Nicholas Ray (August 7, 1911 – June 16, 1979) is the original cult director. With one solid exception, his films never became box-office hits and he never attained the fame or cultural and institutional appeal of John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan or Billy Wilder. His films were more popular among a circle of admirers in France, Europe and independent-minded young adults. He made films in all kinds of genres, including Film Noir, The Western, The Musical and Epic Movie but created a distinct visual style and tone that made him one-of-a-kind.
Oh, and that one exception? That was Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean. You may remember the final shot, a man walking up to the Observatory with a briefcase; that was the director himself. In his lifetime, he worked with the likes of Farley Granger, Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, James Mason, Christopher Plummer, Burl Ives, Sterling Hayden, Joan Crawford in addition to the cast of Rebel. As critic Robin Wood remarked, "no one gives a bad performance in a Ray film."
He was also noted for a messy, turbulent personal life, not unlike that of his characters. Already being an erratic student prone to alcoholism, his drinking and drug problems only worsened as his career progressed, culminating in him collapsing on the set of 55 Days in Peking, his final Hollywood film. His marriage to Gloria Grahame infamously ended when he discovered her in bed with his 13-year-old son Tony, whom she'd later marry.
Ray's Hollywood career ended with the Fall of the Studio System which led to a long period in Europe. He returned to America at the height of The '60s and was thrilled at seeing a culture heralded by his most famous film. He became a beloved teacher at New York University and SUNY Binghamton, one of his students in the former was Jim Jarmusch, with Ray making his final film, the experimental We Can't Go Home Again with students from the latter that wasn't officially released until 2012. The German director Wim Wenders was another fan and he and Ray collaborated on Lightning Over Water as Ray was on his deathbed, the film becoming finally a documentary about his final days. He's coming back into focus in the 21st century especially with the popularity of his lesser known titles like In a Lonely Place on DVD.
Important books on Nicholas Ray include Nicholas Ray: An American Life by Bernard Eisenschitz which is not only considered his definitive biography, but one of the best biographies on any film director, currently in print from the University of Minnesota Press. Other books include, I Was Interrupted, a collection of articles, interviews, and personal notes by Ray during his time as teacher in New York.
- They Live by Night (1948)
- In a Lonely Place (1950)
- The Lusty Men (1952)
- On Dangerous Ground (1952)
- Johnny Guitar (1954)
- Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
- Bigger Than Life (1956)
- Bitter Victory (1957)
- Wind Across the Everglades (1958)
- Party Girl (1958)
- The Savage Innocents (1960)
- King of Kings (1961)
- 55 Days at Peking (1963)
- We Can't Go Home Again (1973)
- The American Friend (1977) — actor only
- Lightning Over Water (1980) (Documentary by Wim Wenders showing Ray's final days).
Some of the Tropes appearing in Ray's works:
- Broken Ace: A repeated theme in his films is people, adults, who were once top of their game but because of their trauma, Dark and Troubled Past or other frustration are not entirely functional. Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place is a notable example. As is Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground and James Mason in Bigger Than Life.Nicholas Ray: "My heroes are no more neurotic than the audience. Unless you can feel that a hero is just as fucked up as you are, that you would make the same mistakes that he would make, you can have no satisfaction when he does commit a heroic act. Because then you can say, ‘Hell, I could have done that too.’ And that’s the obligation of the filmmaker — of the theater-worker — to give a heightened sense of experience to the people who pay to come see his work."
- Dysfunction Junction: A favored theme in his movies is to show people trying to form communities but not cohering because they are too different or have different issues. Rebel Without a Cause is a notable example.
- Face Death with Dignity: Wenders' documentary on Ray, Lightning Over Water shows Ray in his final days, dying from cancer and trying vainly to continue living by working on many projects (which both he and Wenders know won't get made), giving talks at universities about his films and conducting various theatre productions. Ray even goes as far as to fictionally dramatize hospital visits by various people.
- Genre-Busting: Never one to set truck by conventional genres. His western Johnny Guitar is one of the most complex, intelligent and ironic takes on the genre, one which doesn't feel entirely western either.
- Jitter Cam: Ray is considered by some to be a pioneer of this. He attached cameras on the body and person and used handheld shots in On Dangerous Ground and The Lusty Men, the former to convey the chaos and wildness of urban life and the latter to convey the craziness of rodeo riding (he attached the cameras on a person to simulate the effect of being on top of a wild bull).
- Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: Ray is generally Enlightened (socially progressive and leftist in inclination) and left-Romantic (a la Shelley, Keats and Byron) drawn to strong passions, turbulent Byronic Hero, social outsiders and alternative cultures.
- Many noted that his movies have an ethnological quality focusing on Poachers (Wind Across the Everglades), Teen Gangs (Rebel Without A Cause), Rodeo Performers (The Lusty Men), Gypsies (Hot Blood) and Inuit (The Savage Innocents).
- He was admired by the New Wave and by Martin Scorsese for bringing documentary elements to his movies, as seen in his use of handheld cameras in The Lusty Men and On Dangerous Ground and even his film on Jesus, King of Kings is considered interesting for its attempt to situate the Gospel narrative in a strongly researched historical backdrop, with the opening section compared by Martin Scorsese to a newsreel about the Ancient World.
- Perspective Flip: His film on Inuit, called The Savage Innocents, is considered to be a rare successful example in portraying First Nations-Settler conflicts. It's heavily compromised (with Anthony Quinn playing the main Inuit role) but it's also unusually successful for its point of view:Tag Gallagher: The Savage Innocents possibly comes closest to a non-white point of view of any film by an important filmmaker (Nicholas Ray); it goes out of its way to render the strange and bizarre as normal, and succeeds so well in inducting us into the alien sensibilities of its Eskimos that, by the time a white man shows up, we feel him as the abnormal one.
- Stepford Suburbia: His films Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life tackled both concepts.
- Short-Lived, Big Impact: He did live a long life, but his most prolific period in the film industry was a mere ten or thirteen years during which he made films that were admired by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Martin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch among others.