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The Essentials: 5 Great Films By Nicholas Ray

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist June 15, 2012 at 1:51PM

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.
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Rebel Without A Cause

"Rebel Without A Cause" (1955)
Even those who aren't aware of Ray's career as a whole know 1955's "Rebel Without A Cause," thanks principally to the tragic death of star James Dean only a few weeks before the film made it to theaters. But for all of the rubberneckers, the film still holds up remarkably well today, even if it's perhaps not Ray's absolute finest. The film began as nothing but a simple B-movie, borrowing the title of Robert M. Lindner's psychiatric study "Rebel Without A Cause: The Hypnoanalysis Of A Psychopath," which Warners had optioned a decade earlier, and the studio were trying to keep it cheap, ordering Ray to shoot in black-and-white, until Dean broke out in "East Of Eden," at which point they ordered the scenes already filmed to be redone in (glorious) color. Dean plays a young man, newly arrived at an L.A. high school and already in trouble with the authorities, who falls in with classmates Plato (Sal Mineo) and Judy (Natalie Wood), who recognize him after being brought into the police station on the same night. The trio are furious at their peers, at the complacency (or absence) of their uncomprehending parents and at the world around them, in an infinitely more empathetic and realistic manner than the same year's near-hysterical "Blackboard Jungle." But there's a richness beyond that, an undercurrent of sexual longing and inevitable, fatal madness that feels more like a Greek tragedy than a Shakespeare play. The screenplay's probably the weakest link: the lines can clunk, pushing the theme into text rather than subtext, and it does feel dated in places. And it's probably not Ray's most impressive directorial effort, although it's as impeccably staged and lit as ever. But the sheer fury it feels -- thanks in particular to the superb performances by Wood, Mineo and especially Dean (who would all meet tragic fates themselves) -- still feels like a firecracker today.    

Bigger Than Life

"Bigger Than Life" (1956)
It was never unusual for Ray to center his melodramas around protagonists riddled with confusion, doubt, anxiety and pain, and the confluence of these ugly, deep-seated psychological issues rages like a hydra-headed confluence of anguish in “Bigger Than Life,” a picture some argue is his incontestable masterpiece. Based on a 1955 The New Yorker article by medical writer Berton Roueché entitled "Ten Feet Tall,” in Ray’s bold and expressionistic telling of this story, the great James Mason plays a family man and small-town school teacher driven to madness by the misuse of a new wonder-drug. Suffering from blackouts and severe pain, the teacher is diagnosed with a rare artery inflammation that may kill him. Doctors tell Mason, his friends and family (his wife is played by Barbara Rush, a colleague played by Walter Matthau) that the only thing that may save him is the experimental use of Cortisone. Initially, responding well to the treatment, Mason’s gentle and caring father-husband-teacher character eventually transforms into a despotic monster at home and near psychopath in every other avenue of his life when he begins to abuse the drug and his addiction flares like a suffering heartburn of the soul. Lurching and careening with color, shadows and lively, wild melodrama, both Mason and Ray play the film -- as its title already suggests -- larger than life. Shot in glorious CinemaScope, nothing about “Bigger Than Life” is subtle, but the over-the-top mien of the picture is belied by its genuinely uncomfortable suffering and emotional truth. A exposé of addiction and a fairly damning excoriation of suburban life and the underbelly of the quaint Eisenhower era of '50s picket-fence purity, “Bigger Than Life” was a flop at the time, and its critique of family life was off-putting for those who did see it. But rescued from obscurity by the Criterion Collection (only in 2010, which feels like a decade late, but we’ll take what we can get), it’s hopefully the first phase of a full-scale re-appreciation of the daring filmmaker's oeuvre.

-- Rodrigo Perez, Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton

This article is related to: Nicholas Ray, The Essentials, Features, On This Day In Movie History, Feature


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