The Essentials: 5 Great Films Nicholas Ray

While adored by the French and the Cahiers Du Cinema coterie that went on to become the rebellious French New Wave — which spawned the oft-quoted Jean-Luc Godard phrase “cinema is Nicholas Ray” —  the American filmmaker never really received his due outside of the one film of his that most moviegoers have seen (and even then, they’re possibly unaware that he directed it): “Rebel Without A Cause.” And while that iconic 1950s film, with its audacious, expressionistic colors, its passionate angst and anguish, its mix of quiet machismo and vulnerability, is perhaps the cornerstone of many of Nicholas Ray’s films — vibrant melodrama on the surface, percolating emotional agony within — it’s certainly just the tip of iceberg when it comes to the director’s career.

Starting out as a would-be actor, Ray moved to moved to New York where he appeared in the great Elia Kazan‘s theater debut. This led to Ray’s breakthrough Hollywood experience, as an assistant on Kazan’s debut film, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945) and after only two more years of assisting on other pictures — plus directing a Broadway production and a TV show — the director was given his first shot by RKO with “They Live by Night,” which was delayed by two years thanks in part to Howard Hughes’ takeover of the studio.

Impressionistic and intimate for its time, “They Live By Night” wasn’t your average film noir, and launched Ray’s particular and idiosyncratic search for the human condition, often marked by its bold melodramatic veneer and its sympathies for youthful outcasts and alienated anti-heroes. What tethered Ray’s body of work was a focus on emotionally bruised, sensitive tough guys and misfits with tremendous longing. On the set of Ray’s 1953 Western “The Lusty Men,” the relentless digging for the emotional essence of a scene in what was supposed to be just a rodeo drama with a love triangle, prompted star Robert Mitchum — who joked that the film only had 17 pages of a script and the rest was improvised — to dub Ray a “mystic.”

Bisexual, with a notorious, awful predilection for toxic relationships (“In A Lonely Place” actress Gloria Grahame eventually married Ray’s son after their tumultuous union dissolved; rumors of an affair with the 16-year-old Natalie Wood — Ray was 27 years her senior — caused friction between him and Dennis Hopper), life outside of Ray’s filmmaking career was rough, to say the least, and his fondness for alcohol and heavy drug use saw the filmmaker shunned by Hollywood by the time the early 1960s arrived. After collapsing on the set of “55 Days at Peking” in 1963, Ray would not direct again until the mid-1970s, and for all intents and purposes his career was by then over.

Ray died in 1979 of lung cancer as he was filming “Lightning Over Water,” which was meant to be a collaborative documentary about the nature of life and death with devoted Ray apostle Wim Wenders (who also cast him in a small role in 1977’s “The American Friend”), but ultimately ended up as a harrowing chronicle of Ray’s decay and death.

But while largely critically ignored and/or underappreciated for much of his career, Ray has always had his champions among cinephiles. As mentioned, the French New Wave adored him during his 1950s heyday (François Truffaut was another major admirer), and subsequent generations have rallied behind him, such as Wenders, Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, Philip Kaufman (who once tried to mount a biopic of his life), Oren Moverman (who wrote it), Curtis Hanson and many more. Yet still, even by cinephile standards, Ray’s work is relatively unknown. Perhaps that’s slowly changing: The Criterion Collection released their first Ray film (“Bigger Than Life”) in 2010, and hopefully that’s just the beginning of what will usher in a new era of appreciation for the filmmaker. With 24 features made during a 16-year period (and one feature and a few shorts made in the ’70s afterward), Ray burned the candle brightly, but at both ends, likely to his own detriment. Still, he left an indelible body of work that at its worst is worth sifting through, and at its best provides moments of inspired, stylized and highly eccentric genius. On the 33rd anniversary of his death, we present five Nicholas Ray essentials you need to watch. Head to page 2 for more.
“They Live By Night” (1949)
There are some, including Francois Truffaut, who declare that Ray’s finest film was his first, 1949’s “They Live By Night.” And whether or not you agree, it’s hard to argue with the fact that he made an enormously accomplished film for a debut feature. Ray had helmed the Duke Ellington musical “Beggar’s Holiday” on Broadway in 1946, and producer John Houseman (who’d been Orson Welles‘ long-time collaborator until they fell out on “Citizen Kane“) approached him afterward with Edward Anderson‘s Depression-era novel “Thieves Like Us,” thinking that his background working with the Department of Agriculture would make him a good fit for the project. RKO weren’t so sure, and it was only when the forward-thinking Dore Schary became the head of production at the studio that the project started to move forward. A relatively simple lovers on the run tale (later remade under the original title by Robert Altman) about Bowie (Farley Granger), a man wrongly convicted of murder who escapes from prison with a pair of bank robbers, falls in love with Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), only to be forced back into a life of crime by his fellow escapees, the film includes a bold and expansive mission statement over the opening credits; following the car carrying the escaped cons from the air in what’s widely believed to be the first helicopter shot in the movies. The tender poetry of the romance between Granger and O’Donnell is sweet — the lovers are a far more rootable pairing than the central duo of “Bonnie & Clyde” or “Badlands” (a film that very much feels like it’s following in Ray’s footsteps), and it means that there’s a real sting to the tragic conclusion, not least thanks to the social themes (the criminals pointing the finger to the banks they rob as the real villains is a pretty timeless point). And Ray is in remarkable control, directing like he’s been doing it every day of his life. While the film sat on a shelf for two years, thanks to Howard Hughes taking over RKO, and the company being unsure how to market the film, it became widely seen in Hollywood even before its eventual November 1949 release, which led Humphrey Bogart to hire Ray to direct “Knock On Any Door.”

