American-born film director Nicholas Ray (1911-1979) rose to prominence in the 1950s with such films as Johnny Guitar, They Live by Night, and his best-known work, Rebel Without a Cause, which transformed leading man James Dean into an American icon. He often portrayed the sensitive, troubled outsider, a heroic figure thwarted by life and love in a dysfunctional postwar society. Although he directed more than 20 feature films between 1948 and his death in 1979, Ray's most critically acclaimed works were made between 1952 and 1955.
Trained in Theater
Ray was born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle on August 7, 1911, in the Wisconsin town of Galesville, near La Crosse. Suspended from high school on several occasions, he nonetheless showed himself to be a gifted and intelligent teen and was accepted to the University of Chicago in 1930, the same year he married a young woman named Jean Evans.
Reconfiguring his name as Nicholas Ray, he attended college for less than a year. An interest in visual design prompted him to spend several months under the wing of noted architect and arts supporter Frank Lloyd Wright; a move to New York in 1932 drew him into the left-wing theater community. Involved in Elia Kazan's Theater of Action from 1935 to 1937, he made his acting debut on the New York stage before transferring to director John Houseman's Phoenix Theatre troupe. Ray gained technical experience in a production by Joseph Losey for the Depression-era Federal Theater Project. In 1942, following the start of World War II, Ray became involved in radio when Houseman found him a job as program director for the Office of War Information. He also continued his work with theatre and directed his first play in 1943.
Ray's work in New York provided him with the connections into film, and by 1944 he was living in Hollywood. His first movie job was as an assistant on Kazan's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Assisting on several other films and in early television, Ray also directed a play on Broadway. Houseman gave him the chance to direct his first solo film, and Ray signed a contract with RKO Studios. Ray's They Live by Night was based on the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson and released in Great Britain as The Twisted Road. Filmed in grainy black and white, it is an outlaw film infused with sympathy for its main characters, a bank robber duo played by Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell. The criminal lovers flee across the rural Midwest, the law hot on their trail, and desperately grasp for fleeting moments of peace as their destiny spirals out of control. In a review of the film for the Chicago Tribune, Michael Wilmington noted that They Live by Night is "permeated with a sweetness and vulnerability unusual for any crime movie."
Days with RKO
Ray's directorial debut was not a success at the box office. His next production for RKO was the 1949 murder mystery A Woman's Secret, which starred noir actress Gloria Grahame. During the film Ray, who had divorced his first wife, married his leading lady. Grahame divorced her own husband and married Ray later that same day. The couple survived four tumultuous years of marriage—years made more difficult because of Ray's lifelong battle with alcoholism—before divorcing in 1952. Ray would marry twice more, to dancer Betty Schwab and finally to Susan Ray, with whom he would have four children. In 1961 Grahame married Ray's oldest son, Anthony Ray.
In 1949 Ray was hired to direct popular actor Humphrey Bogart in Knock on Any Door, a drama about an attorney hired to defend a juvenile delinquent played by John Derek. Bogart and Grahame starred in Ray's next movie, In a Lonely Place, a 1950 noir film that focuses on a successful screenwriter charged with murder. Through Bogart's troubled, violent protagonist, Ray showed the ill effects of nonconformity, as the screenwriter, by nature a loner, found himself branded as an outsider by the police, by colleagues, and even by former friends.
The theme of In a Lonely Place, which Ray explored again in later works such as On Dangerous Ground and Johnny Guitar, reflected Ray's attitude about the McCarthyism of the 1940s and 1950s. While RKO owner Howard Hughes sheltered his stable of directors from the blacklist sparked by Senator Joseph P. McCarthy's efforts to purge the nation of what he believed was a Communist menace, Ray watched the destruction of the careers of many talented Hollywood actors and directors, including his former mentor Elia Kazan.
In appreciation for Hughes's protection, Ray directed several films for RKO in quick succession: Born to Be Bad, about two ruthless women who stop at nothing to win a battle over a man; the John Wayne vehicle The Flying Leathernecks (1951); the highly praised 1951 noir On Dangerous Ground starring Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino as a troubled young outcast and the woman who shelters him; and The Lusty Men, a western about the competing affections of rodeo riders Robert Mitchum and Arthur Kennedy for the beautiful Susan Hayward. After all this work for RKO, Ray decided to leave the studio in 1953, a year after The Lusty Men was released.
Championed the Outsider
Out from under Hughes's thumb, Ray found himself free to expand on his developing noir vision. The result was 1954's Johnny Guitar, a stylish western produced by Republic Pictures that starred Sterling Hayden. With its somewhat stiff, stylized approach, subversive sexual undercurrents, and quasi-melodramatic story line, Johnny Guitar also introduced the symbolic use of color that characterized many subsequent Ray films. Even more so than In a Lonely Place, the film is considered to be a strong cinematic statement condemning the injustices of the McCarthy-era witch hunts.
