|In A Lonely Place - The
Rebellious Cinema of Nicholas Ray
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Like few American directors before or since, Nicholas Ray was
capable of imbuing his films with the violent, gleeful, contradictory impulses of his own
personality. But his color-saturated stories of abusive men and morally stronger women, of
Americans caught in the awful throes of re-imagining themselves, as in REBEL WITHOUT A
CAUSE, BIGGER THAN LIFE, THE LUSTY MEN (sadly unavailable for screening) or WIND
ACROSS THE EVERGLADES, have to be seen on the Wide, Wide Screen to appreciate why Ray
remains such an enigma.
Born in Wisconsin in 1911, Ray spent his early years soaking up a
staggering array of influences: studying architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright, working
with Elia Kazan in New Yorks Theatre of Action, promoting folk music with Pete
Seeger and Alan Lomax. He directed his first film, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948),
working with producer John Houseman. Ray soon gained a reputation for his unique,
intuitive rapport with actors in such films as IN A LONELY PLACE and ON
DANGEROUS GROUND, and also for his combative, almost sado-masochistic relationship
with the Hollywood establishment. Although his strangest, most daring (and some say
greatest) film came in 1954 with the surreal Joan Crawford western, JOHNNY GUITAR,
it was the epochal REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) that was his most widely-acclaimed
success. His unique friendship with James Dean became the stuff of legend, but it was
Rays discovery of the widescreen Cinemascope format on REBEL that helped shape the
rest of his career. Sadly, almost inevitably, Ray quit Hollywood in the early 1960s
(or, more likely, Hollywood quit him). He spent the rest of his creative years as a
teacher, inspiring a new generation of filmmakers including Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders.
Nicholas Ray died in New York in 1979.
Friday, December 15 7:30 PM
JOHNNY GUITAR, 1954, Republic
(Paramount), 110 min. Joan Crawford is headstrong Vienna, a saloon-owner waiting
for the railroad to reach her town. But her friendship with charming outlaw, The Dancing
Kid (Scott Brady) jeopardizes her standing in the local community. If things
werent bad enough, the uptight landowners are led by vindictively jealous Emma (a
frightening Mercedes McCambridge) who will do anything to repress her yen for The
Kid, even if she has to lynch half the town to do it. Enter Viennas returning old
flame, Johnny (Sterling Hayden), a fast-draw who has given up guns for a guitar!
Only director Nicholas Ray could pull off something so brazen - a color-coded,
violent, romantic tall tale rife with allegorical references to the rabid right wing of
1950s America. A stunning achievement that comes off like a crazy quilt
collaboration between Luis Bunuel, Anthony Mann and Vincente Minelli! Victor Young did the
lush score with Peggy Lee singing the memorably torrid theme song. Co-starring Ward
Bond, Ernest Borgnine, John Carradine. NOT ON DVD.
TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES,
1957, 20th Century Fox, 92 min. Director Nicholas Ray was hamstrung by
studio interference in his remake of the Tyrone Power-starring original, but there are
still enough off-kilter touches as well as the filmmakers trademark brilliant use of
color to make it more than worthwhile viewing. This time around, Robert Wagner and Jeffrey
Hunter star as Jesse and Frank James respectively, with a great supporting cast that
also includes Agnes Moorehead, John Carradine, Alan Hale, Jr. and Hope Lange.
NOT ON DVD.
Saturday, December 16 6:00 PM
THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, 1948,
Warner Bros., 95 min. Nicholas Rays directorial debut (and his own favorite)
is a deeply-felt tale of young love struggling to survive in a cruel, unforgiving world. Farley
Granger and Cathy ODonnell are memorable as star-crossed lovers Bowie and
Keechie in this darkly romantic and melancholy adaptation of Edward Andersons
depression-era crime classic Thieves Like Us. In Rays hands, its Romeo
and Juliet for the film noir era. Co-starring a wonderfully sociopathic Howard da Silva.
NOT ON DVD.
ON DANGEROUS GROUND, 1952,
Warner Bros., 82 min. Dir. Nicholas Ray. A violent, embittered metro cop (Robert
Ryan) in hot water with his boss gets sent upstate to help with a small town manhunt.
