Thursday, June 3, 2010

#29: Nicholas Ray

- "That’s the obligation of the filmmaker or the theater worker – to give a heightened sense of experience to the people who pay to come to see his work."

Would it be cliché to open an entry on Nicholas Ray by marveling at how the French adored the mercurial director? Anytime a survey of Ray’s career is discussed, or analysis of his work attempted, it is mentioned that during the 1950s few American directors were held in such high regard at Cahiers du Cinema as Ray. Jean-Luc Godard in particular appeared to worship the man, once boldly declaring: “The cinema is Nicholas Ray.” At his best, I don’t know that I would necessarily argue with the sentiments of Godard and other leaders of the French New Wave. The sentiments expressed in Godard’s comment are justifiable considering the skills displayed in Ray’s moviemaking. In the hands of directors of lesser ability, a number of his films would play as little more that pulpy melodrama. As great as movies like They Live By Night and Rebel Without a Cause are, without Ray’s guidance I would argue that they would be average films at best.

Why was Ray able to transform potentially sappy material such as these (among others) and produce classics of American cinema? His visual storytelling, using the camera as an artist would a brush, is always impressive. But most importantly is the delicate way that he handled the themes that most interested him. Similar to how Howard Hawks would become a master at examining the bonds between men in nearly all of his greatest films, Nick Ray studied how outcasts managed to make their way in the world. The ability to convey an unrelenting sense of isolation permeates much of Ray’s work. Rather than being completely depressing, though, Ray also gives these characters glimpses of reconnecting with people or society at large. They might not always get there – such as Jim in Rebel Without a Cause or Dix in In a Lonely Place – but there is at least a glimmer of hope that they might.

I said it multiple times during the noir countdown, but revisiting a number of his best films increased my appreciation of his work even more. I still have a number of Ray films that I need to get to, which I think will shoot him even higher up a list like this. I still have not come close to seeing his entire body of work, but those top 6-7 are incredible. In a Lonely Place and Johnny Guitar are two that I love, love, love. And The Lusty Men is a definite sleeper, a film that will remind Peckinpah fans of his later movie Junior Bonner.

1. In a Lonely Place (1950)
2. Johnny Guitar (1954)
3. The Lusty Men (1952)
4. Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
5. They Live By Night (1949)
6. On Dangerous Ground (1952)
7. Bigger Than Life (1956)
8. Bitter Victory (1958)
9. The Savage Innocents (1960)
10. Party Girl (1958)
11. King of Kings (1961)

Next up is Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer.


  1. I've only seen eight N.Ray films but the top 3 are all time favorites of mine.

    1. In A Lonely Place
    2. On Dangerous Ground
    3. They Live By Night
    4. Johnny Guitar
    5. The Lusty Men
    6. Rebel Without A Cause (overrated)
    7. Party Girl
    8. King Of Kings

    Dave as a noir fan I'm still shocked you rate On Dangerous Ground so low . Everytime I see that film it gets better. It would probably now make my top 20 film noirs ever. Bring on Carl Theodor Dreyer next!!!! I've only seen 6 of his films but 4 are perfect masterpieces that I admire greatly.......M.Roca

  2. Dave, I've seen fewer Rays than M.Roca, but enough to agree on the top of the list. Here goes:

    1. In A Lonely Place
    2. They Live By Night
    3. Johnny Guitar
    4. On Dangerous Ground
    5. Rebel w/o a Cause
    6. King of Kings

    But now that you invoke Junior Bonner I'll have to catch up with The Lusty Men. Meanwhile, I'm waiting patiently for my library to acquire Bigger Than Life. The next time someone does a Ray survey I hope to be better informed.

  3. Mine... row:

    Rebel Without a Cause (1955)... :)

    I'm too newbie about this director, but with Rebel... he owns me. :)

  4. Hi Dave,

    Just came across this blog and its great stuff! For me Nicholas Ray is someone who reminds me in many respects of a film maker such Paul Thomas Anderson who manages to get the balance between style and content just right even if the content isn't quite there enough.

    Looking forward to reading more of your posts throughout the day.



