While adored by the French and the Cahiers Du Cinema coterie that went on to be known as the rebellious French New Wave —which spawned the oft-quoted Jean-Luc Godard phrase “cinema is Nicholas Ray“— the American filmmaker never really received his due outside of his one film that most moviegoers have seen (and even then, they’re possibly unaware that he directed it): “Rebel Without A Cause.” And while that iconic 1950s film, with its audacious, expressionistic colors, its passionate angst and anguish, its mix of quiet machismo and vulnerability, is perhaps the cornerstone of many of Ray’s films —vibrant melodrama on the surface, percolating emotional agony within— it’s certainly only the tip of iceberg when it comes to the director’s career.
Starting out as a would-be actor, Ray moved to New York, where he appeared in Elia Kazan‘s theater debut. This led to Ray’s breakthrough Hollywood experience as an assistant on Kazan’s debut film “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” and after only two more years of assisting on other pictures —plus directing a Broadway production and a TV show— the director was given his first shot by RKO with “They Live by Night,” which was delayed by two years thanks in part to Howard Hughes’ takeover of the studio.
Impressionistic and intimate for its time, “They Live By Night” isn’t your average film noir, and the film launched Ray’s particularly idiosyncratic search for the human condition, often marked by its bold melodramatic veneer and its sympathies for youthful outcasts and alienated anti-heroes. What tethers Ray’s body of work is a focus on emotionally bruised, sensitive tough guys and misfits possessed by tremendous longing. On the set of Ray’s 1953 Western “The Lusty Men,” the relentless digging for the emotional essence of a scene in what was supposed to be just a rodeo drama with a love triangle prompted star Robert Mitchum —who joked that the film only had 17 pages of a script and the rest was improvised— to dub Ray a “mystic.”
Bisexual and marked by a notorious, awful predilection for toxic relationships (“In A Lonely Place” actress Gloria Grahame eventually married Ray’s son after their tumultuous union dissolved; rumors of an affair with the 16-year-old Natalie Wood —Ray was 27 years her senior— caused friction between him and Dennis Hopper), Ray’s life outside of his filmmaking career was rough, to say the least, and his fondness for alcohol and heavy drug use saw the filmmaker shunned by Hollywood by the time the early 1960s arrived. After collapsing on the set of “55 Days at Peking” in 1963, Ray would not direct again until the mid-1970s, and for all intents and purposes, his career at that point was over.
Ray died in 1979 of lung cancer as he was filming “Lightning Over Water,” which was meant to be a collaborative documentary about the nature of life and death with devoted Ray apostle Wim Wenders (who also cast him in a small role in 1977’s “The American Friend”), but ultimately ended up as a harrowing chronicle of Ray’s decay and death.
But while largely critically ignored and/or under-appreciated for much of his career, Ray has always had his champions among cinephiles. As mentioned, the French New Wave adored him during his 1950s heyday (François Truffaut was another major admirer), and subsequent generations have rallied behind him, such as Wenders, Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, Philip Kaufman (who once tried to mount a biopic of Ray’s life), Oren Moverman (who wrote it), Curtis Hanson and many more. Yet even by cinephile standards, Ray’s work is relatively unknown. Perhaps that’s slowly changing: The Criterion Collection released its first Ray film (“Bigger Than Life”) in 2010, and it’s joined this week by a second, “In A Lonely Place.”
With 24 features made during a 16-year period (and one feature and a few shorts made in the ’70s afterward), Ray burned the candle brightly, but at both ends and likely to his own detriment. Yet he left an indelible body of work that at its worst is worth sifting through, and at its best provides moments of inspired, stylized and highly eccentric genius. And so to mark the release of the Criterion edition of “In A Lonely Place,” we’ve extended our old essentials features and picked out the 10 best Ray pics. Take a look below.
“They Live By Night” (1948)
There are some, including François Truffaut, who have declared that Ray’s finest film was his first, 1949’s “They Live By Night.” And whether or not you agree, it’s hard to argue with the fact that he made an enormously accomplished film for a debut feature. Ray had helmed the Duke Ellington musical “Beggar’s Holiday” on Broadway in 1946, and producer John Houseman (who’d been Orson Welles‘ long-time collaborator until they fell out during the production of “Citizen Kane“) approached him afterward with Edward Anderson‘s Depression-era novel “Thieves Like Us,” thinking that Ray’s background working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture would make him a good fit for the project. RKO wasn’t so sure, and it was only when the forward-thinking Dore Schary became the head of production at the studio that the project started to move forward. A relatively simple lovers on the run tale (later remade under the original title by Robert Altman) about Bowie (Farley Granger), a man wrongly convicted of murder who escapes from prison with a pair of bank robbers, falls in love with Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), only to be forced back into a life of crime by his fellow escapees, the film includes a bold, expansive mission statement over the opening credits; following the car carrying the escaped cons from the air in what’s widely believed to be the first helicopter shot in the movies. The tender poetry of the romance between Granger and O’Donnell is sweet —this pairing is far easier to root for than the central duo of “Bonnie & Clyde” or “Badlands” (a film that very much feels like it’s following in Ray’s footsteps), and it means that there’s a real sting to the tragic conclusion, not least thanks to the social themes (the criminals pointing the finger to the banks they rob as the real villains is a pretty timeless point). And Ray is in remarkable control, directing like he’s been doing it every day of his life. While the film sat on a shelf for two years thanks to Howard Hughes taking over RKO, and the company being unsure how to market the film, it became widely seen in Hollywood even before its eventual November 1949 release, which led Humphrey Bogart to hire Ray to direct “Knock On Any Door.”