In A Lonely Place” (1950)
Was ever there a director as adept as Ray at taking familiar genre elements and spinning from them a completely unexpected story? If you’re in any doubt as to the director’s preeminence in this arena, may we point you in the direction of “In a Lonely Place,” best, though inadequately, described as a drama with noir elements? Kicking off as a standard murder mystery, the film (and the audience) rapidly loses interest in the whodunnit plot, becoming embroiled and utterly absorbed instead in the interpersonal drama, and psychological portrait, that it evolves into. Dix (Humphrey Bogart, an oddly inspired casting choice) plays a hackish, fading screenwriter (metatextuality alert!) with a nasty temper who becomes the chief suspect in a murder case, only to be supplied with an alibi by his beautiful neighbor, Laurel (the ever-undervalued Gloria Grahame, in a terrific turn). They fall in love, and Dix starts writing again. But in the face of mounting police suspicion, Dix’s worse nature starts to show itself in violent outbursts and possessive jealousy towards Laurel until, in one of the most beautifully balanced denouements of all time, he nearly kills her (throttling his own chance of redemption in the process), even as the phone rings to let him know he has been cleared. It’s undoubtedly a potboiler, and a somewhat salacious one at that, but “In a Lonely Place” is also one of the very smartest of Ray’s films, and could almost serve, alongside certain Shakespeare classics, as a classroom text on how character is destiny. In fact, the directorial impulses away from noir and towards psychological, character-driven drama are beautifully illustrated in the story of the film’s ending: originally it was to culminate in real noir fashion, with Dix finding out he’s been proven innocent only after he’s actually killed Laurel. While that end would no doubt have suited a more pulpy treatment, Ray changed it to leave Laurel still alive, and Dix ostensibly a free man. Somehow the knowledge that she lives on but despises and fears him, and he has to face the future alone with knowledge of his own monstrousness and nothing so cathartic as a prison sentence/hanging to look forward to, becomes all the more exquisitely apropos torture for the character. Greatness.

