Now that the films of Douglas Sirk have achieved retro-popularity — thanks to the success last year of Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven — it’s reasonable to surmise the same thing might happen to Sirk’s lodge brother, Nicholas Ray. After all, both directors made names for themselves spelunking and debunking that most thoroughly ironicized of decades, the American ’50s. But in the end, Ray may prove a tougher nut to crack than the easy-to-parody Sirk. Where an homage-minded filmmaker like Haynes could summon up Sirk’s soap-operatic world with a few touches of decor and wardrobe on top of the social-problem scenario, Ray’s built-in uneasiness proves a bit more elusive. It runs deeper, and in many cases it’s more overtly political.
Ray (né Raymond Nicholas Kienzle in La Crosse, Wisconsin) came of age in the Old Left stage milieu of Depression-era New York before settling in Hollywood. His anxious, hands-on approach to his material was accompanied by a serious skepticism about middle-class life in general. The outsider perspective, manipulation of the individual, and the search for a father figure are a few of his most persistent themes, hardly typical Hollywood fare in the waning days of the old studio system, when moguls like Ray’s friend Lew Wasserman were more afraid of TV than of bloated, big-budget epics. Despite his A-list connections with stars such as Humphrey Bogart and sultry actress Gloria Grahame (whom he married), Ray gravitated toward the loners, the outlaws, the odd ducks on the fringe of polite society. No wonder he fought with John Wayne on the set of Flying Leathernecks, a 1951 war drama. And no wonder he was lionized by critic Jean-Luc Godard and legions of film students raised on the auteur theory.
That much-abused theory was practically formulated to describe Ray and his idiosyncratic filmology. But Ray paid a price for his nonconformism — his Hollywood career lasted only ten years, and from the late ’60s until his death in 1979 from cancer (he smoked and drank heavily) he spent most of his time cooking up aborted projects and haunting university film departments. A legendary actors’ director who agonized over every shot, Ray is best known now as the consummate maverick, a social crusader who needed to connect with his projects on a personal level for them to mean anything. In the 23 movies collected by the Cinematheque Ontario and being screened through June 20 at the Pacific Film Archive under the banner “Nicholas Ray: Bigger than Life,” we can glimpse the filmmaker clearly in the struggles of his most memorable characters.
Rebel Without a Cause, of course, is Ray’s biggest hit. The ultra-topical 1955 story of misfit teenager Jim Stark breaking away from his high-school tormentors and his miserable family to bond with kindred spirits Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo propelled both James Dean and his director into the hell-on-wheels pantheon. But before Rebel, Ray already had racked up a promising record as a maker of social-problem films (the Bogart-produced, Warner Bros.-style 1949 slum melodrama Knock on Any Door), film noirs (They Live by Night, with Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell as criminal fugitives in love, and the rogue cop tale On Dangerous Ground), and ambiguous military yarns like Flying Leathernecks, with its onscreen clash between “Duke” Wayne and Robert Ryan, as Marine fighter pilots in the WWII battle of Guadalcanal, echoing their offscreen contentiousness.
Two films stand out in Ray’s pre-Rebel period for their quirky restlessness. In a Lonely Place (1950) tells the story of Dixon Steele (played by Bogart), a Hollywood screenwriter with a corrosive personality and a violent temper. When Steele comes under investigation for the murder of a young woman, his next-door neighbor (film noir icon Grahame) not only vouches for him, she falls in love with him. It’s a troubled romance. For many admirers — filmmakers Curtis Hanson and Martin Scorsese among them — In a Lonely Place is the ultimate inside-Hollywood sour-grape ball, eclipsing even Sunset Boulevard.
Never mind that Johnny Guitar actually made Ray physically ill — he reportedly vomited every morning before reporting to the set. The same people who admire Rebel and Lonely Place rank this 1954 Freudian Western as one of the all-time left-field wonders of the studio system, a film so subversive it’s a wonder it ever got made. Ray’s cubistic, near-hysterical, women-on-top oater, with its bitchy clash between dancehall madam Joan Crawford and town harpy Mercedes McCambridge, is seemingly a taste modern ironists, especially French intellectuals, never get tired of. If Ray’s mainstream success is based on Rebel, his cult begins with Johnny Guitar.
