While adored by the French and the Cahiers Du Cinema coterie that went on to become the rebellious French New Wave -- which spawned the oft-quoted Jean-Luc Godard phrase "cinema is Nicholas Ray" -- the American filmmaker never really received his due outside of the one film of his that most moviegoers have seen (and even then, they’re possibly unaware that he directed it): “Rebel Without A Cause.” And while that iconic 1950s film, with its audacious, expressionistic colors, its passionate angst and anguish, its mix of quiet machismo and vulnerability, is perhaps the cornerstone of many of Nicholas Ray’s films -- vibrant melodrama on the surface, percolating emotional agony within -- it’s certainly just the tip of iceberg when it comes to the director’s career.
Starting out as a would-be actor, Ray moved to moved to New York where he appeared in the great Elia Kazan's theater debut. This led to Ray’s breakthrough Hollywood experience, as an assistant on Kazan's debut film, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945) and after only two more years of assisting on other pictures -- plus directing a Broadway production and a TV show -- the director was given his first shot by RKO with “They Live by Night,” which was delayed by two years thanks in part to Howard Hughes’ takeover of the studio.
Impressionistic and intimate for its time, "They Live By Night" wasn't your average film noir, and launched Ray’s particular and idiosyncratic search for the human condition, often marked by its bold melodramatic veneer and its sympathies for youthful outcasts and alienated anti-heroes. What tethered Ray’s body of work was a focus on emotionally bruised, sensitive tough guys and misfits with tremendous longing. On the set of Ray's 1953 Western "The Lusty Men," the relentless digging for the emotional essence of a scene in what was supposed to be just a rodeo drama with a love triangle, prompted star Robert Mitchum -- who joked that the film only had 17 pages of a script and the rest was improvised -- to dub Ray a “mystic.”
Bisexual, with a notorious, awful predilection for toxic relationships ("In A Lonely Place" actress Gloria Grahame eventually married Ray's son after their tumultuous union dissolved; rumors of an affair with the 16-year-old Natalie Wood -- Ray was 27 years her senior -- caused friction between him and Dennis Hopper), life outside of Ray’s filmmaking career was rough, to say the least, and his fondness for alcohol and heavy drug use saw the filmmaker shunned by Hollywood by the time the early 1960s arrived. After collapsing on the set of “55 Days at Peking” in 1963, Ray would not direct again until the mid-1970s, and for all intents and purposes his career was by then over.
Ray died in 1979 of lung cancer as he was filming "Lightning Over Water," which was meant to be a collaborative documentary about the nature of life and death with devoted Ray apostle Wim Wenders (who also cast him in a small role in 1977’s “The American Friend”), but ultimately ended up as a harrowing chronicle of Ray’s decay and death.
But while largely critically ignored and/or underappreciated for much of his career, Ray has always had his champions among cinephiles. As mentioned, the French New Wave adored him during his 1950s heyday (François Truffaut was another major admirer), and subsequent generations have rallied behind him, such as Wenders, Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, Philip Kaufman (who once tried to mount a biopic of his life), Oren Moverman (who wrote it), Curtis Hanson and many more. Yet still, even by cinephile standards, Ray’s work is relatively unknown. Perhaps that’s slowly changing: The Criterion Collection released their first Ray film (“Bigger Than Life”) in 2010, and hopefully that’s just the beginning of what will usher in a new era of appreciation for the filmmaker. With 24 features made during a 16-year period (and one feature and a few shorts made in the '70s afterward), Ray burned the candle brightly, but at both ends, likely to his own detriment. Still, he left an indelible body of work that at its worst is worth sifting through, and at its best provides moments of inspired, stylized and highly eccentric genius. On the 33rd anniversary of his death, we present five Nicholas Ray essentials you need to watch. Head to page 2 for more.