Ray, Nicholas: Centennial Celebration

“If it were all in the script, why make the film?”  Nicholas Ray

“There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rosselini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray”—Jean-Luc Godard

This year marks the centennial of the great, iconic filmmaker Nicholas Ray, who was born on August 7, 1911.  Over the next several months, we will revisit each of Ray’s 20 features between 1949 and 1963, offering full-length critical reviews.

One of the most intriguing American directors of the 1950s and 1960s, Nicholas Ray was first ‘discovered” by French auteurist critics. He is best known for his empathy for outsiders, emotional intensity of his characters, and expressionistic use of color.  These attributes are manifest in his best films, the cult Western “Johnny Guitar” (1954), the youth angst melodrama “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), and “bigger Than Life” (1956),

The distinguished critic Andrew Sarris (the Village Voice), who introduced auteurism into the American scene, and his follower critics are responsible for the resurrection of Ray in schools and revival houses in the 1960s and 1970s, before the “VCR Revolution.”  In fact, as a result of repeat showings of “Rebel Without a Cause,” Ray’s cult continues to grow at universities and film clubs around the world.   (I have shown several of his films in France, Italy, Poland, and even Russia to great appreciation).

Ray’s best work exemplifies the tension between the director’s personality and the material he is working on in  expressing his singular vision, vision that is a worldview going beyond the realm of cinema.  Indeed, Ray’s diverse work in varied genres (film noir, Westerns, melodramas, women’s films) exhibits consistent themes and “interior meaning,” to borrow a term from the auteurist approach. Ray and other directors worked with what Manny Farber called “termite art.”  Under stock story lines, they revealed urgent personal and collective anxieties that go way beyond the genres and formats of the films.

Born on August 7, 1911, as Raymond Nicholas Kienzlein in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.  In his early years, he went to school at the University of Wisconsin, where he met two men who inspired his jump to film: Frank Loyd Wright and playwright Thornton Wilder, then serving as a professor. Ray received a fellowship from Wright to study under him as an apprentice.  This background was later manifest in the visual strategies of his films.

Ray began his showbiz career as radio writer-director, and later toured as actor and director.  He appeared in several plays by Elia Kazan, before the latter became a filmmaker.  In fact, it might have been Kazan who influenced the psychological intensity found the characters of Ray’s films–and in the actors who played them.

For a while, Ray was a member of the John Houseman’s Phoenix Theater in N.Y. During WWII, he wrote and directed radio propaganda plays for the Office of War Information under Houseman’s direction.  Ray directed his first and only Broadway production, the Duke Ellington musical, “Beggar’s Holiday,” in 1946.

Ray made his feature directing debut in June 1948, in a film called “The Twisted Road.”  It was released over a year later, in November 1949, as “They Live by Night.”  The delays were caused by the chaotic conditions of Howard Hughes’ takeover of RKO Pictures.  A remarkable film noir, it was notable for its empathy for young outsiders, a recurring motif in Ray’s films.  The movie was influential on the popular sub-genre of “love on the run,” centering on two young fugitive lovers on the run from the law. (In 1974, Robert Altman directed “Thieves Like Us,” which was a remake of “They Live By Night.”

Ray later made several contributions to film noir, most notably the 1950Humphrey Bogart drama, “In a Lonely Place,” about a troubled, complex Hollywood screenwriter, and “On Dangerous Ground,” a police noir thriller, starring Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino (who also helped direct the film, uncredited).

Along the way, there were also some minor films, such as “Born to Be Bad,” with Joan Fontaine in the lead, and “A Woman’s Secret,” arguably his weakest film, starring Maureen O’Hara and Gloria Grahame.

Ray’s most creative productive period was in the 1950s, during which he made the two films for which he is best remembered. “Johnny Guitar” (1954) a Western pairing and contrasting Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in action roles usually allotted to men.

A cult movie, :Johnny Guitar” was much loved by French critics—Francois Truffaut once described it as “the beauty and the beast” of the Western genre).

In 1955, Ray directed “Rebel Without a Cause,” starring James Dean in his second and most famous role. When “Rebel” was released, soon after Dean’s death in a car crash, it had huge impact on youth culture.

“Rebel Without a Cause” represents the purest reflection of Ray’s filmic approach, style and vision, with an expressionistic use of color, dramatic use of architecture and sympathy for characters that are all social misfits—for one reason or another.

