by both African-Americans and the Ku Klux Klan.” For the record, Burt wasn’t interested in entertaining racists. If you watch his movies, his love for people shines through — regardless of their gender, race, or orientation. If it was a party, everybody was invited.

 

018 White Lightning (1973)

 

DELIVERANCE solidified Burt as a Southern-fried action star. He appeared – still without the mustache – in films like WHITE LIGHTNING

 

019 Gator (1976)

 

…and GATOR

 

STICK, Burt Reynolds, 1985

STICK, Burt Reynolds, 1985

 

…the latter of which also marked the start of his directing career.

 

021 The Longest Yard (1974)

 

One of Burt’s best and most famous movies, THE LONGEST YARD, shows what he can do without mustache power. It’s one of the greatest sports movies ever made.

 

022 Hustle (1975)

 

Coming from the same director a year later, HUSTLE was a very underrated crime film. Guaranteed Michael Mann saw this one somewhere along the line.

 

023 Lucky Lady (1975)

 

Here’s Burt co-starring with Gene Hackman, one of the key actors in the New Hollywood. In this era, guys like De Niro and Pacino, Hoffman and Hackman, began to redefine naturalistic acting on film.

 

024 Semi-Tough (1977)

 

And just as American movies were getting more serious, Burt went the other way.

 

025 Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

 

This is SMOKEY & THE BANDIT, the movie that was a colossal hit for Burt and his friend, the director and legendary stunt man Hal Needham.

 

026 Burt Reynolds, Hal Needham, Jerry Reed, and a bassett hound on the set of Smokey & the Bandit.

 

While most highbrow critics don’t give any kind of attention to Hal Needham’s work, I think it’s very important, not least because of how it showcases the severely under-appreciated art of movie stunts.

 

027 Hooper (1978)

 

HOOPER was maybe Hal Needham’s most personal movie, showing the life of a Hollywood stuntman. It’s great.

 

027a Hooper (1978) Japanese Poster

 

So is its Japanese poster.

 

028 The End (1978)

 

Even amidst the popularity of all the Hal Needham movies, Burt continued to direct, and this is also the era where he buddied up with Dom DeLuise.

 

Reynolds Roast 1977

 

Burt and Dom together are magic, they’re infectious, you can’t not love watching them,

 

029 The Cannonball Run (1981)

 

But they’re also clowns. Their movies together are live-action cartoons.

 

Dom DeLuise

 

If all you know is THE CANNONBALL RUN, it’s very easy to lose sight of Burt’s dramatic talents.

 

030 Paternity (1981)

 

When Burt makes a movie like this…

 

031 Sharky's Machine (1981)

 

…It’s easier for cinematic tastemakers to forget that, the same year, he also made a movie like this.

 

032

 

SHARKY’S MACHINE is really worth seeing. I wish Burt’s career had continued with him directing more of this kind of melancholy, sleazy crime movie.

 

033 Stick

 

Burt made an Elmore Leonard adaptation before it became the in-thing to do.

 

034 Heat

 

There’s a better film out there going by the same name, but HEAT is still pretty special, a perfect showcase for Burt as a tough guy whose glory was beginning to fade.

 

035 CITY HEAT

 

Teaming him up with his old buddy Clint Eastwood, 1984’s CITY HEAT should have been a hit. It wasn’t.

 

036 City Heat (1984)

 

I think the contrast between Clint and Burt at this stage of their careers is very telling. Both of them were stars who appealed to men as much as women. Both of them are better actors than most people recognize. Both of them directed. But only one of them became a mainstream Academy Award winning institution.

 

037

 

I love Clint, never get me wrong, but he would never let himself be the butt of the joke, the way Burt did so many times. Even in the movies he made with the orangutan, Clint was always the coolest guy in the room. In CITY HEAT, he calls Burt “Shorty.” The final line of the movie from Clint is, “You’ll always be Shorty to me.” And he gets the last word. [Clint is 6’4″, Burt is 5’11”.]

 

M8DCIHE EC004

 

Notice who’s wearing the nice suit and who’s wearing the silly costume.

