Thursday, December 13, 2012

10 Best Nicholas Ray Films

Well over a year ago, over at Tony Dayoub's fine fine site, Cinema Viewfinder, a Nicholas Ray Blogathon was held.  Among the many many many great contributions to this blogathon, were two by yours truly (hopefully at least half as great as the others).  These were called "The Dangerous Beauty of Nick Ray Parts 1 & 2" (originally meant as just one piece, I could not stop myself from writing, so split into two it would go) and took a film historical overview of the great auteur's equally great oeuvre.  As I went about watching the Ray films I had yet to see (and re-watching old favourites) I thought to myself what a great time for a top ten list.  I was now what one would call a Nick Ray completest, so a list was most certainly in order.  Regular readers of this site as well as those regulars over at Anomalous Material where I write a weekly series of differing top tens, know full well how excited I get at even just the mere thought of a top ten list (or for that matter a top eleven or twelve or thirteen or twenty-five of one hundred or so on and so on).  Yeah, it's a turn on - gotta problem with that!

Anyway, I ended up not fitting it into my blogathon schedule and instead, as the great procrastinator that I am, give it to you now.  I would like to preface this list with the fact that out of Nick Ray's 20 directed films (22 if you should count his two final films, the experimental group directed We Can't Go Home Again and the Wim Wenders' directed Lightning Over Water for which the German filmmaker gave Ray a co-director credit, or even 23 if you count Macao, mainly directed by Josef von Sternberg but finished by Ray who, against his own wishes was given co-credit) there has not been one I disliked.  Yes, there are a few I could (and would and have) call average and/or even mediocre, but still not a truly bad one in the bunch - even those few, like King of Kings and The Savage Innocents, that are most often panned by my fellow critics.  But the following ten are the be all and end all of Nicholas Ray cinema.  A director by the way who Godard once famously called "Cinema" itself.  So without further ado, here are my choices for the 10 Best Nicholas Ray Films.

1. Johnny Guitar (1954)  I may be showing my old school affinity with Godard and the French New Wave with my number one choice, but the sheer gaudy decadence of Ray's visuals, combined with the audacious nature of Joan Crawford and the batshitcrazy Mercedes McCambridge make this one a no-brainer - even amongst the deep-pocketed oeuvre that is the career of Nicholas Ray.  Perhaps the auteur's strangest film and the one most likely to elicit complaints and criticisms of cheesiness (pure camp and done the way camp should be done!), Johnny Guitar is nonetheless the director's boldest and bravest film as well.  Still waiting for a proper home video release in the US (my copy is a European PAL version) let alone its rightful, and hopefully inevitable, transfer onto Bluray, this bizarro-world western is a film I could watch over and over and over again without ever tiring of it.

2. Rebel Without A Cause (1955)  The first Nick Ray film I ever saw (around the age of thirteen or so) and probably the most iconic, thanks to the tragic status of James Dean, this prototypical teen angst motion picture is an emotionally draining, psychologically searing, philosophically drenching cinematic event - and that is a description  without adding extra hyperbole.  The story of three teens, played by Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo (all dying violent deaths, at 25, 43 and 37 respectively) trying to cope with the complexities of life, and the pressures of growing up (and varying degrees of parental problems), this film is probably the director's most emotionally intense work, and yes, Ray's wiles with a camera make it worthy of inclusion here, but much of this hullabaloo, much of this rather, for lack of a better term, magical touch, has to do with Ray's allowing method actor Dean to do his own improv thing throughout the film.  Oh yeah, and it looks damn beautiful as well.

3. In A Lonely Place (1950)  A cynical Humphrey Bogart.  A sexy Gloria Grahame.  A salacious murder.  Film noir.  Nick Ray.  Who could ask for anything more?  In a Lonely Place tells the story of a Hollywood screenwriter who has had a rather bad run of luck, and who is suspected of the murder of a young hat check girl who is found dead the day after spending the night at his place.  Bogie plays the screenwriter with his typical blend of machismo and urbane refinement.  Meanwhile, we also get Gloria Grahame as the new neighbour and obvious love interest for our hero.  But that is just it.  Is this guy really a tragic heroic figure brought down by innuendo and bad timing, or is he indeed a cold-blooded killer?  We do get an answer one way or the other by film's end, but before that, the question remains looming in the air, ready to destroy everyone and everything around it.  The sexual chemistry between Bogie and Grahame is rather palpitating, and Ray's weaving, voyeuristic camera, makes it all the more intriguing.