  5. Great stuff Dave! Ray had great sympathy for the outsider, visually he is one of the most innovative filmmakers we have had in the U.S. His education in architecture surely helped him in his filmmaking, teaching him about space and framing. His use of the Cinemascope process in films like "Rebel Without a Cause" and others was second to none.

    In A Lonely Place
    On Dangerous Ground
    Rebel Without A Cause
    Johnny Guitar
    They Live By Night
    Party Girl
    Knock On Any Door
    Run For Cover
    Lightening Over Water
    King of Kings

    These are the only Rays film I have seen so I still have quite a few holes in his filmography that I need to fill.

  6. Great piece, Dave! And particularly glad to see your love for THE LUSTY MEN. It's one that completely took me by surprise, and I couldn't agree more with you when you call it a "definite sleeper".

    One more I'll throw into the hat is FLYING LEATHERNECKS. Another Ray that moved me a good deal.

  7. Well, as we've discussed at this site on a number of occassions, Ray is a pre-eminant American director whose body of work includes a number of great films. His diversity is remarkable, and his influence incalcuable. I was fortunate to attend the Ray festival at the Film Forum in Manhattan months back.

    1 On Dangerous Ground
    2 In A Lonely Place
    3 They Live By Night
    4 Rebel Without A Cause
    5 Bigger Than Life
    6 Johnny Guitar
    7 Party Girl
    8 The Lusty Men
    9 King of Kings
    10 The Savage Innocents

  8. M.Roca - Well, the five I have in front of it are genuinely great films, so it's no slight to On Dangerous Ground. My appreciation of it has certainly increased in recent months, but I can't move it ahead of the other Rays.

    Samuel - Oh yes, as a Peckinpah fan, you should definitely check out The Lusty Men. Mitchum gives an outstanding performance as the aging/over-the-hill rodeo star. I obviously haven't seen all of Ray's films myself, but he makes quite an impression just in the 11 I have seen.

    Nostromo - Rebel is a great place to star with Ray! Definitely check out some of the others that are being listed.

    Tom - Thanks for the kind words and definitely check out other stuff on blog and follow along as the countdown continues!

    John - Yes, I knew very well you that were also a big Nick Ray fan. I didn't realize that he had such a background in architecture, but it really does make sense when you watch his visual work. He is definitely someone who makes films that can enjoyed just on the visuals, let alone engaging stories.

    Jeffrey - I obviously haven't seen The Flying Leathernecks, but I will see if I can fix that in the near future. Glad to see that we're on the same page concerning The Lusty Men - it really is terrific.

    Sam - Seeing some of his films on the big screen (I'm thinking Rebel in CinemaScope, as John brought up earlier) would be awesome. I would have bet the farm that On Dangerous Ground would be your #1 Ray! You have championed that film quite well and it really is an outstanding one, even if I do prefer a few others.

  9. Dave, I got to see Rebel on the big screen in Cambridge about 15 years ago or so and it actually was awesome. The observatory scenes are especially impressive that way.

  10. Well, this is an easy one for me:

    1. In A Lonely Place
    2. Rebel Without A Cause

    and that's it...

    I should note IN A LONELY PLACE is one of my all-time favorites, so it places quite a bit higher than REBEL, which I like, but don't love.

    I really need to check out more Ray.

  11. Haven't watched many movies by Nicholas Ray. But I can say this much... In A Lonely Place remains one of my favourite movies of all time. It'd really shook me up big time - it was that kind of a movie for me. And glad to note that most, including you, feel that it was his best work.

  12. Dave, I was signed into a different Google account, and wrote a lot on Ray, but when I signed into Doniphon I guess I accidentally deleted the whole thing, which is a shame. The gist of it was that Ray is for me one of the great American filmmakers, and what makes him so essentially fascinating is that, as Burton puts it in Bitter Victory, he always contradicts himself. It's hard to describe his movies definitively, then, as any description seems to be both true and untrue. For me, any way, his films remain some of the most beautiful and enigmatic, and I'm sure there's nothing else like them. Johnny Guitar is one of my favorite westerns and my favorite film of his, but so many of his films are often shocking examples of the ways in which he was able to manifest emotional outbursts visually.

