It would not be a ridiculous endeavor to believe that before Nicholas Ray, there was never an American film director who better understood the unbearable fragility of being human. From Jesus Christ to James Dean, Ray always found a poignant humanity on the script’s page and a way to allow his actors to bare their souls in front of the camera’s gaze.
Considering Ray’s name would be hailed by Jean-Luc Godard as symbiotic with cinema, it’s fascinating to note his many professions before settling on film, all of which would help define his auteur trademarks. Studying architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright allowed Ray to understand the importance of set designs, as well as a love for CinemaScope. Traveling to the South during the Great Depression to record local music for the Library of Congress would later manifest itself through Ray’s use of music. His time during the 1930s with the Group Theatre in New York gave him a first-hand experience developing a bond with actors — possibly the most useful tool he had coming into the movies.
With the help of sympathetic producers Dore Schary and John Houseman, Ray directed his first film in 1947. Adapted from the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson, They Live by Night is a unique inclusion to the genre of film noir because of Ray’s deeper interest to drive the movie forward through the love story rather than the bank robberies. Due to the Howard Hughes takeover of RKO Pictures, They Live by Night wouldn’t see the light of day for two years, but the professional freedom of its production was one Ray remembered fondly, and what remains are the markings of a natural born storyteller.
On the power of his private screening of They Live by Night, Humphrey Bogart asked Ray to direct a film for his newly established production company, Santana Productions. A drama about social injustice, the best service Knock On Any Door did for its cast and crew was allow Bogart and Ray to grow accustomed to the other’s style of working, and build a trust that would become personal as well as professional. Few bonds between actor and director reach greater peaks than their did in their next film together.
Ray would always say that In a Lonely Place was perhaps the most personal film he ever made. It was he who insisted on casting his wife, actress Gloria Grahame, as Bogart’s love interest. He maintained she was right for the part (which ultimately she was), but the ulterior motive he never told the producers was a hope in saving their crumbling shotgun marriage. It was this desire that fueled the doomed love story of Laurel and Dix to such a point that it influenced Ray to change the film’s ending. The result is a finale in which the heartbreak comes from the director remaining true to his characters and their own very adult realization that even their deep love for each other cannot weather their own flaws and fears.
After the chaos of WWII, a new standard of normality was introduced in America. In Nicholas Ray’s perspective, America was a land defined by its own emotional vagrancy, where words like “home” and “family” were becoming more nebulous by definition. The lonely place of Hollywood, the urban jungle of On Dangerous Ground contrasted with the transcendental snow-covered mountains, the deserts of vast, existential dread in Bitter Victor and the lonely roads of The Lusty Men — these were the landscapes where Ray’s protagonists found themselves longing for a more gravitationally bound existence.
Most who are unfamiliar with Ray’s trademark mise-en-scène might assume the film’s aching heart came from James Dean, but Rebel Without A Cause is as much a culmination of Ray’s ideals as it is an exhibition of Dean’s powerhouse performance. Because whenever you felt you were the only 16-year-old left in the world, wanting to zip up your jacket and create your own perfect version of a family, this was the movie you remembered.
Having perfected the understanding of reckless teenagers, the ever-growing Ray now focused his gaze on American parents. Although on the other side of the wide generational gap, Bigger Than Life and Rebel are sister films. See how young actor Christopher Olson’s red jacket matches James Dean’s famous windbreaker? That’s not an accident. Much like Samuel Fuller in Shock Corridor, Ray approached all-American family man Ed Avery’s drug addiction and illness as a magnifying glass revealing deep cracks in the American dream.
A heart attack in 1962 brought premature retirement to Ray’s directing career, but he continued to inspire a legion of film buffs, this time in a more direct way: with help from old friends, including Dennis Hopper, Ray taught acting and filmmaking at NYU. “The hell with a lecture!” Ray proclaimed during his first day on the job. “You’ll learn by doing.” And do his students did, crafting a unique student-professor film called We Can’t Go Home Again, which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.
Ray’s life was interrupted again, this time by a cancer diagnosis. His final contribution to personal cinema came in the form of a documentary/dramatic narrative hybrid called Lightning Over Water, directed by Ray and Wim Wenders, about the last weeks in the life of a man named Nicholas Ray. Ray’s life would be permanently silenced on June 16, 1979, but his movies live on, never-ending in their capacity to provide penetrating truths about America, violence, family or how the life and death of a relationship was the most painful and vital proof of our humanity. To watch his movies is to feel a sympathetic arm around your shoulder, reminding you that the world is not a cold, dead place. Maybe it was for this reason that he was fated to be a storyteller, to communicate when words became superfluous. Perhaps more than ever before, Nicholas Ray is, still, profoundly, cinema.
Serena Bramble is a rookie film editor whose montage skills are the result of accumulated years of movie-watching and loving. Serena is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Teledramatic Arts and Technology from Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing, she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.