Friday, August 30, 2013

An Appreciation: Nicholas Ray

They Live By Night (1948) ***½- The first images of Ray’s debut film- the face of two young lovers looking into each other’s eyes with the scroll of “this man and this woman were never properly introduced to this world” followed by a long overhead tracking shot as a car races down a dusty road- are certainly magnanimous introductions to a long career. It’s hard to top that initial energy, yet “They Live By Night” maintains its trendsetting narrative throughout as Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) find each other and then spend the rest of the film on the run from the law. Just terrific stuff.

Knock On Any Door (1949) **½- Ray’s sophomore film is most interesting for the way it sketches out so many of his later themes, predominately the idea of his teenager punk-rock attitude. As the lead youngster says numerous times while on trial for murder, “live fast and leave a beautiful corpse”. Humphrey Bogart is stable as the defense attorney pleading the young man’s case, and overall the film is an average cautionary tale about the injustices of the poor alongside New York’s lower east side.

A Woman’s Secret (1949) **½ - Two women argue and then a shot goes off. One of them lies bleeding and hurt, and from there, “A Woman’s Secret” tells the jealous back story of the two women and their criss-crossing paths as singers. Like so many of the films from the 40’s, Ray is obviously having a great time with the subtext of lesbianism and pink jealousy resulting in murder while Maureen O Hara and especially Gloria Grahame raise the film above its pedestrian antics. Available on specialized DVD

In A Lonely Place (1950) **- With this film and “A Woman’s Secret”, Ray made the jump from nervy genre films about disaffected youth to the social comforts of Hollywood stardom. Let me begin by saying I love Gloria Graham and am glad she’s the muse of Ray in a couple films, shining through every scene with sexuality and grace. And what she sees in Humphrey Bogart besides lazy plot contraptions is beyond me, which is partly why “In A Lonely Place” fails as a film for me. Even before he’s suspected of murdering a young girl, Bogart is an insufferable douche, prone to violent outbursts and an air of entitlement just because he’s a Hollywood screenwriter. Full of witty late 40’s one-liners and come backers, I just don’t see the timelessness of “In A Lonely Place”.

Born To Be Bad (1950) **½- The story- Joan Fontaine’s whirling dervish of a sexual tornado, stealing the love of her cousin’s life- is secondary to the playful nature of Ray’s mise en scene. One knows they’re in trouble when good girl Joan Leslie trips over the suitcase of Fontaine in the opening moments and it all goes downhill from there. Not available on DVD.

Flying Leathernecks (1951) *½- Ray’s continued success with scoring a-list names carries on here with John Wayne as the very unpopular commander of a squadron during World War 2. It’s a varied effort, though, with very little sympathy set up for any of the men and exhibiting way too much rah-rah attitude. Robert Ryan, as the anti-Wayne character here both in tolerance for discipline and outlook on life, serves as a meaty juxtaposition to the Wayne persona, but that’s sadly the most interesting aspect of this relatively ordinary film.

On Dangerous Ground (1952) ****- For my money, Ray’s first legitimate masterpiece. Again starring Robert Ryan, “On Dangerous Ground” breathlessly swerves between two genres of film, beginning as a prototypical film noir (complete with rain soaked streets and a darkness that never seems to end) and ending up as a psychological chase film among the snow covered hills of northern California. Sent to work on an out-of-town case after his frenzied, violent assault on several possible criminals, Ryan is terrific as the loose canon cop who finds some solace and self-restraint in the wilderness when he meets blind woman Ida Lupino during a chase for someone who killed a young girl. A single viewing is not enough to tabulate all the swirling undercurrents of psychology here, and Ray’s direction is taut, focused and magisterial. Several images, of two men hunting another across a snow-swept mountain terrain at dusk, are stellar and establish Ray as the premier visualist of the 50’s, both in outward narrative and interior monologue.

The Lusty Men (1952) ***- The blueprint for so many later films, as older, wiser man (Robert Mitchum) takes a younger guy (Arthur Kennedy) under his wings and tries to teach him about life… and the rodeo. Although released in the early 50’s, the most startling aspect of “The Lusty Men” is its already antiquated feel about the old west coming to a close that so many later films yearn to encapsulate but rarely do. Memorable character study whose tension derives from the triumvirate of Kennedy, Mitchum and Susan Hayward.

 Johnny Guitar (1954) ****- The first third of “Johnny Guitar” features some of Ray’s most flawless filmmaking… and the rest ain’t that bad either. Nominally a western, “Johnny Guitar” (like so many of Ray’s films) defies easily classification and weaves a hallucinogenic trail between genre. There are so many startling aspects of “Johnny Guitar”- the soundtrack that hits a crescendo like a horror film when a group of people barge through a saloon door carrying a dead man…. The impeccable framing of a dead man sprawled out before a group of people dressed in black…. the first third that features a series of emotional and physical standoffs… and the fevered performances of Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge. The story, which really takes a backseat to all the psychological undercurrents, deals with a drifter named Johnny (Sterling Hayden) who arrives at Crawford’s saloon and becomes embroiled in a bitter emotional dispute. Like Fritz Lang’s “Rancho Notorious” released two years earlier, “Johnny Guitar” would make for a frightening double feature on how to destroy the western genre and create a brilliant hybrid.