    My ten favorite, in order of preference:

    Johnny Guitar
    On Dangerous Ground
    Bitter Victory
    In A Lonely Place
    Rebel Without A Cause
    They Live By Night
    Bigger Than Life
    Party Girl
    The Lusty Men
    Hot Blood

  13. I've seen several of these Ray movies. I pretty consistently rate them 4-stars on Netflix. Perhaps I need to go back and re-watch them.

    I have to admit that I don't like Rebel as much as I'd like to. I find the melodrama over-the-top. I love the theme of 1950s troubled teenagers, cool cars, James Dean, and all that, but every time I watch it, I can't wait for it to end.

    Anyone seen Macao (1952)? It has Robert Mitchum, whom I love, but no one has listed it yet. Is it a weak effort?

  14. I forgot, that for your Dreyer post I just saw this today:

  15. Ray is a director who I've only begun exploring within the past year, and I've loved every one of the 5 features I've seen to date. Utterly compelling stuff, and the man himself was quite a fascinating figure. In order:

    Bigger Than Life
    Johnny Guitar
    In A Lonely Place
    On Dangerous Ground
    Rebel Without A Cause

    I have a copy of Party Girl on DVD, and have The Lusty Men on DVR from the TCM broadcast earlier this week, so those are two I'm hoping to knock out in the coming days. Will be interesting to see how they fit in.

  16. Troy - You have seen two great ones to start and I agree with you that In a Lonely Place is superior. You really can't go wrong with any of the films that are being listed by everyone.

    Shubhajit - Love to hear that you had some a great experience with In a Lonely Place... it is without question one of the greatest noirs ever made.

    Doniphon - Sorry to hear that you lost a comment like that, I'm sure that everyone would have appreciated reading your thoughts. As it is, you still bring up some great points here. As you point to, genre conventions or reputation really did nothing to restrict Ray, he was who he was. And that's something that I really like about him.

    Retro Hound - Nothing wrong with not digging a director quite as much as others. I would argue that In a Lonely Place and Johnny Guitar are definite 5-star films, but that's just my personal opinion. With Macao, I have not seen it, but my guess is that nobody is including it because it usually thought of as a Joseph von Sternberg film, even though Ray was brought in to finish it after Hughes fired von Sternberg. Thanks for the Dreyer link!

    Drew - Yes, Nick Ray the man was definitely an interesting character... give "Live Fast, Die Young" about the making of Rebel Without a Cause there is some crazy stuff there. The Lusty Men is definitely one to make a point of watching. I like Party Girl for what it is, though it's not Ray's best. The Lusty Men, I think, is outstanding.

  17. So far I've only seen four of Nicholas Ray's films and loved all of them - in order of preference

    1. In a Lonely Place
    2. Johnny Guitar
    3. Rebel Without a Cause (I saw this longer ago than the others so am not really sure where it fits)
    4. Run For Cover

    I think 'Johnny Guitar' and 'Run For Cover' have quite similar flavours, both vividly colourful Westerns focusing on outsiders who are wrongly persecuted, and giving powerful and romantic roles to older actors - Joan Crawford in 'Johnny Guitar', James Cagney in 'Run For Cover'.

    I've just been reading about Ray in Foster Hirsch's book 'The Dark Side of the Screen', where he has detailed write-ups of 'They Live By Night' and 'On Dangerous Ground', which makes me keen to see both of these very soon - I'm interested in his comment "Both films are shot through with a sentimentality and romanticism that represent a daring reversal of the characteristic noir tone."

  18. What fascinates me about Ray is the way he's the least "masked" of the classic Hollywood auteurs. Hawks, Hitchcock, and Ford all made films which, to the undiscerning eye, could be appreciated merely as genre entertainments - but Ray's have an idiosyncratic, offbeat quality apparent from the get-go. As I once wrote:

    "Nicholas Ray ... has a way of penetrating the thick skin of formal convention to get at that quivering, vulnerable heart of his characters and their world."

    I think I wrote something else, once too, a little more in-depth but I can't find it now...

  19. I meant to add to the above that, in this sense, he almost seems to belong to another, later era.

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