After watching Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory in 1958, a young French critic by the name of Jean-Luc Godard was moved so much by the film, that he declared; “There was theater (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray”
More than a half a century later, the name of Nicholas Ray is rarely mentioned with the other giants of cinema, few critics praise the man now that once the young French New Wave filmmakers admired him so much, he was one of the influence, a driving force of inspiration behind cinema’s greatest movement, that of the French New Wave. Looking at recent poll by Sight & Sound magazine, out of the top 50 films, not a single Ray in it. Truly, Nicholas Ray top the list of the forgotten giants of auteur cinema.
I had a chance to complete my viewing of Ray’s films last night. after watching his final experimental film, We Can’t Go Home Again (1972), here is a look back at my film diary for the man who’s cinema I adore:
They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948) They Live by Night was Ray’s first dive into cinema, and a what dive, one with a big splash, a splash that felt all the way in 1959, when Jean-Luc Godard made Breathless, a frontrunner to many films that followed, with the theme of two lovers on the run, two lovers doomed to eternity, full of giveaway moments and quotation that later many will copy into their own domains. “This boy, and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in”, so goes the introduction of the two lover.
Knock on Any Door (Nicholas Ray, 1949) Humphrey Bogart’s first collaboration with Ray is a courtroom-melodrama film about juvenile delinquency, but at the hand of Ray, it become a personal film, with Ray’s favorite themes; Friendship between men is tested by circumstance out of their own reach, the lonely outcast character who’s fate is doomed from beginning, yet, he keep going ahead, full speed, to face that destiny of a rebel, Nick Romano said it best, “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse”. Priceless.
A Woman’s Secret (Nicholas Ray, 1949) Made in the same year as Knock on Any Door, Ray’s adaptation of Baum’s Mortgage on Life is among the only film in which Ray uses flashback to tell a story, more in the style of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the story of a singer accused an attempted murder out of jealousy. The battling of two woman, bigger than life, will take center stage a few years later in Johnny Guitar.
In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950) In a Lonely Place was my first encounter with Ray’s cinema, and there it all began, my love with his films. Among the most honest examination of morality, a self-examination of a famed celebrity falling from grace. The second and final collaboration between Ray and Bogart is perhaps Bogey’s greatest performance, and it is Ray’s most personal film, one of the most truthful examination of joy and pain of a love relationship. With In a Lonely Place, the screenplay at the hand of Ray become nothing short of a book in proses, “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
Born to Be Bad (Nicholas Ray, 1950) Joan Fontaine put to shame even the Devil itself in Born to Be Bad, with a killer smile and a charm, she can make a fool out of anybody, as she does the audience and many poor suckers in the film. If there is such thing as the Coolest Evil Women, then it is Joan Fontaine in All About Eve, but in Born to Be Bad, she is thousand time more of an evil, for she trick us with her charms, for we never know whither her emotions are sincere or is she faking it? She manages to destroy everything she comes near, with only a smile. Robert Ryan is being fooled into eternity, poor guy, he is hopeless in front of that beautiful face. One for the ages.
Flying Leathernecks (Nicholas Ray, 1951) It is unimaginable to think that the same man who made one of the greatest anti-war film, Bitter Victory, is the same man who has made Flying Leathernecks. After viewing Flying Leathernecks, you get an illusion that it was directed by its producer, Howard Hughes, rather than Ray, for the films is nothing but a love poem for the sky, John Wayne and Robert Ryan, with a group of men, taking to the sky, fighting with the Japanese, some making it back and some not, that is the story. Hughes loved flying and making aviation film, but unlike Wings (1927), Flying Leathernecks is a nothing but a disappointment lesson in flying.
On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1951) Ray always managed to get the best out of his actors, in On Dangerous Ground, Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan are at their peaks, as two lonely soul in search of a companion, each bounded by circumstances bigger than them, among the most lyrical of Ray’s film, it change paces from a noir film into a lyrical poem, thanks to the brilliant screenplay from A. I. Bezzerides; a cop is lost in a jungle of a a crowded city, yet, always alone, loneliness become an ego, a search into his own soul, to find a glimpse of hope in conquering one’s own madness, from hate to love, and he find the answer in a blind woman, hidden way in a remote countryside, away from the cruel world, as she touches his face, she is the only one who understand him, she tell him, “The city can be lonely too. Sometimes people who are never alone are the loneliest.”
