In a Lonely Place ( 1950) Nicholas Ray

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Nicholas Ray’s films were filled with anti-heroes. Characters who were disillusioned with life. Outsiders in a system they could not or would not fit into or accept. Protagonist Dix Steele fits the mole perfectly. For Humphrey Bogart, playing Dix, was a stretch. This was not the typical Bogart character we were used to seeing. Whether on the right or wrong side of the law, Bogart’s characters were generally calm, cool and in control (The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca). As Dix, we are watching the flip side. A man who is always on edge: cynical, moody and ready to explode at the slightest moment. As a screenwriter, like Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd., he knew where on the Hollywood pecking order he stood…way down at the bottom. He despised the Hollywood machine, considering most in the industry hacks or as he says, “popcorn salesmen.” Continue reading

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Bigger Than Life (1956) Nicholas Ray

Ozzie Nelson goes bonkers in Nick Ray’s drug induced destruction of a “perfect” 1950’s American family. James Mason is a well liked, though a self confessed, straight laced “dull” person, that is until he is diagnosed with a rare disease and the only known cure is the then new miracle drug cortisone. When he begins to abuse the medication, Ozzie, I mean Ed Avery, turns into an egotistical know it all, spitting out strange child rearing theories at a PTA meeting. At home, he brow beats his son, withholding meals until his homework is done correctly. From there his delusions only get worst, until one day, he pronounces God was wrong when he spared Isaac. Ed is even willing to surrender his family in a biblical sacrifice. In “Bigger Than Life,” Nick Ray tears down the walls of the phony 1950’s facade of white picket fences and elegant worry free suburban living. He also takes a hard look at the abuses of prescription drug use long before it was ever considered a problem. Continue reading

The Lusty Men (1952) Nicholas Ray

Nicholas Ray was a visual poet, using the camera like a paintbrush, each stroke expressively revealing an idea or making an enduring impression. In film after film, we see Ray’s camera articulate the emotions of his alienated characters, like Jim Stark in “Rebel Without a Cause” or Bowie in “They Live by Night.” Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) is another of Ray’s outsiders living on the edge of society. McCloud is a former rodeo champion, beaten down by too many years of too many injuries and hard living. He heads back to his hometown only to find out there is not much to go home too (the home he grew up in is now owned by someone else). Looking for a job he signs up as a ranch hand where he meets Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy) and his wife Louise (Susan Hayward). Wes harbors dreams of becoming a champion bronco rider which would help finance the ranch he and his wife have long desired to have. Louise fears Wes is chasing after rainbows and will only end up injured and worst, a loser like McCloud.  In spite of Louise’s concern, the three soon quit the ranch and hit the rodeo circuit with McCloud acting as Wes’ trainer and sidekick.   

Ray goes on to reveal the unglamorous underbelly side  of the rodeo world depicting it filled with damaged, rowdy losers whose winnings, if there are any, are lost the same night on women and drink. Their life is one of nomadic gypsies chasing the circuit devoid of any taste of stability or roots in their life. The women remain behind the scenes cheering and worrying at the same time about their man. How many more rides before he gets severely injured or even worst.

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Interview with Author Patrick McGilligan

Patrick McGilligan is well known to film enthusiasts as the author of the much-admired, and a finalist for the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 2003, “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light.” Other celebrated works include “Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast,” and “Cukor: A Double Life,” both New York Times Notable Books. Patrick’s other books include “Clint Eastwood: The Life and Legend,” “Jack’s Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson,” “Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff,” “Tender Comrades, A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist” (coauthor) and most recently, “Oscar Micheaux, The Great and Only: The Life of America’s First Black Filmmaker. ” His latest book is “Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director.” Mr. McGilligan lives and works in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Why the title “The Glorious Failure of an American Director?” I mentioned I was reading your book to a fellow film enthusiast and I felt he left with the impression you saw Ray’s entire career as a failure, which I know you don’t.

