Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Dangerous Beauty of Nick Ray - Part 2

The following is Part 2 of my humble contribution to Cinema Viewfinder's Nicholas Ray Blogathon.  Part 1 can be seen HERE.  And please take heed for there is bound to be a spoiler or two hidden away somewhere in the following post (in case you are wary of such things).  Ye have been warned.


When Nick Ray's fourth wife, Susan Ray, nee Schwartz, first came to work for the director at the tender (and quite naive) age of just eighteen (Ray was 56 at the time), she described the experience as thus: "Nick's place was all movement, a dense buzz of people with jobs to do.  The living room was the work room with couch, projector, and amassed on the floor, orderly piles of batteries, recorders, cases, lamps, gels, spools, reels, and tins around which feet stepped and heads met to talk.  Eyeing the scene with the majesty of a sunning reptile, a black camera poised on a tripod.  And groggy but perfectly easy in eyepatch and leopard-spotted bikini, there was Nick.  He prowled through the room, mumbling directions through a French cigarette hanging out the side of his mouth.  I could not hear the words, but his voice rumbled up from some startling depth like the purr from the belly of a great cat."  With a Hunter S. Thompson-like approach (yeah, I know Ray came first) Nicholas Ray was, is and always will be cinema.  Welcome to The Dangerous Beauty of Nick Ray - Part 2.  Let us continue.

After making what this critic (and huge Nick Ray fan) calls not only one of the greatest westerns ever made, but one of the best films ever made with Johnny Guitar, Ray would take another stab at the genre with the James Cagney vehicle Run For Cover.  Usually forgotten when the topic of great westerns comes around, Run For Cover is actually a rather enjoyable film, and even though it doesn't have the audacious bravura of Johnny Guitar, it is a terse western with the capability of random acts of explosive action.  Of course a lot of this has to do with Cagney (in a part that is well-suited for his unique talents) being Cagney.  The film also stars John Derek in his second film with Ray.  However, no matter how good Run For Cover was (it is one of those "fun" westerns, the kind you do not need to invest much thought into but which is slyly intelligent) it will never go down as the best Nicholas Ray film of 1955, for this is the year the director would make and release the iconic classic of teen rebellion, Rebel Without A Cause.

Released just shy of a month after the tragic death of its star, James Dean of course, Rebel Without A Cause easily acts as the very epitome of the teen angst movie that came into vogue in the 1950's.  With its vivid use of colour and swirling camera angles, not to mention one of the greatest performances to ever be put onto film, as well as its risque look at family and teen life at the time, Rebel stands as an historical marker in the era of cinema.  A groundbreaking work (and this is a description not just given out by me), Rebel took a hard look at the moral decay of society and this more than frightened a lot of the American populace.  Dean has come to symbolize the character of troubled youth (his final words before his fateful crash were "they see us.") and because of his early death (Dean was just 25 and had only three feature films to his credit - only one of which the late actor ever got to see) has become an iconic figure on the level of Marilyn and Elvis.  This should never hide the fact though (and it often does), that James Dean was a great actor.

Born of the Actor's Studio and an early proponent of the Method (others such as Rod Steiger, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando and even Marilyn herself were also of this school) Dean was often "let loose" by Ray and allowed to improvise on camera (the entire opening of Rebel is an improvisation by Dean).  This of course could become very old very quickly for Dean's fellow thespians, but any complaints the other actors had were shrugged off by Ray.  Upon seeing the finished product (Ray's sixth masterpiece by the way) one has no doubt that Ray was right to allow Dean such freedoms.  Now one certainly cannot predict what would have become of Dean if he had lived and gone on acting - I like to think he would have had a Brando-esque career - but judged upon just his three films alone (East of Eden, Rebel and Giant) and the performances each director (Kazan, Ray and Stevens respectively) got out of Dean, one knows his place in cinematic history is indeed assured.