The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray, 1952) Ray’s first take on a Western was with no other than the bad boy of Hollywood, Robert Mitchum. On the surface, the film seem like an action packed rodeo film, but underneath, it is the story of a group of men and their women, with a dilemma to overcome; for the love of the game or for the love of the woman? The story of the returning of the prodigal son, with a tragic past, and not so much of a bright future.
Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954) Ray’s first color film is my favorite Western and by far one of my favorite film of all time, I must have watched a dozen or more times Johnny Guitar, to a point, that many of the memorable lines in the film is stamped in my brain, rarely a film has so many poetic dialogue in, “The name is Guitar, Johnny Guitar”, the love scenes between Hayden and Crawford, “Tell me you love me as I love you”, she answer back, “I love you as you love me”, “Tell me that you have missed me as I have missed you”, “I have missed you as you have missed me”, the attack and the counter-attack in the dialogues, “How many men have you forgotten?”, “As many Women as you forgotten”. I once was asked; if I had a choice to take 10 films with me to a remote Island, what would those 10 film be? Without hesitation, I named the 10 films, among them was Johnny Guitar, for it is a film that one always get to back it, to watch its beauty and its charm, for it is cinema and nothing more.
Run for Cover (Nicholas Ray, 1955) Ray’s follow up to Johnny Guitar is another masterful Western. James Cagney play a stranger with a dark past, like all of Ray’s Western, he is a man of destiny, arriving into a new town, at first minding his own business, but when he is pushed to the limit, then, he try to change the place with the gun, only to find that changes are hard to achieve. The film is more about the relationship between Cagney and his new young friend, Davey Bishop (John Derek), whom times and times let him down only to end up in tragic a showdown, that is both brutal and romantic, a typical Ray scene, irony triumph at the end. A film that challenges the mob attitude and the individual’s failure in the face of it.
Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) Ray’s most famous film, and one that made an icon of James Dean and the word “Rebel Without a Cause”, much have been written and said about Rebel Without a Cause, all praising. Ray’s first try into into the windscreen in CinemaScope is masterful, who can forget Dean’s red jacket? One of the most popular image of last century, Jim Stark, the first rebel, the first anti-hero of modern cinema.
Hot Blood (Nicholas Ray, 1956) A charming and a funny film from the master. It might be one of the oddest film among his, but the themes are present that represent Ray’s cinema; A strong women, examination of a relationship between two friend, and love in the center of it. Shot mostly on sets in bright Technicolor, the film has many musical numbers, the plot reads like a play, set among the Romas. A film about keeping the way of the tradition and welcoming modernity, Jane Russell is beautiful beyond description, for Ray knows how to photograph his leading ladies, that is for sure.
Bigger than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956) Bigger than Life, a metaphor for the American Dream, more than a half century later, it is still the most truthful examination of an American family, an examination from inside, from beneath the dining table, the smiles, the peaceful religious morals, the chasing of the American Dream, a dream that become a metaphor, a metaphor in a pill, a Freudian psychoanalysis in a madness of chasing a falling dream. Ray’s use of space of the CinemaScope is taken to perfection once more. Who can forget Ed Avery’s shout back to his wife, as he is try to sacrifice his son like Issac: “But God stopped Abraham”, poor woman shouts, he grim at her, shouting back “God was Wrong”, so he declare.
The True Story of Jesse James (Nicholas Ray, 1957) If you ever get a chance to watch Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James, watch it just for one reason; how masterfully Ray uses the widescreen to compose his frames, that reason alone is enough to get you back to watching the film time over time, the train robbery scene is among the most crafted use of space ever. What set out as an all out action film, soon become the story of a rise and downfall of a man who’s name still resonate with us, as that of a rebel with a cause.
Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray, 1957) My fifth time watching Bitter Victory and it always feels as if I have just discovered this masterpiece for the first time, “The Cinema is Nicholas Ray” that is what Godard said when he saw it for the first time, and I have to say I agree with that, watching this film for the millionth times will still tantalize you with its power and beauty. Bitter Victory is the greatest anti-war film ever to have been made, it feel like watching a nightmarish dream at times, and when the film is finished you are left with a feeling of having discovered something new. A modern film, the use of music is way ahead of its time, by creating a mood that fit the film perfectly, almost an experimental use of sound . Then there is the cinematography, gray and white are preferred over black, even the night scenes are light with huge projectors, it is not realism that Ray is going for, but rather a modish representation of reality. The script is among the greatest, every line is perfect, you could take every single line and make a poetic quote out of it. “I killed the living, and I saved the dead”, “You have the Christian decency that forbids killing a dying man, but approves the work of the sharpshooter”. All of Ray’s film are beautifully scripted, Bitter Victory is among the best of them. Let us not forget the acting, it is brilliantly acted, with Richard Burton as the intellectual, nihilistic captain and Curd Jürgens as the coward, idealistic captain, he seem to represent the law and authority, the film is a struggle between the two, the war and the mission in the background is a secondary plot. It is a universal film that tackle the issue of war in the most pessimist manner, seen through the eyes of Burton and Jurgens, its a struggle between ideas and the notions within those ideas, the noble and cruel struggle of ideas on the screen, the landscape is raw, the heat and the sand becomes characters themselves, gestures, gaze and emotion, the film is full of it. A film that is relevance today, more than ever, I will be coming back to it again and again, for I love this film.
Wind Across The Everglades (Nicholas Ray, 1958) A battle between two souls rage on in Wind Across The Everglades, one man against another, both against Nature, a battle between Good and Evil, only, the battle it between two faces on the opposite side but of the same coin, a thin border separate them morally, filmed on location in Everglades National Park, it is a beauty to watch.
Party Girl (Nicholas Ray, 1958) Nicholas Ray knew how to use the windscreen and color to tell a story like no others. Just watch Party Girl, shot mostly in interiors of studio sets, and yet, you never get bored of it. Nor do you get bored of the story that is been told countless time. You don’t get bored because of Ray’s direction. One of the best film about the Gangster era during the Great Depression. Instead of focusing on violent, gang war or historical facts, Party Girl is about relationship between the characters in the film, Ray never judge, he only shows. Every character in the film has their reason and their morals, they live by it, from the crook to the sane. Beautiful film.
The Savage Innocents (Nicholas Ray, 1960) The Savage Innocents is a film to be treasure for eternity, adopted from Hans Rüesch’s novel, Top of the World, it is a moral tale on modern age, told by Ray for an audience with imagination, the story of Inuk, an Eskimo hunter, who end up learning in the curliest way the way of the modern world, take a bow to a master at his peak, to images of epic proportion and to a story in simplest form, one to be treasured.
King of Kings (Nicholas Ray, 1961) Has there been any other director that had managed to use the Technicolor and the Wide Screen scope to such perfection as Nicolas Ray? There have been, but rarely any of them match the mastery of Ray, Bigger than Life and Savage Innocent are two testament of his genius, but also King of Kings, such a gorgeous film to watch. There have been countless films on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, none surpassing Pasolini’s The Gospel According of St.Mathew, but the one that has the most influence on the biblical films that followed, has to be Ray’s King of Kings, with one exception, Ray does his best to add element of conflict to the film outside New Testament, there are even lines from Shakespeare in the film, avoiding the supernatural and miracles, rather, concentrating on the man himself, watch the film if only for the mastery of Ray’s use of Widescreen and Color if for nothing else, it is worth it.
55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray, 1963) As much as a I admire Nicholas Ray, I have to say that he had made a bad film in 55 Days at Peking, least of my favorite of his films, and one that put an end to his career, a complete reverse of Bitter Victory.
We Can’t Go Home Again (Nicholas Ray, 1972) It is hard to call We Can’t Go Home Again a Nicholas Ray film, the film was made under his supervision but with a group of student from SUNY Binghamton, living together in a commune and improvising on the set, confused story line is the narrative of the film, as for the look of it, not worthy of the mighty Ray. The making of the film is well documented in Nicholas Ray: Stranger Here Myself (1974), a short documentary portrait of a the master, he is like may characters in his films; silent, lonely and angry at the same time.