|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.
Wednesday, January 3 7:30 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.
Thursday, January 4 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.
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.
Friday, January 5 7:30 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.
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."
Saturday, January 6 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.
Sunday, January 7 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
KNOCK ON ANY DOOR, 1949, Sony Repertory, 100 min.
Director Nicholas Rays second picture was produced by its star, Humphrey
Bogarts Santana Productions, and it mirrors the kind of gutsy social realism
both men favored in their storytelling. Its remarkably candid and gritty for the
time period as it follows delinquent John Derek and his gutter rat chums who have
shot a cop in the course of a robbery. Bogarts character, a successful attorney who
extricated himself from toxic ghetto roots, feels obligated to defend Derek. Ray poses
eternal questions about character versus environment, and how much responsibilty each side
bears for rampant urban crime. Although Bogart and Ray obviously lean towards the latter
as being a big part of the problem, there are no easy answers here. The film compares
favorably with other socially conscious noirs of the 1950s such as NO WAY OUT and
EDGE OF THE CITY, and is an intriguing foreshadow of Rays later work with James Dean
in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. NOT ON DVD.