Sirk enthusiasts in particular are advised to catch Bigger Than Life, the epitome of a social problem film, in which the “crisis of conformism,” in the words of Ray biographer Bernard Eisenschitz, bursts open in every single tension-producing frame. It may indeed be Ray’s best work; it’s certainly his most hectic. For mild-mannered, small-town elementary-school teacher Ed Avery (James Mason), the middle-class dream is already on its way to becoming a nightmare as the film opens. Ed, whose wife Lou (Barbara Rush) stays home and bakes cakes, has a secret: he moonlights after school as a taxi dispatcher in order to makes ends meet on his modest salary. He tells Lou he’s in meetings, but she suspects infidelity. All that extra stress and subterfuge may be the cause of his increasingly frequent attacks of debilitating pain. To the dismay of Lou and their young son Richie, Ed passes out and is taken to the hospital, where he is diagnosed with a rare inflammation of the arteries, a malady that can prove fatal. Luckily there’s a miracle drug — this is the 1950s, remember — called cortisone. Would Ed care to test the medicine despite its unknown side effects, ask the sinister-looking doctors? Why, yes. And that’s when the Avery family’s troubles really begin.
At first Ed seems extraordinarily happy, spending money on fancy dresses for his wife and taking time to play football with his son. But as soon as he begins compulsively upping his dosage, the balance tips and he becomes a monster. Lou and Richie (not to mention family friend Wally the school coach, played by Walter Matthau) don’t catch on until it’s almost too late, by which time the drugged dad is so delusional we squirm to see him with scissors in his hand. All the while, Ray plays the unhappy home life for maximum irony, cued by ominous low camera angles and eerie lighting. Ed’s wry disapprovals of his family’s habits (“Doesn’t this stuff bore you?” he asks Richie, engrossed in a TV show) ultimately give way, under the mood-altering spell of the cortisone, to the movie’s anguished tag line, “God was wrong!” with Ed acting out the role of the vengeful patriarch.
Perhaps, as critic-turned-director Eric Rohmer pointed out, Nick Ray really believed God was wrong. Rohmer saw a spiritual uncertainty behind many of Ray’s social dramas, and if we look hard enough, traces of that doubt are visible in King of Kings, a biblical epic made in Spain for producer Samuel Bronston in 1961, after Ray had departed Hollywood under a cloud. It stars Jeffrey Hunter (from John Ford’s The Searchers) as Jesus Christ, Ray regular Robert Ryan as John the Baptist, and Rip Torn as Judas, and comes across 42 years later as a thoughtful, less-bombastic-than-usual religious spectacle, peopled by a true cast of thousands (no CGI) and informed, in long view, by the dichotomy between Jesus’ message of peace and love, and the revolutionary agitation of the Judean bandit Barabbas (Harry Guardino). Religious pics always exist on more than one level, but Ray’s treatment of the Christian legend makes intelligent use of 20th-century psychologizing, with only the classic fruity hamming of Frank Thring as Herod Antipas and Miklos Rosza’s thundering music score to bring us down to earth. Even if we may snort at some critics’ suggestion that red-robed Jesus is the spiritual cousin of red-jacketed “Jimbo” Stark, their common rebelliousness strikes a nerve. In the much-quoted words of John Derek’s Nick Romano from Knock on Any Door, both Jesus and Jim seem destined to “live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.”
We could say that about any number of Ray protagonists, from Farley Granger’s ex-con on the lam in They Live by Night to Richard Burton’s fatalistic British officer in Bitter Victory and Robert Wagner’s title desperado in The True Story of Jesse James. Half the fun is connecting the dots from scenario to scenario. The other half is witnessing the thrilling unity of vision between the filmmaker’s conception and the actor’s craft. The intensity of Nicholas Ray’s protagonists may be half a century old, but on the big screen they’re younger than yesterday.