 

039 Stroker Ace (1983)

 

This is also the era when Burt became more famous for tabloids than for movies. For one thing, a facial injury he sustained on the set of CITY HEAT led to a rumor Burt had AIDS. If you remember the ‘eighties, there was a lot of spite and prejudice in a rumor like that.

 

040

 

This is also around the time Burt met Loni Anderson.

 

041

 

It isn’t like Burt wasn’t famous for his offscreen relationships before, but this was where it started to overshadow his onscreen work.

 

042

 

In his book, Burt isn’t mean about it, but he indicates he got swept up in the relationship in a way he wishes he hadn’t.

 

043

 

Guess that’s hard to say no to, no matter what your type is.

 

044

 

Burt says this was one of the happiest times of his life…

 

045

 

…but then also the worst.

 

046

 

Again, headlines like these are the primary basis of his celebrity in the late 1980s. By contrast, Clint was really taking off as a serious filmmaker, going from BIRD to UNFORGIVEN.

 

047

 

People see Loni Anderson, a blonde bombshell, and they probably make assumptions about her, and about Burt for being into her. But the loves of Burt’s life were girl-next-door types.

 

047a

 

The chapter in the book on Burt’s regrets about it not working out with Sally Field is really affecting.

 

048 Cop and a Half (1993)

 

So real life got sadder, and then these were the kinds of movies Burt was getting. No offense to COP AND A HALF, but it’s no IN THE LINE OF FIRE.

 

TSDEVSH EC011

 

In the ‘nineties, Burt went back to TV for Evening Shade, a show that had one of the greatest ensemble casts ever, but it was on CBS at a time when it wasn’t cool at all to be on CBS, assuming that time ever existed.

 

050 Boogie Nights (1997)

 

Then, towards the end of the decade, this came along.

 

051

 

By the time Burt gives his phenomenal half-dramatic/half-comedic performance in BOOGIE NIGHTS, nobody seemed to remember that’s what he’d been doing all along.

 

052

 

I think movie fans of my generation revere this movie and we revere Paul Thomas Anderson’s work in general. BOOGIE NIGHTS is a great American movie. But it was well publicized that Burt was uncomfortable with it. He’s still never seen it all the way through. Anderson went on to make several more great films, and Burt didn’t. This kind of stuff leads people to take sides, and most go with the brilliant auteur over the so-called has-been. But it’s not that simple.

 

053

 

For one thing, Burt was 62 when he made Boogie Nights. Paul Anderson was 27. Keep in mind Burt started acting back in the 1950s. Imagine you’re Burt and some kid is asking you to do and say some pretty damn out-there things. BOOGIE NIGHTS isn’t porn, but it’s sure got porn dialogue. Burt was the son of a police chief. He was raised to be a gentleman. He had valid reasons to be concerned about his image at this point in time. I don’t think Burt Reynolds is an uptight guy, but I also think it’s okay if he wasn’t too comfortable calling Julianne Moore a “foxy bitch.”

 

054 The Dukes of Hazzard (2005)

 

Burt was incredible in BOOGIE NIGHTS, but just about everything that came afterwards was underwhelming. THE DUKES OF HAZZARD was a movie based on an old TV show that was itself a rip-off of Smokey & the Bandit, and now Burt was getting novelty-cast in the Jackie Gleason role.

 

longest_yard_ver2

 

055 The Longest Yard (2005)

 

Don’t even get me started on what happened here.

 

056

 

So the full-on renaissance he deserved didn’t happen. Burt returned to Florida. He runs an acting school there now.

 

057 Burt Reynolds Institute & Museum in Jupiter, Florida.

 

Can you imagine getting acting lessons from Burt Reynolds? That’s a movie right there.

 

058

 

Burt turned 80 this month. If I had to bet on any human being lasting past a hundred, it’d be him, but still.

 

059

 

Too often the critical re-evaluations come too late. I don’t think it’s too radical for me to suggest that the work of one of the most popular movie stars in history is worth another look.

