Remembering the early noir work of legendary director Nicholas Ray
Though the public is probably best familiar with his seminal 1950s classics Rebel Without A Cause and King of Kings, and film historians point to his groundbreaking Bigger Than Life and Johnny Guitar, film noir aficionados know Nicholas Ray for his innovative, revelatory direction of such classics as In A Loney Place and They Live By Night, among others. Completing seven noirs between 1948 and 1952, Ray’s sensitivity to the isolation felt by the the nation’s youth, his fascination with sexual identity, and his willingness to depict violence would influence both the French New Wave (especially Jean Luc Goddard) as well as Arthur Penn, Terrence Malick, and the new generation of American filmmakers of the 1960s and 70s.
A libertine sometimes as infamous for his decadence as respected for his body of work, Ray came to filmmaking only in his mid-30s, having studied for a time as an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright and working in radio and on Broadway. In 1944 he learned to direct film by following Elia Kazan through the making of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, that director’s own first feature. In time Ray would do most of his best work at Howard Hughes’ RKO Pictures, where Hughes’ influence likely protected his hedonist lifestyle from attracting unsavory publicity, directing whole films and parts of films as Hughes demanded.
The Live By Night (1948) – Ray’s début feature begins with a dizzying overhead chase sequence and doesn’t break tension for a moment throughout. Teen escaped convict Bowie (Farley Granger) and gas station attendant Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) fall in love and go on the run after Bowie participates in a bank heist gone bad; the ending (shown below) is not “happy.” Violent and shocking in its criticism of law enforcement and “the system,” its early impressionism directly influenced later works such as Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands. Robert Altman made Thieves Like Us, his own version of Edward Anderson’s source novel, in 1973.
Knock On Any Door (1949) – Humphrey Bogart stars as a successful corporate attorney compelled by guilt to defend a Skid Row youth (John Derek) charged with the murder of a police officer. The film remains notable for its complicated structure and intricate plot, even while its aggressive social commentary and heavy pacing make it seem melodramatic and pedantic by modern standards. Still, Bogart is masterful as always, and the final courtroom speech prefigures later cinema courtroom barnstorming including Compulsion, A Time To Kill, and dozens more.
A Woman’s Secret (1949) - This “women’s noir” only marginally fits inside the genre, thanks to Ray’s moody mis en scene and the complicated interpersonal dynamics between stars Maureen O’Hara and noir arch-femme fatale Gloria Grahame. The two play singers at different ends of the same career – O’Hara on her way down, Grahame on her way up - and in love with the same man (Melvyn Douglas). The plot and suspense are fairly straightforward, though all the principals give solid performances. Ray married Grahame shortly after production concluded, a miserable union for them both that began and ended in adultery.
In A Lonely Place (1950) – The marriage lasted long enough, however, for Ray to get Grahame into the role that would become her finest performance. Co-star Bogart wanted his own wife Lauren Bacall for the part of Laurel Gray, the steadying presence that promises to redeem screenwriter Dixon Steele (Bogart) after years of self-destructive rage. Based on Dorothy B. Hughes’ pulp novel, the story is the stuff of which Gender Studies dissertations are made: full of exploration into gender roles, emotional and sexual dominance, and Freudian symbology. Ray expresses such moody ideas through careful screen composition, stark pacing, and by finely tuning Grahame and Bogart’s chemistry.
The Racket (1951) Ray returned to the noir genre after the melodrama Born To Be Bad and the war actioner Flying Leathernecks, reteaming with those films’ Robert Ryan to remake the 1928 silent movie about a crime boss (Ryan) on a collision course with an honest police captain (Robert Mitchum). Under Hughes’ micromanagement Ray directed only part of the film, and his style never entirely meshed with co-director John Cromwell’s more straightforward aesthetic. The stars’ performances are meanwhile odd and uneven, turning what should have been a promising rematch (after the two squared off in 1947′s semi-noir Crossfire) into a routine genre exercise.
On Dangerous Ground (1952) – The fourth Ray-Ryan collaboration produced some of the actor’s best work, playing a live wire police detective sent from the city into the hinterlands as much to avoid a brutality inquiry as to solve a murder. While pursuing a suspect with assistance from the victim’s father (Ward Bond), Ray’s detective falls for the suspect’s blind sister (Ida Lupino), a relationship that threatens his precarious self-respect while simultaneously tempting him with a cleaner way of life. Working from an adapted script by A.I. Bezzerides, Ray takes the noir out of the city and into the countryside, finding just as much isolation and paranoia in the wide open spaces as the tight corners of the city, and just as much human capacity for violence and cruelty. Bernard Herrmann’s tripwire-taut musical score brings everything together.
Macao (1952) – Sometimes considered a road company Casablanca, this adventure in the titular Far Eastern port stars Mitchum as an ex-G.I. and Jane Russell as a nightclub singer falling in love while while falling over each other in a seedy casino. Grahame appears as the moll of a local crime boss, while William Bendix also co-stars as an undercover cop. The sexual equilibrium between the leads harkends back to Ray’s earlier work, but the framing of the exotic port of call never really gets below the setting’s surface. Still, fans of the stars will find it entertaining nonetheless.
Ray filmed Rebel Without A Cause in 1955, but innuendo surrounding an illicit romance between he and 16-year-old star Natalie Wood, along with increased substance abuse, took its toll on his reputation. After collapsing on the set of 1963′s 55 Days in Peking, he went more than a decade without a directing credit, eventually settling down to a teaching position at Binghampton University. That career too was rocked with controversy, when footage from the student film We Can’t Go Home Again displayed Ray smoking marijuana with his students. His last film effort, 1979′s experimental Lightning Over Water, was completed with assistance from long time fan Wim Wenders. Ray died of lung cancer that same year.
- Michael Kabel