But Dean wasn't alone up there on Ray's CinemaScope screen.  Costars Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo need a bit of mention as well.  Sal Mineo, who was stabbed to death at 37, played Plato, the younger boy who for lack of a better term, falls in love with Dean's Jim Stark character.  Becoming like a son (in many ways) to Jim and Judy (Wood's character) the interactions can be seen just as much father-son as wouldbe lovers.  Many critics have read the film as such, and considering both Dean and Ray were rumoured to be bisexual, and Mineo actually did come out of the closet in the 1960's, this probably is as fair an assessment as any other.  And then there is Natalie Wood.  One of the great unsung actresses of her day (Harvard has unfairly named their worst actress award that they give out each year, the Natalie Wood), and who also died rather young (at 43 and under mysterious circumstances), almost did not get the part.  Thought of as too "clean" for the role, Ray was not going to hire her until she got into a car accident after a night of drinking (she was just sixteen at the time) and overheard her doctor calling her a "Goddamned juvenile delinquent" - Natalie would reply, "Did you hear that Nick?  I'm a Goddamned juvenile delinquent.  Now do I get the part?"  She did (as well as a brief affair with her director) and the rest as they say, is history.

Next up for Ray would be the silly yet quite fun quasi-musical romp Hot Blood.  The film stars Jane Russell as a conniving Gypsy woman who, along with her father and brother, plans on agreeing to marry a young Gypsy big wig only to run off with the cash that has been paid her as is tradition (or at least they say it is tradition).  The problem is Russell's vagabond marriage thief decides she is tired of running and goes through with the marriage (to the shocked face of her new husband who had earlier found out and agreed to go along in order to be free of his older brother's familial control).  A succulent film in every way, Hot Blood may not be a masterpiece, but it is surely up there in the Ray oeuvre.

Ray's next film however would be a masterpiece (the director's seventh and sadly final masterpiece).  Bigger Than Life, starring the bigger than life James Mason as a relatively well-adjusted professor who upon receiving the then experimental drug Cortisone for his frequent blackouts, becoming a controlling megalomaniac, tormenting all those around him, the film is a psychological Grand Guignol of cinema.  Using heavy shadows and low angles to make Mason even more ominous than the already quite intimidating actor is, Ray turned this story, based on a New Yorker article about the new drug, into a spectacle of raw, anxious, overwhelming beauty.  A dangerous beauty that Nick Ray did oh so well.  Now Bigger Than Life is more than just a Nicholas Ray film - it is a James Mason film.  Only three times in Ray's oeuvre do we see a performance that manages to outshine even Ray's mastery of the medium.  First there was Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, then there was James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, and now there is James Mason in Bigger Than Life.

Now I did say that Bigger Than Life would be Ray's final masterpiece, but that should by no means infer that the audacious auteur ceased making great films - for he still had a few left in him by the end of 1956.  The first of these so-called "latter day" works was actually a film Ray had filmed prior to Bigger Than Life (just after completion of Rebel actually).  It was his third western (fourth if one were to count The Lusty Men) and it was called, and rather boldly one might add, The True Story of Jesse James.  Speculative forces claim that if James Dean had not died, Ray would have cast him as the iconic outlaw - a wild child role that would have been perfect for Dean.  Ray had tried to cast Elvis Presley in the role (just after he finished filming his debut film, Love Me Tender) but eventually the role went to Robert Wagner, who ate up the role - well as much as Robert Wagner can eat up a role.

Next up for Ray would be Bitter Victory, a war film starring Richard Burton and Curd Jurgens.  Caught in a CinemaScope desert battleground - seeming visually to be more dreamlike and surreal than anything else Ray had done - these two officers, one married to the other one's lover, must fight not just the enemy but the morality of their own selves.  Probably Ray's most introspective work, it gets the job done even if at times it feels a bit full of itself.  Ray would follow up his psychological war film with a strange little ditty called Wind Across the Everglades.  Shot on location and set at the turn of last century, it is the story of a young buck nature conservationist (played by Christopher Plummer in only his second picture and his first leading role) who must fight the Heart of Darkness-like gang of bird poachers hidden away in their swampy hideaway.  Led by the rough and tumble Cottonmouth, played with giddy delight by Burl Ives (and yes, Burl Ives can be rough and tumble) and featuring among others, Peter Falk in his film debut and circus clown Emmett Kelly (not playing a clown).  The film is a fun film to watch, even if it isn't quite up to Ray's usual standards.  In the end though, Ray was fired by the studio and was unable to finish his film.

Moving on, Ray made Party Girl with Cyd Charisse, Robert Taylor, Lee J. Cobb and John Ireland.  The story is really just standard stuff - party girl Charisse is tired of the life and falls for mob lawyer Taylor who in turn decides he is tired of the life as well and decides to get out, only mob boss Cobb and gangster Ireland have different plans - but Ray was able to twist and turn the film into something a bit more special.  Charisse's performance, though cliche'd, is highlighted by two dance numbers (how can you have Cyd Charisse in a movie and not have her dance?).  Taylor, whose character is loosely based on Dixie Davis, real life mob lawyer to Dutch Schultz, fares better, but it is Cobb and his wild beast performance that steals the show (well, except for when Charisse's legs are involved).  A beautiful picture, one of Ray's best-looking works.

Next up would be The Savage Innocents, a much-maligned film about an Inuk the Eskimo and his search for a better life for his new wife and soon-to-be born son.  The casting of Mexican actor Anthony Quinn as Inuk, though racist in a way (though more in casting than in performance), was not so out-of-the ordinary back in 1960.  After all, this was just four years after the world watched in horror as John Wayne "played" Genghis Khan - and anyway, Quinn played everyone from Italians to Spaniards to Zorba the Freakin' Greek.  If one is to be honest though, one would have to say they love this film.  Beautifully shot (even within the shots that are obvious soundstage work) and quite enjoyable throughout (we also get to see a young Peter O'Toole who asked his name be taken off due to his voice being dubbed without his permission).  If one were to name his guilty pleasure movies (though I feel no guilt) one would have to put The Savage Innocents on said list.  The film does have at least one other fan, as Bob Dylan, after seeing the film, wrote "Quinn the Eskimo".

Ray's next project would be, of all things, a Biblical epic.  King of Kings, the story of Jesus Christ as played by the mesmerizing eyes of Jeffrey Hunter (though I will always remember him as Captain Christopher Pike on the original Star Trek - yeah, I am one of those people), is a sprawling historical motion picture, unlike anything Ray had done before, and though panned initially, has received a cult following of sorts.  Featuring a young Rip Torn as the infamous Judas Iscariot and Ray pal Robert Ryan as John the Baptist, the film easily blends Biblical tales of miracles and inspiration with a more personal story of faith and belief - and Salome's dance ain't half bad either.  An interesting film history anecdote about King of Kings is the fact that it is the first big-budget, major studio sound film in English to actually show the face of Christ.  Of course with the face of Jeffrey Hunter being shown, his youthful looks (though he was 33 at the time) led people to begin referring to the film as I Was A Teenage Jesus.  However you want to look at it, it is a good, though not great film.

Then would come 1963 and 55 Days at Peking, with Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner and David Niven.  55 Days at Peking is easily Ray's least interesting film and the closest the director ever came to making a bad motion picture (more mediocre then bad actually).  Ray was a tortured individual at the time of the production, somewhat akin to the Dean persona he helped to create for Rebel. Paid a very high salary by producer Samuel Bronston to direct the film, Ray had an inkling that taking on the project would mean the end of him and that he would never direct another film again. The premonition proved correct when Ray collapsed on the set, half-way through the shooting. Unable to resume working (the film was finished by Andrew Marton and Guy Green), he never received another directorial assignment.

This doesn't mean Ray stopped being a part of cinema though.  The director would eventually take a job teaching at Harpur College of Arts and Sciences (a job he got through Dennis Hopper) and while there help produce an experimental film with his students called We Can't Go Home Again.  Shortly before the great director's death in 1979 (due to lung cancer) he would collaborate on Lightning Over Water with Wim Wenders.  As Godard said, Nicholas Ray is cinema, and even though he could, as the aforementioned experimental student film attests to, never go home again, his films will live on as an integral part of that very same cinema.  Nicholas Ray is indeed Cinema - with a capital C.

More pieces on Nick Ray can be found at the following links: Johnny Guitar / Bigger Than Life / The Lusty Men

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