 

060 IN CONCLUSION

 

Let’s not let a legend go under-remembered in his own time. And one last thing about the book: It not only has chapters remembering Bette Davis, Lee Marvin, and Frank Sinatra, but there’s also one dedicated to the horse Burt rode in the movie NAVAJO JOE. What’s better than that?

 

Navajo Joe (1966)

 

 

— JON ABRAMS.

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And we’re back!  Ready for round two.  Inspired again by my friend-in-movies at Rupert Pupkin Speaks, I’m re-presenting and reshuffling my top fifty movies of all time.  “Reshuffling” sounds a little more extreme than what I’ve done here — most of the titles remain the same, and the order isn’t much different.  But there’s a fair amount of new blood, and I’ve updated the links to any movies I’ve written about at length (those are bolded in red.) 

This list is absolutely subject to change, so keep watching this space, but while you’re at it, don’t forget to keep watching the skies.

1. THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY (1966).

2. GHOSTBUSTERS (1984).

3. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978).

4.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968).

5.  UNFORGIVEN (1992).

6.  KING KONG (1933).

7.  PREDATOR (1987).

8.  MANHUNTER (1986).

9.  BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986).

10.  MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED (1976).

11.  John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982).

12.  HEAT (1995).

13.  FREAKS (1932).

14. JAWS (1975).

15.  Berry Gordy’s THE LAST DRAGON (1985).

16.  THE WILD BUNCH (1969).

17.  SHAFT (1971).

18.  BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984).

19.  THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966).

20.  SEA OF LOVE (1989).

21. RAISING ARIZONA (1987).

22.  EVIL DEAD 2 (1987).

23.  OUT OF SIGHT (1998).

24.  THE INSIDER (1999).

25.  ALLIGATOR (1980).

26.  COLLATERAL (2004).

27.  THE GREAT SILENCE (1968).

28.  AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981).

29.  MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946).

30.  CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954).

31. PRIME CUT (1972).

32. WATERMELON MAN (1970).

33.  GROSSE POINTE BLANK (1997).

34.  25th HOUR (2002).

35.  COFFY (1973).

36. QUICK CHANGE (1990).

37.  MAGNOLIA (1999).

38.  HANNIE CAULDER (1971).

39. ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981).

40.  48 HRS. (1982).

41.  GOODFELLAS (1990).

42.  SHOGUN ASSASSIN (1980).

43.  PURPLE RAIN (1984).

44.  THE UNHOLY THREE (1925).

45.  TRUE GRIT (2010).

46.  THE PROFESSIONALS (1966).

47.  VIOLENT CITY aka THE FAMILY (1973).

48.  THE HIT (1984).

49.  EMPEROR OF THE NORTH POLE (1973).

50.  ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011).

50 1/2.  The five-minute skeleton swordfight in JASON & THE ARGONAUTS (1963).

______________________________________________

And that’s that…. for now.

For a little bit more all the time, find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

In THE WILD BUNCH, 1969.

This beautiful portrait was taken by @SethKushner.

Hollywood legend Ernest Borgnine passed away Sunday, July 8th, 2012.  He was 95, which is not young.  But anyone who suggests that his age makes the loss much easier would be mistaken.  There are people who are irreplaceable, and this was most certainly one.  Ernest Borgnine, or Ernie to his fans, had more than sixty years in the movie business — just think of how many stories he must have had left to relay.  Though he gave plenty of great interviews over the years, that probably was only a fraction.  With Ernest Borgnine goes a unique and eternally ingratiating talent, and a pivotal bridge that spans Old Hollywood, New Hollywood, and the modern age we’re currently living in.  For this post I’ve collected a ton of pictures and posters of the many movies I’ve seen Ernest Borgnine in.  I will touch on most of these movies (and maybe more) in the longer appreciative piece I am working on, but in the meantime, please enjoy these movie memories of a true original.

Check out this great interview also.

Find Ernie in the southwestern hemisphere.

@jonnyabomb

 

When you get in a habit of writing about movies and their makers, you get in a secondary habit of writing memorial pieces to the dearly departed.  Looking back doesn’t have to be a melancholy process; it can also be an occasion to celebrate favorite film presences who always deserve the attention.