Run For Cover (1955) **- More solidly established as a “western” than “Johnny Guitar”, “Run For Cover” does keep one on their toes as the story shifts from outlaw justice gone awry (the tendency to pit stoic man against ruthless society once again) to chase-em-and-shoot-em ordinariness with ease. Jimmy Cagney befriends young man John Derek and after a case of mistaken identity, the obligatory quasi father/son duo become sheriff and marshal of a small town. Their idyllic setting (including new found love between Cagney and Viveca Lindfors) is soon shattered when real outlaws come to town and the financial/moral stakes are raised. What’s most perceptive about this rather lackluster Ray film is the shifting bond between Cagney and Derek as outside forces constantly tug at their relationship. It’s a favorite Ray theme, explored to better depth in other films. Without this, “Run For Cover” would be a nondescript mid 50’s B western. Not available on DVD.

Rebel Without A Cause (1955) ****- Without recognizing this film’s obvious reputation on film history, “Rebel Without A Cause” is Ray’s most sensitive film to date, enticing awkwardly brilliant performances from its young cast (Dean and Natalie Wood especially). Mixing up the hot rod rebellion sect and effectively crowning a generation of disaffected youth in one moody performance, James Dean soars high but it’s the masked relationship between him and Sal Mineo that effectively oozes off the screen now. Oedipal parental relationships…. Abandonment issues…. All types of confused psychological traps are set for Ray’s youth, carried out against a Technicolor backdrop that draws a thundering climax at one of cinema’s most famous Los Angeles settings where everyone can look at the stars but rarely escape their own earthbound floundering. And oh my was Natalie Wood a beauty.

Hot Blood (1956) *½- Ray’s first attempt at a musical, even though there’s only a sparse amount of singing and dancing. Yet, right from the opening frame, vibrant color and choreographed movements of people along a busy street signify something more ebullient than the standard drama. Sadly, that dramatic narrative feels clumsy and secondary to Ray’s attention to mise-en-scene. Farley Granger and Jane Russell are part of two large gypsy families placed into an arranged marriage, and from there nothing ever quite works out. The romance between Russell and Granger alternates between a sly slapstick of sorts and straight discontent and Granger, especially, lacks any real charisma as the leading man. A noble, if not interesting, failure made all the more frustrating by Ray’s technical deficiencies in post production by not being able to completely edit the film for himself. Not available on DVD.

Bigger Than Life (1956) ***- Initially panned upon release and then resuscitated by the cahiers du cinema crowd, “Bigger Than Life” is far more interesting for its visual impacts rather than its fevered performances. James Mason is all brow and bravado as an initially meek mannered schoolteacher violently changed by a prescription drug and aggressive towards wife and son. Within its current blu-ray form, Ray’s fluid direction are stunning, slowly casting shadows over the heads of his actors as the film progresses towards its psychotic climax. “Bigger Than Life”, released squarely in the mid 50’s, is most memorable for the way in which it inverts the radioactive horror genre as an interior analysis of the nuclear family. Still, the real coup here is Ray’s impeccable direction.

The True Story of Jesse James (1957) ***- Revisionist takes on America’s most famous outlaw, Jesse James, range from the intimate (Fritz Lang’s “The Return of Frank James”) to the mythical (Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford”). Ray’s take on the outlaw drama blends both. Portraying Jesse like one of his neglected, misunderstood teens, Ray attempts to give his life of crime a rationalized beginning (violence against his family). Darting back and forth in time and expertly fracturing the doomed Northfield Minnesota raid at the beginning and ending of the film with vastly different understandings of the crime, “The True Story of Jesse James” is rousing, almost experimental, filmmaking for the mid 50’s. Even though this is widely considered a paycheck for Ray (completing the film as part of a studio deal), it’s still a bracing example of the auteur in him. The only fault is found in Robert Wagner’s too polished, handsome performance as Jesse.


