Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Dangerous Beauty of Nick Ray - Part 1

The following is Part 1 of my humble contribution to Cinema Viewfinder's Nicholas Ray Blogathon.  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. 

"There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray." -Jean Luc Godard

The above quote from Godard (a quote that any self-respecting cinephile has memorized and/or posted on their blog or dorm room wall) pretty much, in one fell swoop, sums up the entirety of this piece on Ray.  To be honest I need not even go on with what I was going to say about the iconic director (the one who is cinema) for in the following bevy of words (and I do tend to use a lot of those) I could never describe so succinctly just what Nicholas Ray was and is to the whole of film history.  That of course is not going to stop me from doing just that.  So here goes - a look at the man who is cinema, and who is easily the best American director of the 1950's, Hitchcock included, and one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time (from the obvious gushing perspective of his greatest fan since Godard uttered those above words, Mr. Nicholas Ray.  And while I am at it, please allow me to once again quote the aforementioned M. Godard.

"If the cinema no longer existed, Nicholas Ray alone gives the impression of being capable of reinventing it, and what is more, of wanting to." -JLG (from his original review of Hot Blood)

Born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle in Galesville, Wisconsin on August 7, 1911 (his centennial being celebrated all year long, including a month long retrospective on TCM in October), the director, after a brief stint at the University of Wisconsin (Go Badgers!) and an apprenticeship under famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, not to mention years as part of the leftist boho lifestyle that would bring him into a theatrical world that also involved Elia Kazan (a lifestyle that would make Ray obsessed with stories of loners and outsiders who would come to populate his films), and traveling cross-country documenting American folk music for the Library of Congress, would find himself at RKO and directing his first movie (filming began just prior to Ray's 36th birthday), the now classic film noir, "love on the run" picture They Live By Night.  

The first of many great films - a list that includes at least seven downright masterpieces (a word this critic does not use or take lightly) - They Live By Night, based on Edward Anderson's Depression era novel Thieves Like Us (upon which Robert Altman would later base his 1974 film of the same name), is a fascinating look at  a young and still quite naive con who, after breaking out of jail along with a pair of much more hardened criminals, tries to escape this life he has had thrust upon him.  Starring the great (and oft-overlooked) Farley Granger as Bowie, the aforementioned naive con, and the lovely (and again, oft-overlooked) Cathy O'Donnell as the girl who tries to save him, They Live By Night has become one of the most influential films of its genre.  Its influence on Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde is unmistakable.  It was also the film that first brought Ray to the attention of his most ardent supporters, the young critics of the French cinema magazine Cahiers du Cinema, later to become the Nouvelle Vague or French New Wave.

But in reality, They Live By Night would not be the first Nick Ray film to see the proverbial light of day.  In fact it would end up being his third film to be released theatrically.  At first RKO just did not know how to market the film and this was followed by the turmoil that happened when Howard Hughes bought the studio.  The billionaire would shelve the film for what would end up being nearly two years.  Meanwhile though, as was (and is) the case in Hollywood, many producers and directors and actors had their own private screening rooms and were able to see Ray's debut film for themselves.  The story goes that it was after seeing this film that Hitchcock would cast Granger in his 1948 film Rope.  Another big name to have seen and been impressed by this film was Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart had just started up his own production company, Santana Productions, and hired Ray to direct the film Knock On Any Door, which would star Bogart as a defense attorney taking on a lose-lose case, and a very young John Derek as his lose-lose client.  This would become Ray's first film to see a theatrical release.  Pretty standard stuff really, definite lesser Ray, but still an interesting early look at the director's style.  New York Times critic Bosley Crowther would call the film "a pretentious social melodrama" and I suppose it is.  Ray would follow this up with another pretty standard film in the noirish A Woman's Secret with Maureen O'Hara and Melvyn Douglas.  This would also be the first time Ray would work with Gloria Grahame who had become his second wife the year before, and who would be such an integral part in his next completed film In A Lonely Place.  Ray and Grahame would later divorce under some pretty irreconcilable differences, but I am getting ahead of myself.

After directing the Farley Granger weepie Rosanna McCoy (and subsequently getting fired and having his name taken off the project) and finally seeing the release of They Live By Night, Ray would hit it big with In A Lonely Place.  Granted, the film received only mixed reviews upon its release and was considered to be a box office flop (the bleak ending saw to that) but the cult following the film later got (thanks again to those boys at Cahiers) turned it into a true classic.  Starring Bogart (and made by Santana Productions again) as a semi-washed-up Hollywood screenwriter who is suspected of murdering a young coat check girl he takes home one night (and giving one of, if not his finest performance), In A Lonely Place would become Ray's second masterpiece.

In A Lonely Place is a dark and quite sinister film.  As one watches the film, one is never quite sure if Bogart's Dix Steele is telling the truth or not.  Is he really the killer one must ask oneself.  In the end we know that he is not, but this doesn't take away any of the power of the film itself or Bogart's haunting performance in it.  Actually Ray had envisioned an even darker ending at first.  As tensions grow between Dix and Grahame's Laurel (she not knowing if he is a killer, he trying to control her as a woman) things finally come to a head when in the original finale Dix strangles his lover just as the police show up to tell him that they caught the real killer and he was off the hook.  Ray didn't like this ending so he changed it to have a grieving Dix leave a grieving Laurel instead.  Personally I prefer the original but then I am not the cinematic genius Nick Ray was.