Ray, perhaps as a result of studying architecture, was able to show vividly and powerfully the impact of space, both exterior and interior locations, on people’s lives, how  emotional relationships between his characters are shaped and modified by their specific position, indoors and outdoors, upstairs and downstairs.

As the critic David Thomson has observed, “The characters expand or contract according to the emotional tone of the place in which they find themselves.”  Take, for instance, “Rebel Without a Cause” and the shifting social dynamics reflected when the characters are at the police station, the Stark house, the planetarium, and finally the deserted mansion.

It was also Ray’s biggest commercial success, and marked a breakthrough in the careers of actors Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo.

During the making of this picture, Ray engaged in what he called “spiritual marriage” with Dean, and awakened the latent homosexuality of Sal Mineo, through his role of Plato, the first gay teenager to appear on film.  He also had a brief affair with Wood, then only 16 and so 27 years younger than him.

Biographers state that Ray was bisexual, but he denied it, though he admitted to being a heavy user of drugs and alcohol.

In 1956, Ray directed the melodrama “Bigger Than Life,” starring James Mason as a small-town teacher driven insane by the misuse of a new wonder-drug, Cortisone.

Ray found himself shut out of the Hollywood film industry in the early 1960s. He kept on working, making several historical epics, but the later films did not get the attention he wanted.

“The Savage Innocents” and “King of Kings,” the story of Jesus of Nazareth, were both panned by critics and proved to be commercial failures.

After collapsing on the set of the epic “55 Days at Peking” (1963), which starred Ava Gardner and Charlton Heston, he did not direct again until the mid-1970s.  But basically Ray’s career as a viable director was over.

Teaching and Acting

From 1971 to 1973, Ray taught filmmaking at Harpur College of Arts and Sciences at Binghamton University in upstate New York, where he and his students produced “We Can’t Go Home Again,” an autobiographical film employing multiple super-impositions.

Ray was asked to show some footage from the film at a conference. The audience was shocked to see footage of Ray and his students smoking marijuana. An early version of the film was shown at the Cannes Film Fest in 1973. Ray was never satisfied with the project, which he continued editing it until his death in 1979.

Ray also held teaching positions at the Lee Strasberg Institute and New York University, where he collaborated on the direction of Lightning Over Water with German director Wim Wenders.

In 1974, Ray was the subject of a feature documentary, “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” whose title was inspired by Sterling Hayden’s line in “Johnny Guitar.”

In 1977, Ray played a role in Wim Wender’s The American Friend,” starring Dennis Hopper, who as a very young actor had appeared in Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause.”

One of his four wives was the actress Gloria Grahame, who had appeared in some of his films.  They married in 1948, separated in 1950 and divorced in 1952, after Ray discovered Grahame in bed with his son, Tony Ray, who was then only 13. (The two later got married).

There are some great performances by major (and not so major) stars in Ray’s oeuvre.  Space does not permit me to dwell on this aspect here, but I will when we review each of Ray’s films.

Of the dozen great actors in Ray’s pictures, I would like to single out Farley Granger in “They Live By Night,” Robert Mitchum in “The Lusty Men,” Humphrey Bogart in “In a Lonely Place,” Robert  Ryan in “On Dangerous Ground,” all three youngsters, James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo in “Rebel Without a Cause.”

It is no accident or coincidence that most of these performers are men as Ray’s cinema is very much a male-driven cinema.  That said, a special mention goes to Susan Hayward as the woman in between in “The Lusty Men,” and, of course, both Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge in “Johnny Guitar.”

Ray’s Legacy

Ray’s movies continue to be shown and admired long after his death (of lung cancer) on June 16, 1979 .

Of the 20 features that Ray had directed between 1949 and 1963, at least 10 have withstood the test of time, the ultimate criterion of art, including film.

The French New Wave directors and critics (most notably Jean-Luc Godard) held Ray in high regard.

Wim Wenders’ films are also indebted to Ray, from the casting of Dennis Hopper and the expressionistic use of color in his own film “The American Friend,” to the title of his sci-fi “Until the End of the World,” which are the last spoken words in Ray’s biblical epic, “King of Kings.”

In Godard’s film, truly a masterpiece, “Contempt,” the character played by Michel Piccoli claims to have written Ray’s “Bigger Than Life.”

Scorsese used clips from several of Ray’s films in his documentary, “Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies.”