There are some, including Francois Truffaut, who declare that Ray's finest film was his first, 1949's "They Live By Night." And whether or not you agree, it's hard to argue with the fact that he made an enormously accomplished film for a debut feature. Ray had helmed the Duke Ellington musical "Beggar's Holiday" on Broadway in 1946, and producer John Houseman (who'd been Orson Welles' long-time collaborator until they fell out on "Citizen Kane") approached him afterward with Edward Anderson's Depression-era novel "Thieves Like Us," thinking that his background working with the Department of Agriculture would make him a good fit for the project. RKO weren't so sure, and it was only when the forward-thinking Dore Schary became the head of production at the studio that the project started to move forward. A relatively simple lovers on the run tale (later remade under the original title by Robert Altman) about Bowie (Farley Granger), a man wrongly convicted of murder who escapes from prison with a pair of bank robbers, falls in love with Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell), only to be forced back into a life of crime by his fellow escapees, the film includes a bold and expansive mission statement over the opening credits; following the car carrying the escaped cons from the air in what's widely believed to be the first helicopter shot in the movies. The tender poetry of the romance between Granger and O'Donnell is sweet -- the lovers are a far more rootable pairing than the central duo of "Bonnie & Clyde" or "Badlands" (a film that very much feels like it's following in Ray's footsteps), and it means that there's a real sting to the tragic conclusion, not least thanks to the social themes (the criminals pointing the finger to the banks they rob as the real villains is a pretty timeless point). And Ray is in remarkable control, directing like he's been doing it every day of his life. While the film sat on a shelf for two years, thanks to Howard Hughes taking over RKO, and the company being unsure how to market the film, it became widely seen in Hollywood even before its eventual November 1949 release, which led Humphrey Bogart to hire Ray to direct "Knock On Any Door."
"In A Lonely Place" (1950)
Was ever there a director as adept as Ray at taking familiar genre elements and spinning from them a completely unexpected story? If you’re in any doubt as to the director’s preeminence in this arena, may we point you in the direction of “In a Lonely Place,” best, though inadequately, described as a drama with noir elements? Kicking off as a standard murder mystery, the film (and the audience) rapidly loses interest in the whodunnit plot, becoming embroiled and utterly absorbed instead in the interpersonal drama, and psychological portrait, that it evolves into. Dix (Humphrey Bogart, an oddly inspired casting choice) plays a hackish, fading screenwriter (metatextuality alert!) with a nasty temper who becomes the chief suspect in a murder case, only to be supplied with an alibi by his beautiful neighbor, Laurel (the ever-undervalued Gloria Grahame, in a terrific turn). They fall in love, and Dix starts writing again. But in the face of mounting police suspicion, Dix’s worse nature starts to show itself in violent outbursts and possessive jealousy towards Laurel until, in one of the most beautifully balanced denouements of all time, he nearly kills her (throttling his own chance of redemption in the process), even as the phone rings to let him know he has been cleared. It’s undoubtedly a potboiler, and a somewhat salacious one at that, but “In a Lonely Place” is also one of the very smartest of Ray’s films, and could almost serve, alongside certain Shakespeare classics, as a classroom text on how character is destiny. In fact, the directorial impulses away from noir and towards psychological, character-driven drama are beautifully illustrated in the story of the film’s ending: originally it was to culminate in real noir fashion, with Dix finding out he’s been proven innocent only after he’s actually killed Laurel. While that end would no doubt have suited a more pulpy treatment, Ray changed it to leave Laurel still alive, and Dix ostensibly a free man. Somehow the knowledge that she lives on but despises and fears him, and he has to face the future alone with knowledge of his own monstrousness and nothing so cathartic as a prison sentence/hanging to look forward to, becomes all the more exquisitely apropos torture for the character. Greatness.
"Johnny Guitar" (1954)
You gotta love those French new wave critics for making it intellectually ok to adore “Johnny Guitar” -- Ray’s trashy-to-the-point-of-camp, talky Western/Women’s Pic hybrid -- thereby rescuing it from the category of “guilty pleasure” to which it might otherwise belong. You see, as that cumbersome description might suggest, there is almost too much going on here -- venomous female rivalries, old flames, bank robberies, stagecoach holdups, lynchings, gunfights, betrayals, arson, intrigues, a fine measure of cock-blocking and plenty of last-minute changes of heart, all shot in fetishizable, painterly Technicolor. The film should be a complete mess, but somehow, although each individual element sits weirdly alongside any other, the whole is so well orchestrated as to make it, on some visceral level, completely satisfying. Joan Crawford, her face almost an abstraction of a face under mask-like, heavy make-up, plays Vienna, who we’re somehow supposed to believe is a scrappy ex-hooker/saloon girl who clawed her way to her dream of owning her own business: a saloon built seemingly in the middle of nowhere that will pay dividends once the railway is routed right by it. Crawford is simply too patrician, too steely, too stately a presence to sell that backstory convincingly, and her unbending sternness makes it hard for the men who love her to seem anything but emasculated ciphers by comparison. But that’s part of the pleasure here: right down to the climactic showdown being between two women (Crawford and a maniacal Mercedes McCambridge), this film doesn’t simply replace male western archetypes with females (“Calamity Jane,” it ain’t), it actually lets its narrative warp into melodrama around its women, so what we get is almost subversive for the Western genre. Apparently, Crawford, as became her wont, feuded with practically everyone on set, especially Sterling Hayden, (the hero of this film in title only), and McCambridge (later the voice of the demon in "The Exorcist"), who referred to her as “a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady.” And perhaps that shows: as a film it’s a fascinating muddle of clashing characterizations and story strands that might not run deep, but boy are they writ large. But as a primer for some of Ray’s preoccupations (outsider-iness, the past vs. the present, male violence, the power dynamic in relationships) and style (theatrical Technicolor, staginess, wordiness) it’s pretty much, well, essential.