Johnny Guitar” (1954)
You gotta love those French new wave critics for making it intellectually ok to adore “Johnny Guitar” — Ray’s trashy-to-the-point-of-camp, talky Western/Women’s Pic hybrid — thereby rescuing it from the category of “guilty pleasure” to which it might otherwise belong. You see, as that cumbersome description might suggest, there is almost too much going on here — venomous female rivalries, old flames, bank robberies, stagecoach holdups, lynchings, gunfights, betrayals, arson, intrigues, a fine measure of cock-blocking and plenty of last-minute changes of heart, all shot in fetishizable, painterly Technicolor. The film should be a complete mess, but somehow, although each individual element sits weirdly alongside any other, the whole is so well orchestrated as to make it, on some visceral level, completely satisfying. Joan Crawford, her face almost an abstraction of a face under mask-like, heavy make-up, plays Vienna, who we’re somehow supposed to believe is a scrappy ex-hooker/saloon girl who clawed her way to her dream of owning her own business: a saloon built seemingly in the middle of nowhere that will pay dividends once the railway is routed right by it. Crawford is simply too patrician, too steely, too stately a presence to sell that backstory convincingly, and her unbending sternness makes it hard for the men who love her to seem anything but emasculated ciphers by comparison. But that’s part of the pleasure here: right down to the climactic showdown being between two women (Crawford and a maniacal Mercedes McCambridge), this film doesn’t simply replace male western archetypes with females (“Calamity Jane,” it ain’t), it actually lets its narrative warp into melodrama around its women, so what we get is almost subversive for the Western genre. Apparently, Crawford, as became her wont, feuded with practically everyone on set, especially Sterling Hayden, (the hero of this film in title only), and McCambridge (later the voice of the demon in “The Exorcist“), who referred to her as “a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady.” And perhaps that shows: as a film it’s a fascinating muddle of clashing characterizations and story strands that might not run deep, but boy are they writ large. But as a primer for some of Ray’s preoccupations (outsider-iness, the past vs. the present, male violence, the power dynamic in relationships) and style (theatrical Technicolor, staginess, wordiness) it’s pretty much, well, essential.
Rebel Without A Cause” (1955)
Even those who aren’t aware of Ray’s career as a whole know 1955’s “Rebel Without A Cause,” thanks principally to the tragic death of star James Dean only a few weeks before the film made it to theaters. But for all of the rubberneckers, the film still holds up remarkably well today, even if it’s perhaps not Ray’s absolute finest. The film began as nothing but a simple B-movie, borrowing the title of Robert M. Lindner‘s psychiatric study “Rebel Without A Cause: The Hypnoanalysis Of A Psychopath,” which Warners had optioned a decade earlier, and the studio were trying to keep it cheap, ordering Ray to shoot in black-and-white, until Dean broke out in “East Of Eden,” at which point they ordered the scenes already filmed to be redone in (glorious) color. Dean plays a young man, newly arrived at an L.A. high school and already in trouble with the authorities, who falls in with classmates Plato (Sal Mineo) and Judy (Natalie Wood), who recognize him after being brought into the police station on the same night. The trio are furious at their peers, at the complacency (or absence) of their uncomprehending parents and at the world around them, in an infinitely more empathetic and realistic manner than the same year’s near-hysterical “Blackboard Jungle.” But there’s a richness beyond that, an undercurrent of sexual longing and inevitable, fatal madness that feels more like a Greek tragedy than a Shakespeare play. The screenplay’s probably the weakest link: the lines can clunk, pushing the theme into text rather than subtext, and it does feel dated in places. And it’s probably not Ray’s most impressive directorial effort, although it’s as impeccably staged and lit as ever. But the sheer fury it feels — thanks in particular to the superb performances by Wood, Mineo and especially Dean (who would all meet tragic fates themselves) — still feels like a firecracker today.    

Bigger Than Life” (1956)
It was never unusual for Ray to center his melodramas around protagonists riddled with confusion, doubt, anxiety and pain, and the confluence of these ugly, deep-seated psychological issues rages like a hydra-headed confluence of anguish in “Bigger Than Life,” a picture some argue is his incontestable masterpiece. Based on a 1955 The New Yorker article by medical writer Berton Roueché entitled “Ten Feet Tall,” in Ray’s bold and expressionistic telling of this story, the great James Mason plays a family man and small-town school teacher driven to madness by the misuse of a new wonder-drug. Suffering from blackouts and severe pain, the teacher is diagnosed with a rare artery inflammation that may kill him. Doctors tell Mason, his friends and family (his wife is played by Barbara Rush, a colleague played by Walter Matthau) that the only thing that may save him is the experimental use of Cortisone. Initially, responding well to the treatment, Mason’s gentle and caring father-husband-teacher character eventually transforms into a despotic monster at home and near psychopath in every other avenue of his life when he begins to abuse the drug and his addiction flares like a suffering heartburn of the soul. Lurching and careening with color, shadows and lively, wild melodrama, both Mason and Ray play the film — as its title already suggests — larger than life. Shot in glorious CinemaScope, nothing about “Bigger Than Life” is subtle, but the over-the-top mien of the picture is belied by its genuinely uncomfortable suffering and emotional truth. A exposé of addiction and a fairly damning excoriation of suburban life and the underbelly of the quaint Eisenhower era of ’50s picket-fence purity, “Bigger Than Life” was a flop at the time, and its critique of family life was off-putting for those who did see it. But rescued from obscurity by the Criterion Collection (only in 2010, which feels like a decade late, but we’ll take what we can get), it’s hopefully the first phase of a full-scale re-appreciation of the daring filmmaker’s oeuvre.

— Rodrigo Perez, Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton

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