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NICHOLAS RAY at Film Forum

The Stop Smiling Film Review

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Thursday, July 23, 2009


Nick Ray Festival
July 24th–August 6th at Film Forum in New York City

By Bruce Bennett

A few years before her death, Pauline Kael was asked on the occasion of an Austin Film Society repertory season of Sam Peckinpah films, what she felt was that director’s particular strength as a filmmaker. “The mystery known as film sense,” Kael replied. “His was rich and voluptuous. It fused his movies.” Kael’s answer seems just as apropos when applied to the work of Nicholas Ray — subject of a midsummer retrospective at New York’s Film Forum. Ray’s natural filmmaking gifts were tremendous.

“He went all the way and I did not,” wrote Ray’s fellow Thirties New York experimental theater vet turned Fifties Hollywood A-lister Elia Kazan. Kazan’s comment in his exhaustive memoir A Life precedes a description of Ray’s death from cancer in 1979 less than half a decade after finally beating the alcoholism that had dogged him his entire life. But Kazan’s confession/epitaph also addresses a rare cinematic essence as present in Ray’s films as it is lacking in Kazan’s own. Watching some Kazan movies (Ray-like widescreen 1960 gem Wild River is a sublime exception), I often get the sense of grudging compromise and conventionality — staging that draws attention to itself, close-ups conveniently used to sell character moments cheaply, frames that are fussily composed or self-consciously tossed off. Kazan often feels like a film director holding back, content to remain on the outside of a story looking in. Sharing the dark with the best of Nick Ray’s films the director’s particular command of scene geography, framing, and especially his keen ear and sure hand with actors of greatly varying backgrounds and abilities enables any wall between directorial intention and effect to miraculously vanish.

In A Lonely Place (1950) is such an embarrassment of creative riches from everyone involved (particularly lead Humphrey Bogart who was never so emotionally naked in any other film) that Ray’s sneaky narrative point-of-view shift from Bogart’s accused killer screenwriter Dixon Steele to Dix’s object of affection and possible next victim Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame in the throes of ending her marriage to her director) is easy to overlook. But by combining marvelously acute blocking and timing within the film’s scenes themselves with seemingly offhand grace-note visual tropes — a first person POV close up of a coffee cup, an insert of a high-heeled foot searching for a phantom break in the passenger seat of a careening convertible — Ray pulls off an audience identification border switch as irresistible as Hitchcock’s shift from Marion Crane to Norman Bates in Psycho.

Even when working the lurid and loony territory of his infamous 1954 poverty-row psycho Western Johnny Guitar, Ray made something real and whole out of fragments. A scene in Guitar in which two ex-lovers played by Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden bitterly weigh the baggage they’ve carried since their parting (as originally scripted they’d never met before) flies dramatically aloft on the wings of subtext as brilliantly as anything in Robert Towne’s revered Seventies dramatic writing. It’s all the more remarkable when one remembers the evident limits in ability visible elsewhere in Crawford and Hayden’s acting careers.

“Film is an eclectic art,” Ray offered in a documentary interview in 1975. “It’s an eclectic art, it’s a collective art.” One of the lesser ironies of Ray’s borderline tragic directing career (the heart attack that forced him to hand over the reins on 1963’s 55 Days in Peking effectively ended it) is that though he spent the last decade of his life teaching, first at Harpur College, then at NYU, the eclecticism Ray brought to movie making is one of the worst advertisements for a film school education possible. Ray was born in Galesville, Wisconsin (making Ray along with Orson Welles and Joseph Losey a member of a three man Diaspora of star-crossed Badger State native film directors) in 1911.

Encouraged into speech and drama by an older sister, Ray parlayed teenage radio and theater experience, and a drinking buddy relationship with playwright Thornton Wilder into a fellowship at Frank Lloyd Wright’s experimental Taliesin arts community. Periods in New York as a member of the collectivist Theater of Action and later the Group Theater, all over the country as a kind of travelling director staging regional amateur theater under the aegis of the Department of Agriculture, and in Washington, DC, back on the airwaves with the Voice of America during World War II introduced him to Kazan, folklorist Alan Lomax, social activist troubadours like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, producer John Houseman, and a who’s who of other New Deal-era American artists.

It was Kazan who first brought Ray to Hollywood as essentially a salaried observer on Kazan’s 1945 feature debut A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Houseman who secured Ray a deal with RKO and produced his first film. At RKO Ray made the rounds from department to department, picking over comic strips with studio staff editors to learn film grammar with cutting room clarity, shot screen tests and performed dialogue coaching duties in order to develop the surest grip possible on the process of picture making. The unobtrusively sure hand controlling Ray’s 1947 feature debut They Live By Night, an adaptation of Edward Anderson’s depression era crime romance Thieves Like Us, is elegantly gloved in both achingly tender romanticism and dustbowl realism. The film also remained shelved for some two years after completion for reasons known only to then incoming RKO studio head Howard Hughes.

Hughes’ inscrutable largess didn’t keep Ray from making more films at RKO and then for Columbia, Warner Bros., Twentieth Century Fox and producer Samuel Bronston’s Sixties historical epic factory in Spain. His connection with Hughes also helped Ray to elude the blacklist in spite of a resume of personal and political associations that would otherwise certainly have made him a person of interest to HUAC. The accusatory wind-bag homicide captain pursuing Bogart in In a Lonely Place, the procedure obsessed lynch mob in Johnny Guitar, and Pontius Pilate in King of Kings all attest to a loathing for prejudice, coercion and suspicion that likely dates back to a World War I-era Midwestern childhood in which Ray’s actual Germanic surname made Raymond Nicholas Kienzle the youngest member of a family reduced from leading citizens to ostracized outsiders over night.

More than any other English-language filmmaker of his generation, Nicholas Ray successfully fused the Stanislavski-influenced mid-century American dramatic vanguard’s obsession with psychological truth and social responsibility with the kind of emotional and visual spectacle that post-war Hollywood genre storytelling demanded. His pulp sensibility wasn’t built on unambiguous one-size-fits all clichéd Freudianism but on the always shaky ground of genuine human yearning, empathy and weakness. “Unless you can feel that a hero is just as fucked up as you are and that you would make the same mistakes as he would make,” Ray told an interviewer in the Seventies, “you get no satisfaction when he does commit a heroic act.”

The youthful romantics and embattled neurotics in Nick Ray’s movies are as fucked up as they come and the films they inhabit offer a reminder that the building blocks of story and drama — crisis, action, change — are most vividly experienced and keenly felt on either side of the screen during adolescence. Regardless of age or station, Nick Ray’s unlikely heroes and lovers all share the same inherently and irresistibly adolescent belief that some stronger personal connection or shred of self-definition lies just around the next bend and will allow them to face the following day a little more loved, a little less marginalized, and a little less afraid of embracing who they are and how they got that way.

 

 

 

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