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 →
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 →
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.
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 →
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.