It was at this time that Ray and Grahame were having problems at home.  With their marriage coming apart, Grahame was made to sign a contract that said "my husband [Ray] shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command my actions during the hours from 9 AM to 6 PM, every day except Sunday...I acknowledge that in every conceivable situations his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail." Grahame was also forbidden to "nag, cajole, tease or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him."  The two did separate during filming but kept it a secret for fear of one or both of them getting fired because of it.  The couple would reconcile eventually but would divorce for good in 1952.  But again, I am getting ahead of myself.

Before taking on his next film, Ray would be hired to complete the film Macao when Josef von Sternberg was fired by RKO head Howard Hughes.  Ray complied but was not happy about finishing a project started by another director - especially one as greatly admired as von Sternberg.  Starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, William Bendix and Gloria Grahame (during one of their better marital moments apparently), Macao was a noirish adventure story full of exotic intrigue.  Rewriting some of von Sternberg's scenes (along with pal Mitchum) Ray would complete the film in late 1950.  The film however would not be released until 1952.  Ray asked that his name not be added, as it was still von Sternberg's film in his mind, but his name was added anyway (as co-director with von Sternberg).

Next up for Ray would be the melodrama Born to Be Bad.  The film, starring Joan Fontaine in one of her finest performances, and co-starring Robert Ryan, Mel Ferrer, Zachary Scott and Joan Leslie, is actually one of Ray's most underrated films.  Quick-witted and downright nasty at times (at least certain aspects of the story) it is one of the better of the so-called Ray films.   Ray would follow this with a war picture called Flying Leathernecks.  Released in 1951, the film stars John Wayne and Robert Ryan as a pair of Marine Corps pilots during WWII.  The film itself is rather lackluster (it doesn't have the Nick Ray flair of his better films) but the back and forth between Wayne and Ryan, polar opposites in both personality and politics, made the film work better than it probably should have.   Ray had said the reason he hired Ryan for the role was because he was the only actor he could think of that could kick Wayne's ass.  It all made it work.

After giving some uncredited directing help on John Cromwell's The Racket (with pal Robert Ryan) Ray would make On Dangerous Ground, a film noir starring the aforementioned Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino.  A film basically in two parts, the first a gritty urban policer with Ryan's detective going over the line in pursuit of criminals and the second as a more laconic setting "up north" where Ryan is sent on assignment.  While the first half of the film plays out in a frenzied state of mental breakdown, the second half, where Ryan meets a blind woman played by Lupino (who incidntally directed a few scenes while Ray fell ill) and begins the road to redemption, plays out as quasi-spiritual in many ways.  On Dangerous Ground would be Ray's third masterpiece - and probably the must overlooked of said masterpieces.

Ray's next film would be a modern day western entitled The Lusty Men.  The film featured Mitchum as a broken down rodeo rider who falls in with ranch hand Arthur Kennedy and his wife Susan Hayward.  As Mitchum helps Kennedy become a champion rodeo man, to the protest of Hayward, Mitchum finds himself falling for the woman.  Playing out as part melodrama (but an appropriately manly one) The Lusty Men, Ray's fourth masterpiece, is a tragic tale of lost dreams.  It was also around this time that Ray came home one day to find his wife, Grahame, in bed with his 13 year old son from his previous marriage.  Needless to say, a divorce was right around the corner.  On an interesting sidenote, Grahame would later marry her former stepson when he was 22, and then later divorce him as well.

Next up for Nick Ray would be my personal favourite of the director's oeuvre, the strange and quite extraordinary western Johnny Guitar.  Only the director's second film in colour, Ray here first showed how he could use colour like other directors could use actors or sets.  A bold, brilliant film (the director's fifth masterpiece in case you hadn't already guessed from my initial gushing) Johnny Guitar used colour to make the film stand out even more than it normally would.  A subversive work in both its visual audacity as well as its blatant criticism of the McCarthy hearings and the blacklisting of writers in Hollywood.  Actually, Johnny Guitar, though credited to Philip Yorden, was written by Ben Maddow, a blacklisted writer.

Starring Joan Crawford as the owner of a saloon, and associate of known criminals, and Sterling Hayden as her lover, the titular Mr. Guitar, the film is a thing of pure cinematic beauty.  Crawford's dress never getting a stain even after escaping her burning saloon and running through the hills, the obvious posing and silly dialogue, Mercedes McCambridge as Crawford's nemesis (and undertoned not-so subtly with gay innuendo) overacting to pitch perfect insanity.  All these things add to the appeal of this film.  Back stories of in-fighting and Crawford's demands of never being shot in close-up unless in a properly lighted studio, add to this appeal even more.  This was the film that above all others the Cahiers critics heralded as great.  It was also this film that first made me believe a western could be just as powerful without the typical western iconography.  Sheer brilliance indeed.

The end of Part 1.  The Dangerous Beauty of Nick Ray - Part 2 can be read HERE.

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


MP said...

Great text Kevyn! I share the love of Ray's films even if I haven't seen The Lusty Men and Johnny Guitar... I love In A Lonely Place and Rebel Without A Cause. Your text makes me want to see those films rightaway!

Kevyn Knox said...

Thanx Michael. Johnny Guitar especially is a must-see.

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