Today, November 11th, is Robert Ryan’s birthday.  If you don’t know who he is, I’m about to help you with that.

Robert Ryan is one of the great unsung movie stars of the past century.  While it’s certainly fair to classify Robert Ryan as “unsung”, it may not be entirely accurate to generalize him as a movie star – while he had the occasional lead role and his headshot lines the walls of the Formosa alongside much more famous names, Ryan was more often a supporting player, a character actor, and very often, a heavy.

It’s somewhat fitting that today is Veteran’s Day, as Ryan served in the United States Marine Corps as a drill instructor during World War II.  He was also a boxer, a ranch hand, and an attempted playwright.  When he entered movies as a contract player at [initially] RKO Pictures, film noir was the name of the game, and Ryan was a perfect, if unlikely, fit for the genre.  He was equally adept at playing cops and killers, and so he did, for the majority of his career (sometimes even playing both at once).  As he started looking older, he started getting cast more often as generals and men out of step with changing times.  Never could he have been cast as an out-and-out weakling, but very rarely was he allowed to play a thoroughly decent man either.

I suggested that Robert Ryan was an unlikely fit for the dozens of tough-guy roles he played because he was in real life a pacifist and a prominent civil rights activist.  More than that, though, all you have to do is look at a still photograph of Robert Ryan to wonder how he ever got pigeonholed as a tough guy.  He had the heavyweight boxer’s frame and the dark brow of a tough guy, and clearly the integrity and the talent, but there is a kindness and an obvious sensitivity in his eyes that cannot be missed.  Maybe it’s that dichotomy that was so endlessly fascinating to directors and casting agents.  He looks immediately like a good guy; maybe that’s why it was so shocking and effective when he played against that initial impression.  That conflicted image is still potent and alive and born out by his many performances if you watch them today.

There’s not a ton written about Robert Ryan.  There are a couple scarce or out-of-print biographies, but otherwise I’ve just used the internet and David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary Of Film to write this piece.  The best place to learn about Robert Ryan, fittingly, is in his movies.  Here are some of my favorite Robert Ryan roles (a couple are probably already familiar to you, but some, like The Outfit, are harder to find, and I am still questing to see them myself!):

Crossfire (1947)

In this movie, Robert Ryan plays one of a group of American soldiers released home from the military.  One of them apparently killed another man, and Robert Mitchum and Robert Young play the investigating officers in the case.  The motive turns out to have been anti-Semitism, and the guilty man turns out to be Ryan’s character.  It’s a testament to his frightening talent that it’s not immediately apparent that Ryan is playing a hateful murderer, and that he’s never quite entirely, one-sidedly, despicable either.  The horrifying thing about racists is that they begin as people, before hatred twists them into the demons they are, and Robert Ryan resolutely illustrates this idea in this movie.

Also, in a movie with a surplus of ‘Robert’s, including the venerable Mitchum, he stands out as the most memorable.

Act Of Violence (1948)

This is a quietly astounding movie, one which is not as well-remembered as it could be.  Directed by Fred Zinnemann (who also made High Noon and From Here To Eternity), Robert Ryan plays a crippled POW who returns to plague a local war hero, played by Van Heflin (from Shane), and his young wife, played by Janet Leigh (of Psycho fame).  Ryan is so furious in his pursuit that Heflin, in desperation, turns to some shady characters for protection.  Why is Ryan’s character so intent on wreaking vengeance on such an all-American hero (and his former friend)?  The answer to that question is truly surprising – it’s one of the great morality plays of the film noir era.  In Act Of Violence, Ryan literally appears from shadows; he’s intense, and scary, and ultimately, entirely within comprehension, as the kind of tormented figure that can emerge from wartime.