IT’S A DELIBERATELY PROVOCATIVE TITLE WITH SEVERAL MEANINGS, LIKE OTHER TITLES OF MINE – LIKE “ROBERT ALTMAN: JUMPING OFF THE CLIFF” (SIMILAR INFERENCE, SUGGESTING ALTMAN COURTS COMMERCIAL SUICIDE BY HIS ARTISTIC STRIVING) OR “FRITZ LANG: THE NATURE OF THE BEAST.”  THE LITERAL MEANING OF A TITLE IS THE LEAST INTERESTING OR RELEVANT FROM MY POINT OF VIEW.  FOR ONE THING, IN THE CASE OF THE RAY BOOK, HIS FILMS OFTEN CONCERN PROTAGONISTS (EVEN JAMES DEAN IN “REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE”) WHO ARE PREOCCUPIED WITH THE QUEST TOWARDS SOME IMPOSSIBLE GOAL.  THEY OFTEN ‘FAIL.’  THEIR GLORY LIES IN TRYING, NOT SUCCEEDING.  AND WHAT ABOUT IRONY IN A TITLE? Continue reading

They Live By Night (1948) Nicholas Ray

They’re young, they’re in love and they kill people. That was the tag line for Arthur Penn’s classic 1967 masterpiece “Bonnie and Clyde” and it could have been equally appropriate some eighteen years earlier in Nick Ray’s first film “They Live By Night.” Based on Edward Anderson’s 1937 novel “Thieves Like Us” (Anderson only wrote two novels of which this was his second ), and one of the earliest of a loosely banded group of films about young fugitive lovers on the run from the law (You Only Live Once, Gun Crazy, Badlands, Natural Born Killers and Bonnie and Clyde ).

Made in 1948, the film remained on RKO’s shelf for almost two years before new owner Howard Hughes decided to release it (It’s U.S. release was in November 1949). Various producers attempted to get a good screenplay written, however it was not until John Houseman came on board as producer and showed the depression era novel to Nick Ray, who loved the book, wanted to make the film and wrote an adaptation. Houseman had considerable clout as a producer at the time and was able to get first time director Ray an okay to direct the film.

Three men escape from prison, two seasoned bank robbers T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) along with young Bowie (Farley Granger) who was innocently convicted of murder.  The three men rob a bank. When Bowie is injured he is brought to Chickamaw’s brother’s place where he meets Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), Chickamaw’s tomboyish niece. After another bank job, the young lovers take off to get away from Bowie’s two thug partners and a life of crime. Unlike Bowie, his two cohorts quickly blow their share of the money and want Bowie for another bank job which goes bad resulting in T-Dub’s death. Bowie and Keechie are again running only this time instead of running to a new life they are running from the law and straight toward a tragic end.

Like many of Ray’s films, the sympathy lies with those living outside of society, outlaws doomed to a tragic end; in this case an ambush  that foresees Penn’s “Bonnie & Clyde.” Like “Bonnie and Clyde”, the young couple are also betrayed to the police by someone they thought they could trust, in this case, Chickamaw’s sister-in-law Mattie (Helen Craig) who Bowie pleads to for help late in the film. During the filming Ray continually worked on the screenplay, written by Charles Schnee, making sure his vision would remain intact. Ray reflects a world with few honest people, even the justice of the peace is corrupt, everyone “are thieves like us”, as Bowie tells Mattie toward the end of the film.

The critics at the time were generally dismissive, Bosley Crowther called it, “a common little story about a young escaped convict” and later on states the film “is misguided in its sympathies for a youthful crook.” He lthen addsh”They Live By Night has the failing of waxing sentimental over crime.” To be honest, the ever straight laced Crowthers does give the film credit for “good production and sharp direction by Nicholas Ray.”