The quality of Ray's films during the mid-to late 1950s—particularly those made after the release of Johnny Guitar—prompted critics to reexamine his early work, and he gained cult status in the United States and also in Europe, especially among Jean-Luc Godard and other France New Wave directors and critics. Well-known actors continued to appear in his films. His 1955 father-and-son drama Run for Cover featured young John Derek alongside veteran actor James Cagney. While considered a good film, Run for Cover would be quickly eclipsed by the notoriety surrounding Ray's next film.
Rebel Without a Cause
Ray's eye for color, movement, and setting that was so apparent to audiences of Johnny Guitar—and which would become even more pronounced in 1958's Party Girl— meshed seamlessly with the director's fascination with the psychology of loneliness in his landmark film Rebel Without a Cause. Released in 1955 and shot in vivid color in a wide-screen format, the film starred James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo, three of the most popular young actors of the era. As portrayed by the leather-jacketed Dean, protagonist Jim Stark enters adulthood in suburban Los Angeles, the little guidance he receives from his distant father supplemented by his supportive but equally estranged and futureless friends. Stark is the epitome of teenage rebellion, and the movie culminates in classic 1950s fashion: in a deadly game of chicken behind the wheel of a souped-up hot-rod. Dean's tragically similar death a month before the film's release helped transform Ray's motion picture into an immediate classic. Rebel Without a Cause earned three Academy Award nominations, including one for Ray's screenplay.
Rebel Without a Cause was, for Ray, an impossible act to follow, but he continued on undaunted, filming Bigger than Life (1956), Bitter Victory (1957), and other motion pictures of less renown. For several years he worked in Europe but returned to the United States to film the garish 1958 gangland flick Party Girl, his last Hollywood film. Ray returned to Europe after making 1959's The Savage Innocents and tackled the life of Jesus in the popular 1961 epic drama King of Kings. Although his stature in the United States was diminished, European critics continued to praise Ray's work.
Ill Health Ended Career
Ray returned to the epic format of King of Kings for 1963's 55 Days at Peking. A story about the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China, the big-budget film was shot in Madrid, where noted opera designers Veniero Colasani and John Moore created the city of Peking in the suburb of Las Matas. The Oscar-nominated score by Dimitri Tiomkin was equally lavish.
The pressure of directing the epic took its toll on the 52-year-old director. Although he made a brief appearance in the film as a wheelchair-bound foreign ambassador, Ray suffered a heart attack and left the set before the film was completed, leaving director Andrew Marton to shoot the battle scenes. Many critics panned 55 Days at Peking as confusing, and Ray realized his mainstream career was at an end. He remained in Europe, where he was still well known, until an offer to shoot a documentary drew him back into the United States. The documentary was never completed, and financial circumstances forced Ray to remain in the United States.
During the 1970s Ray taught courses on film at the State University of New York at Binghamton, worked with students on film productions, and cooperated with German director Wim Wenders in the making of a 1974 documentary, I'm a Stranger Here Myself. The title was taken from a line in Johnny Guitar. In 1977, Ray was diagnosed with lung cancer. As the illness took its toll, he managed small acting roles in films such as Wenders's Der Amerikanische Freund and Milos Forman's 1979 production Hair. Guardian reviewer Derek Malcolm described Ray as "a tragic, neglected figure surrounded by obsequious young acolytes." Wenders, a tremendous fan of Ray, made a documentary about him, Lightning over Water (Nick's Movie), that contained interviews with the director in his last days. It was released in 1980, a year after Ray's death. Containing lectures, interviews, and other writings, Ray's autobiography, I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, was edited by his widow Susan Ray and released in 1993.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 3rd edition, Volume 2: Directors, St. James Press, 1996.
Kreidl, John Francis, Nicholas Ray, Twayne, 1977.
Ray, Nicholas, I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, University of California Press, 1993.
Cahiers du cinema, no. 66, 1956; November, 1958; January, 1962; January, 1985.
Chicago Tribune, May 29, 1998.
Film Comment, September/October 1973.
Film Quarterly, Fall 1974.
Guardian (London, England), March 25, 1999.
New York Times, June 18, 1979.