The search leads him into a fateful confrontation with his own off-limits heart when he
falls in love with the fugitives blind sister (Ida Lupino). Sterling
contributions all around: A.I. Bezzerides savvy script, Rays vigorous
direction, Bernard Herrmanns magnificent, brassy score, and Ryans ferocious
performance make this one of film noirs most affecting statements about anger and
alienation in the big city. The contrast between city and country, brutality and
tenderness is pure Ray.
Saturday, December 16 9:30 PM
IN A LONELY PLACE, 1950, Sony
Repertory, 94 min. Dir. Nicholas Ray. A brilliant, moody drama of a screenwriter (Humphrey
Bogart) accused of murder, and the starlet (Gloria Grahame) afraid to trust
him. On one level, a poisonous rejection of all things Hollywood; on another, a love
triangle of almost demonic intensity between the director and his two stars. Although
Dorothy B. Hughes original novel was also possessed of a desolate ending, Rays
equally downbeat climax was quite different and undoubtedly did not find favor with the
studio powers-that-be. Co-starring Frank Lovejoy.
PARTY GIRL, 1958, Warner Bros., 99
min. Director Nicholas Rays ultra-stylish homage to 1930s gangster
films revolves around an ice-cold chorus girl (Cyd Charisse) and her equally
cynical lawyer boyfriend (Robert Taylor) who want to sever their ties to organized
crime. But the film really belongs to Rays stunning use of color and the widescreen
as well as Lee J. Cobb in a savage caricature of a Capone-like mobster. NOT ON DVD.
Sunday, December 17 7:30 PM
BIGGER THAN LIFE, 1956, 20th
Century Fox, 95 min. Director Nicholas Rays subversively twisted portrait of
suburban life centers on a teacher (James Mason) who becomes addicted to cortisone
and experiences visionary, tyrannical delusions. Rays superb use of color and shot
composition reaches a deliriously surreal intensity here that, at times, borders on the
psychedelic. In addition to one of Masons finest performances, theres also
standout work from co-stars Barbara Rush and Walter Matthau. A must for Ray
fans. NOT ON DVD.
WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES,
1958, Warner Bros., 93 min. Director Nicholas Rays rarely screened drunken
masterpiece stars Christopher Plummer as a young game warden in early 1900s
Florida, trying to stop bigger-than-life, outlaw poacher Burl Ives and his gang of
cutthroats (including a young Peter Falk) from decimating the wild heron
population. Shot on atmospheric and very swampy locations, Rays depiction of the
frontier surrendering to civilization is worthy of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. And, like
Welles, Ray himself was barred from finishing or editing the final cut of the film.
Produced and written by Budd Schulberg (writer of ON THE WATERFRONT). NOT ON DVD.
Wednesday, December 20 7:30 PM
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, 1955,
Warner Bros., 111 min. Director Nicholas Rays awesome, mythic saga of teen
disobedience and alienation in 1950s America made James Dean and co-star Natalie
Wood instant cultural icons. Rays use of color and the Cinemascope screen
remains groundbreaking to this day, rivaling Hitchcock for striking frame compositions and
bold symbolism. Co-starring Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Corey Allen, Dennis Hopper. "...the
film still breathes like a hurt, brooding animal. It's an indelible vision of a pretty
1950s America with a searing crack in it
a movie so audacious it can only be poetry,
a kind of cinematic free verse
" Peter Stack, San Francisco
BITTER VICTORY, 1957, Sony
Repertory, 103 min. Richard Burton is a fatalistic captain at odds with his
indecisive and inexperienced superior, a timid major played by Curt Jurgens, as
they undertake a dangerous mission across the desert to steal secret documents from the
Nazis during WWII. Burton had left Jurgens beautiful wife, Ruth Roman,
heartbroken years before, and this association further poisons the relationship
between the two officers. One of Nicholas Rays most underrated and most
beautifully directed masterworks is full of subtle touches that build inexorably to a
shattering and tragic conclusion. Originally cut by over 20 minutes in America, this is
the restored and original uncut version. Writing about BITTER VICTORY in Cahiers du
Cinema, Jean Luc Godard famously declared "Henceforth there is
cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray."