Well over a year ago, over at Tony Dayoub's fine fine site, Cinema Viewfinder, a Nicholas Ray Blogathon was held. Among the many many many great contributions to this blogathon, were two by yours truly (hopefully at least half as great as the others). These were called "The Dangerous Beauty of Nick Ray Parts 1 & 2" (originally meant as just one piece, I could not stop myself from writing, so split into two it would go) and took a film historical overview of the great auteur's equally great oeuvre. As I went about watching the Ray films I had yet to see (and re-watching old favourites) I thought to myself what a great time for a top ten list. I was now what one would call a Nick Ray completest, so a list was most certainly in order. Regular readers of this site as well as those regulars over at Anomalous Material where I write a weekly series of differing top tens, know full well how excited I get at even just the mere thought of a top ten list (or for that matter a top eleven or twelve or thirteen or twenty-five of one hundred or so on and so on). Yeah, it's a turn on - gotta problem with that!
1. Johnny Guitar (1954) I may be showing my old school affinity with Godard and the French New Wave with my number one choice, but the sheer gaudy decadence of Ray's visuals, combined with the audacious nature of Joan Crawford and the batshitcrazy Mercedes McCambridge make this one a no-brainer - even amongst the deep-pocketed oeuvre that is the career of Nicholas Ray. Perhaps the auteur's strangest film and the one most likely to elicit complaints and criticisms of cheesiness (pure camp and done the way camp should be done!), Johnny Guitar is nonetheless the director's boldest and bravest film as well. Still waiting for a proper home video release in the US (my copy is a European PAL version) let alone its rightful, and hopefully inevitable, transfer onto Bluray, this bizarro-world western is a film I could watch over and over and over again without ever tiring of it.
2. Rebel Without A Cause (1955) The first Nick Ray film I ever saw (around the age of thirteen or so) and probably the most iconic, thanks to the tragic status of James Dean, this prototypical teen angst motion picture is an emotionally draining, psychologically searing, philosophically drenching cinematic event - and that is a description without adding extra hyperbole. The story of three teens, played by Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo (all dying violent deaths, at 25, 43 and 37 respectively) trying to cope with the complexities of life, and the pressures of growing up (and varying degrees of parental problems), this film is probably the director's most emotionally intense work, and yes, Ray's wiles with a camera make it worthy of inclusion here, but much of this hullabaloo, much of this rather, for lack of a better term, magical touch, has to do with Ray's allowing method actor Dean to do his own improv thing throughout the film. Oh yeah, and it looks damn beautiful as well.
5. On Dangerous Ground (1952) The first act of this film plays out like a gritty police procedural - something akin to the cop shows of today - the second and third acts, though still full of intensity and urgency, come off as a more lyrical kind of storytelling. These two sides of Ray's proverbial coin - the roughness of They Live by Night alongside the smoothness of In a Lonely Place - come together to make this tale of hard-boiled NY police detective Robert Ryan and bitter and blind Ida Lupino, soar with the most powerful of wings. Watching these two stellar - and often overlooked and/or underappreciated - actors pair off against each other, is worth the price of admission alone. Ray's weaving, sometimes invasive, sometimes ethereal camera, makes it a bargain indeed.
8. Run For Cover (1955) This Jimmy Cagney western is usually criminally overlooked when discussion of Nick Ray's oeuvre comes up, and that is just a goddamn shame. With the usual pastiche of such directors as Ford and Mann and Hawks, Ray gives his own cock-eyed subversiveness to the whole shebang, and creates a genre picture that manages to perfectly blend the classic era of the genre to the revisionist beginnings of the, then modern day cinema. But the real reason this film is so enjoyable, other than Ray's not-so-subtle touch, is because it is always fun to watch James Cagney ply his trade - be it as a gangster, a hoofer or, in this case a cowboy.
9. The Savage Innocents (1960) More than any other Nicholas Ray film, save perhaps for King of Kings, this tale of an Eskimo trying to survive in the wilderness, and trying to survive the encroaching modern world, is the most often cited dud on the director's filmography. Starring the Mexican born Anthony Quinn, an actor who probably played just about every ethnicity in Hollywood at one time or another, as Inuk the Eskimo, The Savage Innocents is often referred to as racist, but I do not think Ray had anything like that in mind when he made the film - this was just the norm for the time. What the film really is, is pure, and sometimes quite ridiculous, fun. Hey, and Dylan wrote a song about the whole damn thing too.
10. Born to Be Bad (1950) This early career melodrama, much in the same vein as John M. Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven, is about a beautiful and quite manipulative young woman, who will do anything to get what she wants. In fact, one could even say that she was born to be bad. This manipulative young woman, someone who in less classy circumstances would be called a fucking bitch from Hell, is played beautifully by Joan Fontaine, one of my favourite actors, in one of her best, but sadly most overlooked, performances. We also get Robert Ryan and Mel Ferrer, who are always fun to have around, but this is Fontaine's picture, and with it she runs away, and she does so with beautifully flying colours.
Well, that is it for my look at the ten best films of the man known as cinema itself, Mr. Nicholas Ray. I suppose one could go on and bring films like Hot Blood or Party Girl, or even The Flying Leathernecks into the equation, but I suppose one should leave it at that. To end on a quote from my number one pick, and I think this somehow strangely sums up the cinema of Nicholas Ray rather well, "There's only two things in this world that a real man needs: a cup of coffee and a good smoke."