Sight and Sound, Autumn 1973; no. 4, 1979; spring, 1981; Autumn, 1986. □
Nationality: American. Born: Raymond Nicholas Kienzle in Galesville, Wisconsin, 7 August 1911. Education: Educated in architecture and theater, University of Chicago. Family: Married 1) Jean Evans, 1930 (divorced); 2) Gloria Grahame, 1948 (divorced 1952); 3) dancer Betty Schwab (divorced); 4) Susan (Ray), four children. Career: Director, Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin Playhouse, early 1930s; in Theater of Action, 1935–37; joined John Houseman's Phoenix Theater, accident results in loss of sight in right eye, 1938; named War Information Radio Program Director by Houseman, 1942; director on Broadway, 1943; assistant to Elia Kazan in Hollywood, 1944; directed first film, They Live by Night, 1948; walked off set of 55 Days at Peking, moved to Paris, 1962; teacher of filmmaking at State University of New York, Binghamton, 1971–73. Died: In New York, 16 June 1979.
Films as Director:
They Live by Night (first released in Britain as The Twisted Road , U.S. release 1949); A Woman's Secret
Knock on Any Door
In a Lonely Place ; Born to Be Bad
The Flying Leathernecks
On Dangerous Ground; The Lusty Men
Run for Cover; Rebel without a Cause (+ story)
Hot Blood; Bigger than Life
The True Story of Jesse James; Bitter Victory (+ co-sc)
Wind across the Everglades; Party Girl
The Savage Innocents (+ sc)
King of Kings
55 Days at Peking (co-d)
You Can't Go Home Again (+ sc, unfinished)
Lightning over Water (Nick's Movie) (co-d, role as himself)
Der Amerikanische Freund (TheAmericanFriend) (Wenders) (role)
Hair (Forman) (role)
By RAY: articles—
"Portrait de l'acteur en jeune homme," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 66, 1956.
"Story into Script," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1956.
Interview with Charles Bitsch, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1958.
Interview with Jean Douchet and Jacques Joly, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1962.
Interview with Adriano Aprà and others, in Movie (London), May 1963.
Interview in Interviews with Film Directors, edited by Andrew Sarris, New York, 1967.
"Nicholas Ray Today," an interview with J. Greenberg, in FilmmakersNewsletter (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), January 1973.
"Nicholas Ray: Rebel!," an interview with M. Goodwin and N. Wise, in Take One (Montreal), January 1977.
"On Directing," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1990.
"Ray's World according to Ray," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 27, September-October 1991.
On RAY: books—
McArthur, Colin, Underworld U.S.A., London, 1972.
Kreidl, John, Nicholas Ray, Boston, 1977.
Masi, Stefano, Nicholas Ray, Florence, 1983.
Allan, Blaine, Nicholas Ray: A Guide to References and Resources, Boston, 1984.
Hillier, Jim, editor, Cahiers du Cinéma 1: Neo-realism, Hollywood,New Wave, London, 1985.
Erice, Victor, and Jos Oliver, Nicholas Ray y su tiempo, Madrid, 1986.
Giuliani, Pierre, Nicholas Ray, Paris, 1987.
Wagner, Jean, Nicholas Ray, Paris, 1987.
Eisenschitz, Bernard, translated by Tom Milne, Nicholas Ray: AnAmerican Journey, London and Boston, 1993.
On RAY: articles—
Archer, Eugene, "Generation without a Cause," in Film Culture (New York), vol. 2, no. 1, 1956.
Perkins, Victor, "The Cinema of Nicholas Ray," in Movie Reader, edited by Ian Cameron, New York, 1972.
Wood, Robin, "Film Favorites," in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1972.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, "Circle of Pain: The Cinema of Nicholas Ray," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1973.
"Johnny Guitar Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), March 1974.
Biskind, Peter, "Rebel without a Cause: Nicholas Ray in the Fifties," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1974.
Lederer, Joseph, "Film as Experience: Nicholas Ray—The Director Turns Teacher," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), November 1975.
Cocks, J., "Director in Aspic," in Take One (Montreal), Janu-ary 1977.
Thomson, D., "In a Lonely Place," in Sight and Sound (London), no. 4, 1979.
Obituary, in The New York Times, 18 June 1979.
Beylie, Claude, obituary, in Ecran (Paris), 15 September 1979.
Farrell, T., and others, "Nicholas Ray: The Last Movies," in Sightand Sound (London), Spring 1981.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan, "Looking for Nicholas Ray," in AmericanFilm (Washington, D.C.), December 1981.
Eisenschitz, B., "Nicholas Ray, téléaste," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1985.
Houseman, John, "Houseman, Ray, and Ophüls," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1986.
Tobin, Y., in Positif (Paris), hors-série, January 1991.
Rosenbaum, J., "Guilty by Omission," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 27, September-October 1991.