4. They Live By Night (1949)  This was Ray's first film.  It was made in 1947, but due to the chaos of Howard Hughes' takeover of RKO, it was not released for two years.  Meanwhile, many big names in Hollywood saw the film via private screenings, leading to Hitchcock casting Farley Granger in Rope, and Bogart hiring Ray to direct Knock on any Door.  Once it was released, it became sort of the prototype for the couple on the run movie, influencing everything from Gun Crazy to Bonnie and Clyde to Badlands to (of course) Robert Altman's remake, Thieves Like Us.  Granger, along with Cathy O'Donnell, who, story be told, was handpicked by Granger, play a young couple on the wrong side of the law.  Innocent (the naive kind of innocent) and in love, these two play the tragic lovers/heroes of the story.  Raw and natural, as is often the case for directorial debuts, this is probably Ray's most grounded picture - and in this grounding, we get a story of harrowing circumstances, done in the most cinematically innocent way.

5. On Dangerous Ground (1952) The first act of this film plays out like a gritty police procedural - something akin to the cop shows of today - the second and third acts, though still full of intensity and urgency, come off as a more lyrical kind of storytelling.  These two sides of Ray's proverbial coin - the roughness of They Live by Night alongside the smoothness of In a Lonely Place - come together to make this tale of hard-boiled NY police detective Robert Ryan and bitter and blind Ida Lupino, soar with the most powerful of wings.  Watching these two stellar - and often overlooked and/or underappreciated - actors pair off against each other, is worth the price of admission alone.  Ray's weaving, sometimes invasive, sometimes ethereal camera, makes it a bargain indeed.

6. Bigger Than Life (1956)  I first saw this film just last year, projected on the big screen, and I was mesmerized from beginning to end.  Ray's sultry use of colour, his play with lighting and shadows and tilted camera angles, the bravura performance of James Mason - possibly the actor's greatest performance - all come together in an explosive and quite harrowing drama.  On the edge, both thematically and stylistically, Bigger Than Life tells the story of a drug addict, back in a time when films did not readily breach such divisive subjects - but then, Nick Ray was never known as one who would shy away from controversy.  Of course, the bigger controversy came not with drug addiction, but the way Ray portrayed the American family and the so-called values that went with them.  Again, that is Nick Ray, and, as I and Jean-Luc Godard stated earlier, he is cinema.  And speaking of Godard, in 1963, the director named this film one of the Ten Best American Sound Films ever made.

7. The Lusty Men (1952)  Yes, Ray was supposedly bisexual, and yes, there is more than it's fair share of homoeroticism not so hidden away in this appropriately titled film, but this does not mean this isn't a manly film.  A real man's man kind of film.  The kind of film where men are men and...um, yeah, anyway, I digress.  Seriously though, this Robert Mitchum picture is truly a manly movie.  A movie for men, as the Spike channel has been heard to say.  It is the story of a retiring rodeo buck, played with the usual barrel-chested charm associated with Mitchum, and the newbie he takes under his wing, played with the usual sideways-glancing snarkiness of Arthur Kennedy, and the woman who comes between them, played with the usual casual sexiness of Susan Hayward.  Full of vim and vigor, and not too low on the sexual tension, The Lusty Men takes Ray's typical undercurrent of eroticism and brings it out to the glaring forefront.

8. Run For Cover (1955)  This Jimmy Cagney western is usually criminally overlooked when discussion of Nick Ray's oeuvre comes up, and that is just a goddamn shame.  With the usual pastiche of such directors as Ford and Mann and Hawks, Ray gives his own cock-eyed subversiveness to the whole shebang, and creates a genre picture that manages to perfectly blend the classic era of the genre to the revisionist beginnings of the, then modern day cinema.  But the real reason this film is so enjoyable, other than Ray's not-so-subtle touch, is because it is always fun to watch James Cagney ply his trade - be it as a gangster, a hoofer or, in this case a cowboy. 

