Robert Ryan did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a BAFTA, for portraying John Claggart, Master d'Arms in Billy Budd.
As the film progresses we are given more insight into Claggart's methods of controlling the crew. Ryan is extremely effective as he reveals Claggart's way of control, which is very specific in that he only infrequently uses direct physical punishment from himself. Ryan instead reflects a disturbing assurance in Claggart whenever he speaks to the men as he incisively alludes to them his ability to have them flogged whenever he would wish. Ryan is excellent in the way he portrays the way Claggart's cruelty comes with this definite ease since he is a man who is well aware of the power his position gives him. Claggart is occasionally "needed" to rise to more aggressive action though whenever one of the men becomes a bit too free-spirited or worse tries to lay a hand on him. When these moments occur Ryan is downright chilling by bringing this twinkle in his eye as though Claggart has found himself a new project. Ryan is terrific in the way he presents Claggart narrowing on whoever this unlikely man might be, as his glare seems to be squarely on the individual as he takes any chance to inflict pain on the man, occasionally sneaking in something physical when he can.
What is most terrible of all of this is that these targets are shown by Ryan to be when Claggart has found a little way to get what he desires the most. The problem with that is Claggart is a pure sadist who only wishes to use his position to fulfill those desires. There is a great scene for Ryan as he tries to explain why a man must be flogged to the ship's Captain, Vere (Peter Ustinov). Claggart explains the reasons, which the Captain accepts, but attempts to argue to the Captain that the man should get more lashes due to it being war time. Ryan's fantastic because he plays the scene with Claggart giving the report as a proper Naval officer, however Ryan shows this as the facade which wains a bit as he so eagerly attempts to get the number of lashes raised. The flogging itself is brilliantly performed scene by Ryan finding the intense joy in Claggart as he calls out every flog as though he is a man living out a fantasy. The best moment of the scene is when he reaches ten as Ryan presents sheer ecstasy as he almost names an eleventh lash, but must stop himself. Ryan's marvelous by showing the effort Claggart puts in stopping himself as he clenches his teeth hard to keep the words from coming out of his mouth.
Now as being the sadistic authoritarian it can already be said that Ryan gives a great performance, but that's not all there is to his Claggart. We find this out through his relationship with Billy, a man who seems out of place within the grit of the ship through his simple grace and eternal optimism. I love one of Ryan's earliest reactions to Billy as he stares for a rather long time as though he is completely unsure of what to make out of this man. The problem is Billy is just such a unassuming yet perpetually charming individual who almost everyone comes to love because of just how honest his goodness is. He's a man who obviously loves life. This is in striking opposition to Ryan's portrayal of Claggart. Of course Claggart is an unpleasant man to begin with, but Ryan goes further than that. Whenever he's not inflicting pain on another there is a subtle pain Ryan suggests in Claggart himself, as a man who seems to hate the very idea of existence. His causing of suffering for others ends up being the only way to relieve his own. Billy though notices this and there is an amazing scene where Billy attempts basically to cheer Claggart up. Ryan actually manages to be rather moving in this scene as for just a moment shows a glint of pure happiness, as Claggart smiles at Billy's suggestion to keep him company during his lonely watches. Ryan depicts so well that mess of man that Claggart is as he forces himself to reject the notion, and decides that Billy's goodness must be proven false. Ryan finds a sick passion in Claggart as he does his best to break Billy down to his level, a passion like that of zealot trying desperately to affirm his failing beliefs. Ryan is outstanding in his final scene as he presents Claggart giving all of his vile beliefs in a moment as he makes up a story to the captain about Billy being the leader of an attempted mutiny against him. This technically breaks down Billy, not to a bad man, but to commit a violent act simply because he cannot come up with any verbal response to Claggart's lies. Ryan's brief reaction to the attack is perfection as his expression brings a final euphoria to Claggart as though he's been assured in his view of the world. This is an outstanding performance by Robert Ryan, his best villainous turn which is really saying something. He fulfills the need of being the film's fiendish sadist, yet goes much further finding the complexity needed for the character in his portrait of the personal desperation which compels the man.