James Dean and Nick Ray on the set of Rebel Without a Cause
Courtesy Photofest/Film Forum.
Is there really anything to say about this master filmmaker which could be more persuasive than Jean-Luc Godard's famous proclamation that "The cinema is Nicholas Ray?"
The retrospective at Film Forum, which began with a week-long engagement of In a Lonely Place, and which runs through August 6 with fourteen other films, is a gift to the residents of Manhattan and its outer-lying boroughs. Undoubtedly a peculiar type of gift, the kind that you might not seek out on your own, the type which can only come from your bohemian uncle, the family pariah you've admired since adolescence.
Surveying some of the titles in the series—Bitter Victory (1957), They Live by Night (1949), On Dangerous Ground (1951), Born to be Bad (1950), Bigger Than Life (1956)—it's easy to foresee the emotional turbulence that rules over Ray's universe. And that foresight is part of the rub. People who live by night (young thieves in love and on the lam), or endure a bitter victory (a no-nonsense soldier in love with his commander's wife), or exist on dangerous ground (a cop with no empathy forced to care about a killer), are not going to have stories of sunshine and roses. Ray's films are populated by autonomous men who are scarred and crippled; beautiful women who are neglected and beleaguered; and the circumstances that keep them ensnared to their fates.
To take the most popular example: at no point during Ray's seminal Rebel Without a Cause (1955) —even during the fleeting moments of connection between the James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo characters—does it really seem like Dean's tortured teen will find the acceptance he seeks. In Ray's world, more than that of any other director, unsuccessful and ambivalent communication is a Sword of Damocles that hangs over every moment of the movie. And it is with this hanging dread that even the most joyful moments seem like the powerful prelude to a fall, a mere staving off of inevitable destruction.
Ray was the exemplar for the Cahiers du Cinema's notion of an auteur, that a true director keeps on telling the same story. The movies in the series are essentially shuffled incarnations exploring the same themes of entrapment and desperation. Every protagonist is like Humphrey Bogart's Dixon Steele, stuck in a "lonely place" where no one fully understands his intentions and behavior, the audience and himself included. Yet even with these auteurist similarities, every movie in the series has its own set of unique and memorable qualities, its own verses of poetry. The transformation of location from New York's rank, rigid streets to the desolate, open snow-covered fields in On Dangerous Ground; the transformation of James Mason from caring family man to abusive monster in Bigger than Life (more on that here); the transformation of acceptance to alienation in the old west in Johnny Guitar—all these (im)morality tales play out like lines recited on the screen. They reveal the boundless forces that breathe down our necks and complicate our lives, forces interior to human existence, and entangled by constructs of society and the immensity of nature. (LEFT: CYD CHARISSE AND ROBERT TAYLOR IN PARTY GIRL, 1958. COURTESY PHOTOFEST/FILM FORUM)
If I had to pick only two films from the series, I would urge you not to miss this week's remaining screenings of In a Lonely Place (1950) and the last film of the series, Party Girl (1958). In a Lonely Place features, arguably, Humphrey Bogart's richest, most unnerving performance as a Hollywood screenwriter with a bad reputation and cloud of doom above him. He finds true love and tries to hold onto it, while fate conspires against him. Party Girl, a lesser known Ray masterpiece, revels in Ray's wonderful sense of technicolor to depict a heartrending and fragile courtship in 1920s Chicago. It is the story of Robert Taylor's crippled, hard nosed underworld lawyer and the showgirl (Cyd Charisse) who may be able to give him the love he needs. Oh yes, and if you have the time, see everything in between as well—you don't just read the first and last pages of your uncle's Wordsworth anthology, do you?
The Nick Ray Festival opens Friday, July 24 at Film Forum. In a Lonely Place screens through July 23.