The film’s beginning is unique in two aspects; first we see Bowie and Keechie in close up kissing as the opening credits come on. When the film proper begins we are in an open field, the three prison escapees are in a car on the run. This is all viewed from a helicopter shot high above. I believe this to be the first, or at least one of the first times this technique was used in an action scene giving  the film a fresh documentary touch. We also see the owner of the car taken prisoner by the three fugitives and severely beaten by Chickamaw.

“They Live By Night” (released in England as The Twisted Road) is an astonishing directorial debut, a dark lyrical poetic love story, it has been called a weepy noir, and like their counterparts in “Gun Crazy”, “Bonnie and Clyde” and even “Romeo and Juliet” the lovers are doomed to a poignant fate.  Ray’s background prepared him for the details of this depression era drama. He was a devotee of Southern folk music and worked with Alan Lomax and knew many folks singer of the era like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, he even had a weekly radio show. He met John Houseman during this period who was influential enough to get Ray his first gig as a director. Ray was also associated with the Group Theater as an actor where he met and befriended Elia Kazan who would invite Ray to study his filmmaking style during the production of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

The cast consist of one superb performance after another from Farley Granger as the sensitive unlucky Bowie and Cathy O’Donnell as the melancholy rural Keechie looking for an escape from nowhere, to character actors Jay C. Flippen and Howard Da Silva as Bowie’s two hardened partners. Granger was at a party when he met Ray who took a liking to him; both he and O’Donnell were under contract to Sam Goldwyn at the time. Robert Mitchum was interested in playing Chickamaw but was deemed a rising star at the time and the role too limited for his newly found status, as a result Jay C. Flippen got the part.

A few aspects of the film have dated somewhat; Bowie admitting his virginal inexperience with kissing and Keechie saying things like “a good woman is like a dog” (they are loyal). Still, these bits aside, the film’s tug and pull between romance and violence continues to work. T-Dub and Chickasaw remain two vivid characters given some nice touches especially when Chickamaw reappears in Bowie and Keechie’s lives destroying a Christmas ornament and in the process their dream of a regular life.

In 1974, Robert Altman made a new version of the film under its original source material’s name, and remained closer “in tone”, as Pauline Kael states in her review, than Ray’s more sympathetic view. Kael called the seventies film “the closest to flawless of Altman’s films – a masterpiece.

****1/2

On Dangerous Ground (1952) Nicholas Ray

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Nick Ray’s “On Dangerous Ground” is a film split into two distinct acts. Based on a novel by Gerald Butler, an excellent screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides, a magnificent score by the great Bernard Hermann with top-notch performances by Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino.

Robert Ryan is excellent as Jim Wilson, a neurotic, indifferent detective who has no life other than cleaning up the dirty slime filled streets filled with human vermin. Yet he manages to find salvation and rediscover his humanity in the gentle soul of the beautiful though blind Mary Malden (Lupino), the sister of the young murderer pursued by the law.  Ryan has portrayed many hard-edged, unsentimental characters in his career though this is arguably one of his best. Ida Lupino is truly touching as Mary giving one of her most vulnerable performances of her career.

In the hands of another director, this film could have turned in a sloppy melodrama. With Nick Ray in control, we get a post-modernist edgy film noir contrasting the dark harsh crime filled streets of the city against the clean stark cold wintry beauty of the country. Like many of Ray’s films, there is a sense of loneliness and sadness in the characters. Similar lost characters fill the screen in other Ray works like “Rebel without a Cause” and “The Lusty Men.” With “On Dangerous Ground” Ray again transcends the genre he is working in creating a personal vision fueled by outsiders and non-conformist structuring their own moral code to live by.

Ray’s opens the films with his own idiosyncratic style with an arresting scene of a cop’s wife ritualistically and sensuously fastening her husband’s shoulder holster as he prepares to leave for work.

“On Dangerous Ground” is a melancholy work of dark beauty that should not be missed.

TCM will be showing “On Dangerous Ground” on Tuesday at 3:30AM EST.417902_1010_A