Bitter Victory (1958) ***½ - Unlike Samuel Fuller, Ray’s war film- his first since the jingoistic John Wayne vehicle “Flying Leathernecks”- explores the psyche of war rather than the muscular aspect. Richard Burton is fantastic as the lieutenant clashing with his peer officer Curd Jurgens during a military campaign in the North African desert. Friction is established early on, both in the varying temperament of the soldiers and the fact they both love the same woman. “Bitter Victory” doesn’t shy away from being a recommended entry into the war genre (especially a fabulous set piece when the soldiers silently raid a German headquarters building) but it does tackle the issue from a different perspective. Like later films by John Boorman (“Hell In the Pacific”) and even Brian DePalma (“Causalities of War”), Ray’s drama is more attuned to the breakdown of human interaction and complete loss of our true self during wartime. Even though we hate Jurgens throughout “Bitter Victory”, it’s a film that makes us wonder if we wouldn’t do the same thing.


Wind Across the Everglades (1958) **- Respected as a bit of forebearer to the ecological thriller, “Wind Across the Everglades” is probably Ray’s most experimental film to date, mixing straight drama with unique location setting and snippets of documentary-like footage of wildlife. Yet having said all that, the film still failed to completely connect with me as new boy in south Miami Christopher Plummer does battle against poacher Burl Ives and his motley crew. There are some interesting turns towards the end as Plummer and Ives square off and their fierce battle of wills and ideals jettisons in unexpected directions, but its not enough to save a very preachy effort. Not available on DVD.

Party Girl (1958) ***- I understand why the French Nouvelle Vague love this film so much. Ray's camera practically makes love to Cyd Charisse and she does her slinky best to give it right back. Almost too sumptuous at times, the film becomes kinetic during her dance scenes and then settles into a pretty damn good gangster flick with windows and doors opening up to splendid painted backdrops.


The Savage Innocents (1960) *½- At first glance, “The Savage Innocents” fits so nicely into Ray’s ongoing themes of culture clash and the miscommunication between outsiders, but in execution and tone, the film is one of his weakest. Documenting the life of an Eskimo hunter (Anthony Quinn) and his survival as western influences slowly encroach on his frozen tundra, the most boggling aspect of the film is Quinn’s performance….. Something so odd and badly interpreted that it verges on condescending. Secondly, the narration, which attempts to describe the mating rituals or hunting habits of this sect of people reads like a school play. Lastly, the visual look, combining English studio sets and location filming, rarely convey a strong sense of anything realistic. A bit of a total mess. Available on region 2 DVD.


King of Kings (1961) ****- Certainly the most visually evocative of all Hollywood’s Biblical representations, Ray’s vision of the life of Christ is immensely powerful. From the startling overhead crane shot as one king is dethroned…. Or the miracles of Jesus shown through shadow, or especially the hanging of Jesus on the cross in a shot later cribbed by Martin Scorsese for his own Jesus telling, Ray’s epic exceeds its bloated expectations of big Hollywood (including overture, interlude etc) and remains a true auteurist work. As Jesus, Jeffrey Hunter is workable, but it’s the ensemble cast and Philip Yordan’s morally ambitious script that gives “King of Kings” its weight, especially in the roles of Roman soldier Lucius (Ron Randall) and John the Baptist (Robery Ryan), two men who work at the periphery of Jesus and provide a sensitive perception of his time.


55 Days At Peking (1963) ****- The late career epics of Nicholas Ray really hit the spot. After “King of Kings”, Ray stayed with mega financier Samuel Bronston and produced “55 Days At Peking”, about the siege of the Boxer Rebellion against the Allied embassies in the early 1900’s. Rumored to have collapsed on set and not even finish shooting some scenes, it’s debatable how much others influenced the project, but regardless, I found the film to be an emotional knockout as well as featuring many of the common Ray undercurrents. Starring Charlton Heston as the American military commander and David Niven as the stiff British upper lip who trenches in the Allied forces against the rebels, “55 Days At Peking” is mesmerizing in its action set pieces and even stronger when it focuses on the human bonds. Heston (an actor I never really “got”) gives an amazing and authentic performance, his steel veneer melting a bit when faced with the love of a woman (Ava Gardner providing Ray’s favorite theme of outsider love rendering redemption) and an orphan child. This would be Ray’s final commercial film, but it’s a terrific commercial film all the same.

We Can’t Go Home Again (1976) ***- Created as a communal effort with his students whom he was teaching at NYU Binghamton, “We Can’t Go Home Again” is an experimental and non-linear swan song for Ray. Eschewing any real plot, allowing the students to film and dramatize certain aspects of their life, and featuring strong hippie ties as the kids talk about Vietnam, shave their beards off or generally complain about the Establishment, the film itself is less important than the process. Culled, edited and shown for over 9 years (beginning in 1971 and edited until the day he died in 1979), “We Can’t Go Home Again” is a decidedly individual way for the consistent loner to go out. Since so many of his projects were faced with studio interruption and corporate noise, it’s only fitting that his final work would be so extreme. After facing the camera so bravely, riddled with cancer in Wim Wenders’ “Lightning Over Water” (1980), one can surmise Ray was never afraid of challenging assumptions and this “student” film may be his most personal after an illustrious career.

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