 

The Set-Up (1949)

The Set-Up is another film noir, this one directed by the versatile Robert Wise.  Though shot in film noir tradition with film noir themes of steep odds and tragic heroism, The Set-Up is primarily a sterling example of a boxing picture, and it is a widely-acknowledged inspiration for Martin Scorsese while shooting Raging Bull.  (I guarantee you that Quentin Tarantino saw it too, when considering Bruce Willis’ storyline in Pulp Fiction.)  In this movie, Robert Ryan plays an over-the-hill boxer who discovers that he’s expected to take a dive by a powerful gangster.  He’s a loser several times over, but he’s not about to lose for lack of trying – but there’s a price to standing up against the underworld.  That price is apparent through the pummeling Ryan takes throughout the movie.  He was seldom better cast – imposing enough to be credible as a professional boxer, but at heart, lacking of the drive and the viciousness of the most successful champions.  He’s too down-to-earth, too human for that.  Essential Robert Ryan.

The Racket (1951)

Another film noir, The Racket was actually a remake of an earlier, Howard Hughes produced, Academy Award nominated film.  Just goes to show that remakes aren’t always a terrible thing.  The Racket is a fairly straightforward story of an incorruptible cop who goes up against an otherwise unstoppable crime boss.  It’s a story at least as old as cinema itself, but one thing that distinguishes it  — besides the classic tough-guy dialogue — is the casting of Roberts Mitchum and Ryan, reteamed from Crossfire, as the two polar opposites.  Guess who plays who?  Actually, maybe it’s not necessarily that obvious.  Both stars had a tremendous capacity for menace as well as embattled decency, but in this case Mitchum is the cop and Ryan is the crook.  The Racket is a solid B-picture, maybe not as transcendent as some others of the same vintage, but for certain fans of studio-era crime movies, this could be considered the Heat of its day.

The Naked Spur (1953)

For his role in this movie, I put Robert Ryan on my list of the top twenty movie villains of all time.  Already well-practiced at threatening Janet Leigh on screen (as in Act Of Violence), Ryan also gives Jimmy Stewart a run for his money in The Naked Spur, the third of the batch of five dark-themed Westerns that Stewart made with director Anthony Mann.  Those who only know Jimmy Stewart from the perception of the idealistic and square persona that he is believed to have embodied in several Frank Capra films (a perception that isn’t entirely accurate to begin with) would be surprised to see Stewart in the films he made with Mann (and in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, for that matter) – Stewart plays a desperate, stern man who is determined to bring a notorious killer to justice, dead or alive.  Ryan plays the killer, of course, but this time without his usual shades of gray.  In this movie, he’s a schemer who thrives on the discord and chaos that he creates; pretty unrepentant.  If this were the only movie one ever saw Robert Ryan in, one might despise him on sight, so good is his performance.

 

Bad Day At Black Rock (1955) 

Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin play Robert Ryan’s henchmen in this movie.  Let me repeat that:  Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, in their imposing prime, play secondary bad guys to Robert Ryan’s lead bad guy.  Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin take orders from Robert Ryan.  And in this corner:  the ever-lovable Spencer Tracy, as a one-handed stranger who arrives at a small town run by the aforementioned gentlemen, stirring up secrets that they may kill to keep hidden.  All we can say to you, Spencer Tracy, is “good luck!”

I’m being somewhat flippant about this John Sturges classic, which is a comparatively-lesser-known great American film of the 1950s – both a solid thriller and a significant political statement.  It’s just that so much has been written about Bad Day At Black Rock already, that it’s hard to add much besides additional praise.  Paul Thomas Anderson is just one of many contemporary directors who have cited this movie as a formative influence; I wonder how many contemporary onscreen bad guys have studied Robert Ryan’s performance in it!

 

The Professionals (1966)

Ten years later, Ryan’s friend Lee Marvin was a big movie star, and he, along with the eternally great Woody Strode, played supporting roles to Marvin and Burt Lancaster in The Professionals.  This is kind of an all-star super-team of old-school movie tough guys, the four of whom are hired by railroad tycoon Ralph Bellamy (you know him best from a weirdly similar role in Trading Places) to rescue his young wife from a marauding revolutionary who has taken her south of the border.  In the great Hollywood tradition of casting great stars in ethnically incongruous roles, Jack Palance plays the revolutionary, “Jesus Raza,” and the Italian bombshell Claudia Cardinale plays the Mexican-born “Maria,” an old flame of Raza’s, as it turns out.

