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James Dean, Johnny Guitar and Film Noir: The 7 Essential Films of Nicholas Ray

The Hollywood rebel wasn't just ahead of his own time, he was ahead ours. In just eight years, he made seven of the best American films ever.

"In a Lonely Place"

“In a Lonely Place”

Criterion Collection

With Nicholas Ray’s first film, “They Live By Night” recently restored by the Criterion Collection – after the company did a remarkable job with his “Bigger Than Life” and “In a Lonely Pace” – and “Johnny Guitar” set to get it’s streaming debut this weekend on Hulu (July 1), it’s a good time to review the career of one of Hollywood’s greatest mavericks.

Unlike most legendary auteurs, Ray’s career is incredibly uneven. He was a square peg trying to fit into the cylinder of Hollywood, but completely unwilling to round his sharp corners. It wasn’t that his style couldn’t adapt to Hollywood, as his mastery of storytelling through the use of space, composition and performance was readymade for the studio era. However, his uncompromising view of life and the existential struggle of his characters never fit neatly in stories with a clear resolution. His ability to connect the audience with the swirling sea of internal emotions inside his characters was breathtaking, but he couldn’t always find ways to calm those waters in a way that satisfied both Hollywood and his vision.

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Ray was able to find material – often made with low budgets or built out of someone else’s pet project – where he could find his way into the story and shape it to make it his own. While there are strong elements and greatness in many of his films, these seven represent the essence of Ray’s cinematic vision.

“They Live By Night” (1948)

"They Live By Night"

“They Live By Night”

Criterion Collection

Low budget film noir provided great training grounds for directors breaking into Hollywood – the half-baked, labyrinthine plots, B-movie character actors and bold visual style allowed filmmakers to focus on building their craft. Ray wasn’t interested in such things; with his first shot out of the gate, he created something fresh and poetic. The innocent young lovers, Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), find in each other the potential for a normal life removed from their screwed-up existence. The problem is that Bowie, wrongly accused of murder as a teenager, has just been broken out of jail by two gruff, older inmates – one of whom is Keechie’s uncle, which is how they meet – and all this dreaming and scheming of a life together takes place while trying to escape a manhunt. In lesser hands, the naiveté of Bowie and Keechie would be absurd, but Ray combines his portrait of their love with the dangerous excitement of the chase into a lyrical movie that soars with heightened emotions. One of the greatest, if not the greatest, debut features ever.

“In A Lonely Place” (1950)

"In a Lonely Place"

“In a Lonely Place”

Criterion Collection

The preciseness of Ray’s visual language and ability to use the tools of Hollywood were never stronger. Yet the film itself also reveals why Ray would never able to be a successful studio director as he unearths the rage that laid just beneath the surface of Humphrey Bogart’s star persona (Bogart developed the project) and puts on the big screen the painful and far less glamorous side of what it means to make a living in movies. Ray modeled the film’s main set on his villa complex in West Hollywood and it becomes the perfect dramatic container. Struggling screenwriter Dixon Steele (Bogart) and his neighbor with a troubled past (Gloria Graham) are brought together, and eventually fall in love when she serves as his alibi for a mysterious murder in the shared courtyard. The film is a noir, but the fatalistic doom is more centered on Graham’s inability to help fix what is broken inside of Steele with her love (even after sobering him up), which eventually raises the question of whether or not he was, in fact, the murderer. Considering Ray’s struggles with alcohol, Hollywood and his tumultuous real-life love affair with Graham (you can google that one, but let’s just say it involved Ray’s son), it’s hard not to read into this as both a director and actor (as Bogart is exorcising some his own demons here) revealing the darkest parts of their souls.

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“On Dangerous Ground” (1951)

Jack Wilson (Robert Ryan) is a city cop who has lost control. Filled with obsessive rage and disgust, he’s become a menace — which Ray captures in a strikingly powerful scene of Ryan alone in his apartment. Shipped upstate to join a manhunt, and with the hope he’ll chill the heck out, he partners with someone just as overwhelmed with violent rage – the father of the murder victim (Ward Bond). The journey leads them to the home of murder’s blind sister Mary’s (Ida Lupino), where Jack learns the killer they’re hunting is a mentally ill 16-year-old boy.

Jack is drawn to the goodness of Mary as the noir evolves into an unexpected love story. The transition of the urban noir to country side with a gentle blind woman is, granted, a little on the nose — but in the hands of Ray, it becomes emotionally transcendent. Mary’s care for her helpless brother unearths a humanity in Jack, and his gut-wrenching final race up the mountain, to stop the murderous father, is one of the best examples of how the evolution of a character can be expressed through climatic action. The Bernard Hermann score adds another dimension that captures Jack’s fractured internal state and the romanticism of Mary’s home.

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