9. The Savage Innocents (1960)  More than any other Nicholas Ray film, save perhaps for King of Kings, this tale of an Eskimo trying to survive in the wilderness, and trying to survive the encroaching modern world, is the most often cited dud on the director's filmography.  Starring the Mexican born Anthony Quinn, an actor who probably played just about every ethnicity in Hollywood at one time or another, as Inuk the Eskimo, The Savage Innocents is often referred to as racist, but I do not think Ray had anything like that in mind when he made the film - this was just the norm for the time.  What the film really is, is pure, and sometimes quite ridiculous, fun.  Hey, and Dylan wrote a song about the whole damn thing too.

10. Born to Be Bad (1950)  This early career melodrama, much in the same vein as John M. Stahl's Leave Her to Heaven, is about a beautiful and quite manipulative young woman, who will do anything to get what she wants.  In fact, one could even say that she was born to be bad.  This manipulative young woman, someone who in less classy circumstances would be called a fucking bitch from Hell, is played beautifully by Joan Fontaine, one of my favourite actors, in one of her best, but sadly most overlooked, performances.  We also get Robert Ryan and Mel Ferrer, who are always fun to have around, but this is Fontaine's picture, and with it she runs away, and she does so with beautifully flying colours.

Well, that is it for my look at the ten best films of the man known as cinema itself, Mr. Nicholas Ray.  I suppose one could go on and bring films like Hot Blood or Party Girl, or even The Flying Leathernecks into the equation, but I suppose one should leave it at that.  To end on a quote from my number one pick, and I think this somehow strangely sums up the cinema of Nicholas Ray rather well, "There's only two things in this world that a real man needs: a cup of coffee and a good smoke."

6 comments:

Dave Enkosky said...

I think Bigger Than Life is probably my favorite Ray film. It's such a daring take-down of the myth of the traditional, functioning American family.

Michaël Parent said...

This is an interesting list. Nick is one of the filmmakers I want to catch more films. I would rank the ones I've seen in this order:
1. In A Lonely Place
2. Rebel Without a Cause
3. Johnny Guitar
4. Lightning Over Water

The Top 3 being above so many films that they are ranked just for the fun of doing a top. If not I loved them all very much!

Dan Heaton said...

I've only seen a big two of Nicholas Rey's films, Rebel Without a Cause and In a Lonely Place. They're both great, and I need to check out a lot more of these. I just saw In a Lonely Place for the first time last year, and it's a stunning movie. Bogart has rarely been better.

Kevyn Knox said...

Nicky Ray is a stunning filmmaker. Even in his lesser films - 55 Days at Peking, King of Kings - there is something that makes them work...at least on some level. Meanwhile, his greatest works are just spectacular. No two ways around it - the man knew how to make a goddamn movie. Watching something like Rebel or Johnny or Lonely Place, one can surely see why the Cahiers critics loved him so.

Helen said...

Ray is a glaring blind spot in my classic film watching, but I have seen ON DANGEROUS GROUND and really, really love it. Ida Lupino has a luminous beauty in this film and she and Ryan make me believe completely in their characters' redemptive love affair.

martinteller said...

My list is unusual in that I was really underwhelmed by REBEL (perhaps expectations too high) and am not as enamored with JOHNNY as most cinephiles seem to be. Going by the scores I gave on Criticker...

GREAT:
1. They Live By Night
2. Bigger Than Life
3. The Lusty Men

GOOD:
4. On Dangerous Ground
5. In a Lonely Place
6. Knock on Any Door
7. Bitter Victory
8. Johnny Guitar

FAIR:
9. Run for Cover
10. A Woman's Secret
11. Party Girl
12. Macao

MEH:
13. Rebel Without a Cause


Without a doubt, I owe REBEL a second chance.