Kennedy, H., "The Melodramatists," in American Film (Marion, Ohio), vol. 17, January-February 1992.
Margulies, I., "Delaying the Cut: The Space of Performance in Lightning over Water," in Screen, vol. 34, no. 1, Spring 1993.
Wollen, P., "Never at Home," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 4, May 1994.
Hauisch, M., "Der Poet der nacht, Nicholas Ray und sein werk," in Film-Dienst (Köln), vol. 46, no. 17, 13 August 1996.
* * *
"The cinema is Nicholas Ray." Godard's magisterial statement has come in for a good deal of ridicule, not by any means entirely undeserved. Yet it contains a core of truth, especially if taken in reverse. Nicholas Ray is cinema in the sense that his films work entirely (and perhaps only) as movies, arrangements of space and movement charged with dramatic tension. Few directors demonstrate more clearly that a film is something beyond the sum of its parts. Consider only the more literary components—dialogue, plot, characterisation—and a film like Party Girl is patently trash. But on the screen the visual turbulence of Ray's shooting style, the fractured intensity of his editing, fuse the elements into a valid emotional whole. The flaws are still apparent, but have become incidental.
Nor is Ray's cinematic style in any way extraneous, imposed upon his subjects. The nervous tension within the frame also informs his characters, vulnerable violent outsiders at odds with society and with themselves. The typical Ray hero is a loner, at once contemptuous of the complacent normal world and tormented with a longing to be reaccepted into it—to become (like Bowie and Keechie, the young lovers of They Live by Night) "like real people." James Dean in Rebel without a Cause, Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground, Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men, all start by rejecting the constraints of the nuclear family, only to find themselves impelled to recreate it in substitute form, as though trying to fill an unacknowledged void. In one achingly elegiac scene in The Lusty Men, Mitchum prowls around the tumbledown shack that was his childhood home, "looking for something I thought I'd lost."
Ray's grounding in architecture (he studied at Taliesin with Frank Lloyd Wright) reveals itself in an exceptionally acute sense of space, often deployed as an extension of states of mind. In his films the geometry of locations, and especially interiors, serves as a psychological terrain. Conflict can be played out, and tension expressed, in terms of spatial areas (upstairs and downstairs, for example, or the courtyards and levels of an apartment complex) pitted against each other. Ray also credited Wright with instilling in him "a love of the horizontal line"—and hence of the CinemaScope screen, for which he felt intuitive affinity. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who found it awkward and inhibiting, Ray avidly explores the format's potential, sometimes combining it with lateral tracking shots to convey lyrical movement, at other times angling his camera to create urgent diagonals, suggesting characters straining against the constrictions of the frame.
Equally idiosyncratic is Ray's expressionist use of colour, taken at times to heights of delirium that risk toppling into the ridiculous. In Johnny Guitar, perhaps the most flamboyantly baroque Western ever made, Joan Crawford is colour-coded red, white, or black according to which aspect of her character—whore, victim, or gunslinger—is uppermost in a given scene. Similarly, the contrast in Bigger than Life between the hero's respectable job as a schoolteacher and his déclassé moonlighting for a taxi firm is signalled by an abrupt cut from the muted grey-browns of the school to a screenful of gaudy yellow cabs that hit the audience's eyes with a visual slap.
Nearly all Ray's finest films were made in the 1950s, their agonized romanticism cutting across the grain of that decade's brittle optimism. "The poet of American disenchantment" (in David Thomson's phrase), Ray viewed social conventions as a trap, from which violence or madness may be the only escape. In Bigger than Life, James Mason's smalltown teacher, frustrated by his low social status, gains the feelings of power and superiority he aspires to from a nerve drug. Under its influence the character is transformed into a hideous parody of the dominant father-figure enjoined by society. Similarly—but working from the opposite perspective—In a Lonely Place subverts Bogart's tough-guy persona, revealing the anguish and insecurity that underlie it and, as V.F. Perkins puts it, making "violence the index of the character's weakness rather than strength."
"I'm a stranger here myself." Ray often quoted Sterling Hayden's line from Johnny Guitar as his personal motto. His career, as he himself was well aware, disconcertingly mirrored the fate of his own riven, alienated heroes. Unappreciated (or so he felt) in America, and increasingly irked by the constraints of the studio system, he nonetheless produced all his best work there. In Europe, where he was hailed as one of the world's greatest directors, his craft deserted him: after two ill-starred epics, the last sixteen years of his life trickled away in a mess of incoherent footage and abortive projects. Victim of his own legend, Ray finally took self-identification with his protagonists to its ultimate tortured conclusion—collaborating, in Lightning over Water, in the filming of his own disintegration and death.