The Professionals is a great big-screen action classic with some fascinating sociopolitical subtext, but as an item of interest for Robert Ryan completists, it’s more of a fun sidebar than a necessity.  He and Woody Strode, as the horse wrangler and the team scout, are really playing strong support to the buddy-movie pairing of Marvin and Lancaster.  Ryan does play an interesting contrast to his frequent persona, though.  This is one of his most thoroughly decent roles – Ryan’s horse expert is tender and protective of every horse the group encounters.  He’s one of those guys who seems to care more about animals than people, and who can blame him, in a movie where one species is clearly more consistently trustworthy than the other.

 

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

What can I tell you about The Dirty Dozen that you don’t already know?  Hopefully, not much.  This is a man’s-man’s classic, featuring some of the screen’s toughest tough guys in a story of an elite squad of criminals and killers who are recruited by Lee Marvin himself to fight the Nazis.  My one regret about The Dirty Dozen, which reunites Marvin with Borgnine and Ryan, is that the latter two aren’t on the team – instead, they play a bureaucrat and an officious rival, respectively.  As Colonel Breed, Ryan definitely gets saddled with the most thankless role (well, second to those Nazi creeps, anyway).  He’s the Walter Peck.  More accurately, if you’ve seen Stripes, he’s the John Larroquette.  He’s still on our side, technically, but he’s a total prick.  Not the best movie to be a fan of Robert Ryan in, but otherwise, The Dirty Dozen is an action-movie essential.

 

The Wild Bunch (1969)

The Wild Bunch is one of the greatest American films, without hesitation.  It’s arguably rebel-director Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece.  It’s one of those classics that doesn’t feel like homework; it feels like a still-living document.  It feels dynamic, alive.  If it’s that, though, it’s more like the flare-ups of a dying bonfire.  It’s the last mission to end all last missions.  It’s one of the best-ever examples of possibly my favorite genre of film, the badass-old-guy movie.  The Wild Bunch captures a group of movie actors at a moment closer to the ends of their careers than the start.  (Except for Ernest Borgnine, of course, who’s still a fully active badass at 93 years of age.)  This movie is notorious for setting new levels of onscreen bloodshed and gore, but that reputation obscures its true legacy as a melancholy recording of the twilight years of the Western.

In a film full of unforgettable performances, Robert Ryan gives arguably the most affecting one.  Certainly he’s my personal favorite character, as Deke Thornton, the bounty hunter so designated by the railroad tycoons (them again) who are blackmailing him against his freedom to hunt down his fellow outlaws, most of whom – specifically William Holden’s Pike Bishop — he used to run with in their glory days.  (I’m not sure if it was screenwriter Walon Green’s contribution or Peckinpah’s that makes The Wild Bunch a movie that has some of the best character names ever.)

The Wild Bunch was one of Robert Ryan’s last screen performances.  At this point in his career, he was 60 years old, but looked significantly older (perhaps due to the lung cancer that eventually claimed his life in 1973, a year after his wife died of the same disease.)  The life lived shows in every moment of the performance.  Thornton is a neutered pit bull on a leash, forced to track down his old partners by a venal corporate monolith.  If he were free to roam, would he join back up with Pike and the others?  What would be the point?  Those guys are pretty clearly doomed, one way or another.  There at the dusty, wind-swept border, at the end of a violent life whose most hard-lived days are well in the past, what is the point of going on?  And if you do, then which direction do you go?  Nobody says anything remotely like this in the movie, by the way – it’s all there on Robert Ryan’s face, all of the above and much more.  His face was his character, and he knew how to wield it like a mighty instrument.  You can watch and re-watch The Wild Bunch for many great reasons, but I find myself watching it more often than not for Robert Ryan.

So there’s a start; some enthusiastic recommendations to get acquainted with one of the great film careers.  You can go further, or choose different movies, but whichever way you choose, you won’t go wrong.