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Second Time Around 

Wednesday, Mar 26 1997
"Robert Ryan: King of Noir"
The first Hollywood release about anti-Semitism -- Crossfire -- was based on Richard Brooks' novel The Brick Foxhole, which involves the murder of a homosexual. The producer, Adrian Scott, and the screenwriter, John Paxton, changed the victim to a Jew; the director, Edward Dmytryk, shot the script in 20 days, outstripping Gentleman's Agreement, a glossier protest against anti-Semitism, which premiered later the same year (1947). Critics hailed Crossfire as a giant step forward in Hollywood's exploration of racial and religious prejudice. The studios didn't get around to homophobia for several decades.

Robert Ryan delineates a homicidal bigot with subtlety as well as force. He plays a soldier named Montgomery who meets a man named Samuels in a Washington, D.C., bar and beats him to death; then he manages to get the blame pinned on the one GI who was friendly to Samuels. Ryan keeps the movie taut with the tug of war between Montgomery's volatility and shrewdness. He shows the cop in charge of the case (Robert Young) an eager, blameless face; he makes his anti-Semitism seem nothing more than a commonplace trait. The detective accepts him at face value because he's searching for motives more specific than anti-Semitism. The acting is uniformly strong: The refreshingly dry and intelligent Young holds his own not only with Ryan but also with the magnetic Robert Mitchum, who plays a tough sergeant. Sermons aside, the movie's flaws are inherent in its form. Ryan is so powerful that viewers want more of his psychotic killer than the swift arc of action allows. Featured players like Paul Kelly create such vivid impressions in seconds that audiences want to linger with them longer. All the thriller elements click. Crossfire is as compelling and gritty as a tight race on a gravel track.

The perennially underrated Ryan, who boxed from boyhood and was a heavyweight champion at Dartmouth, made the most of an opportunity to bring his acting and athletic skills together in the stirring cult movie The Set-Up. This 1949 ringside morality play, directed by Robert Wise and written by Art Cohn (from a verse narrative by Joseph Moncure March), stars Ryan as Stoker Thompson, a declining 35-year-old puncher unwilling to give up the sport until he can buy a stake in an up-and-comer and devote the rest of his years to managing. On a night when Stoker feels he's going to beat a young, highly touted scrapper, his wife (Audrey Totter) decides she can no longer endure the fight game -- and he discovers, midmatch, that his manager (George Tobias) has promised a racketeer that Stoker will take a dive. In its stark depiction of rough-hewn integrity pitted against easy money, and its stylized evocation of the athletes' pipe dreams (the bout is staged in a town called Paradise City), The Set-Up epitomizes the poetic boxing movies that followed Clifford Odets' Golden Boy. It's more painstaking than inspired. But the craftsmanship in this low-budget production is economical in every sense (the action unfolds in 72 minutes of "real time"). Wise showcases the performers beautifully -- especially Ryan, whose physical eloquence carries the film. Wise and Ryan make Stoker's reactions to the other boxers reveal the hero's own hopes and ambitions. In the ring, Ryan's hunched, stalking style achieves a dogged power. And the actor fills the tragic post-fight finale with a racking tension. Ryan conveys the fury and despair of a man stripped of illusion and terrified of the reality he sees.

-- Michael Sragow

Crossfire screens at 8 p.m., and The Set-Up at 6:30 and 10 p.m., on Thursday, March 27, at the Roxie, 16th Street & Valencia. Tickets are $6; call 863-1087.

About The Author

Michael Sragow


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