“Violence is never an end, but the most effective means of access…[having] no other purpose than to blast away the accumulated debris of habit, to create a breach—in brief, to open up the shortest roads.” —Jacques Rivette, “Notes on a Revolution” (1955)
The films of Nicholas Ray, more than any other contemporary American director’s, were singled out by the up-and-coming Cahiers du Cinéma crowd (on the cusp of their own splashy Nouvelle Vague) as justification for their politique des auteurs—more a personal stance on critical practice than dogmatic superstructure, and long since codified and ossified by academic film criticism into hierarchy-happy “auteur theory.” What attracted critical minds like Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and others to Nicholas Ray and his oeuvre—bored stiff as they were by the risk-averse, respectable, and ultimately neutered “cinema of quality”—was the stamp of the personal and the element of danger they discerned in his films, whether that meant the improvisatory handling of actors with a touch deft enough to coax remarkable performances out of even non-professionals; the “superior clumsiness,” cited by Rivette in “Notes on a Revolution,” resulting in “a discontinuous, abrupt technique that refuses the conventions of classical editing and continuity”; or the purely visual flourishes Ray relished—ranging from the sweeping, vertiginous helicopter-mounted shots in They Live By Night to disorienting, subjective POV compositions like the “rolling camera” during a car crash halfway through On Dangerous Ground, its very title indicating the source of Ray’s critical appeal.
Considered in full, the body of Ray’s best work reveals a laudable consistency of viewpoint, thematic cohesion, and aesthetic distinctiveness. From first to last, Ray expresses a profound compassion for outcasts, outsiders, and marginal types—the conflicted and questing sort after whom Dostoyevsky titled one of his novels, The Insulted and Injured. Like Camus’s man in revolt, Ray’s characters often lash out unpredictably—yet, as Rivette suggests, these abrupt acts of violence always mask an attempt at communication. The film medium itself becomes the message—so that, even when (as in his ubiquitous Rebel Without a Cause) the manifest, didactic content of the work hits a trifle too on-the-nose (“You want to kill your father!”), the “pure cinema” of his framing, deployment of color and non-traditional editing style nonetheless conveys the yearning and soul-searching with aplomb. Like Thomas Wolfe’s George Webber, the archetypal Ray (anti)hero—and, one suspects, Ray himself—was always trying to go home again and discovering, often to his mortification, sometimes to his disgrace, that it simply isn’t there.
Raised in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Nicholas Ray was born in close proximity (five years and a hundred miles) to the other members of what I should like to call “The Unholy Three”: Joseph Losey and Orson Welles, writer-directors fated, like Ray, to run afoul of the Hollywood studio and/or American political system. In his early 20s (after serving an internship with architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose influence on Ray’s visual sensibility was to prove incalculable), Ray moved to New York and became involved in the Group Theatre, where he met director Elia Kazan and producer John Houseman. Throughout the 1930s and early ’40s, Ray would collaborate closely with Houseman, a partnership yielding one Broadway musical, several radio programs centered on folk music (drawing on the lifelong love of jazz, blues, and other indigenous styles Ray developed while traveling the American South with musicologist Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress), and an early TV adaptation of Sorry, Wrong Number. In 1944, Ray went to Hollywood, at the behest of Kazan, to observe the production process behind his first film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
II. They Live By Night (1949)
One of the most auspicious film debuts in Hollywood history (not for nothing is Welles’s Citizen Kane regularly invoked for purposes of comparison), They Live By Night was, upon completion, shelved for nearly two years while the smoke settled from Howard Hughes’s hostile takeover of RKO studios early in 1948. In subject matter, as well as details of character and setting, the film is as much a product of the Great Depression and New Deal social policies as its director. Based on Edward Anderson’s 1937 novel Thieves Like Us (later filmed under that title by Robert Altman), They Live By Night is, alongside Fritz Lang’s ferocious You Only Live Once, one of the prototypical “criminal lovers on the lam” films inspired by the saga of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, in much the same way that Ray’s film (refracted through the perverse prism of Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy) was a significant influence on Arthur Penn’s 1967 biopic.
Unexpectedly, They Live By Night opens with its own trailer—a two-shot of Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), nuzzling and frisky as two overeager puppies, while in fancy cursive a subtitle informs the audience: “This boy…and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in.” Ray deemed this self-reflexive introduction necessary to distinguish the film as a romance/tragedy, obviously patterned after Romeo & Juliet, from a myriad other gangster pictures and minor noirs. Within the space of 20 seconds, Ray lays out the major theme—doomed romance, an amour fou (beloved by the surrealists) mixing death and desire, played against the backdrop of social alienation.
Whereas Anderson’s novel glosses its title’s all-inclusive indictment of corruption and exploitation with reference to greedy bankers (“They’re just thieves like us!”), Ray’s film was forced, by the dictates of the Production Code, to rather more lightly limn a similar viewpoint; its chief representative is now the figure of Hawkins, owner of a pay-as-you-go wedding chapel (“Rings for rent or sale”), played by Ray regular Ian Wolfe. Hawker of honeymoons and stolen vehicles, Hawkins stands at the crossroads of Cupid and cupidity—or, as he puts it, “giving folks what they want…as long as they can pay for it.”
As Bowie and Keechie cross the street to Hawkins’s establishment, its garish neon sign beckoning throughout the previous scene where they discuss whether or not to tie the knot, traversing the same uncannily ominous RKO back-lot prowled a few years earlier by Val Lewton’s shadowy kind, the camera frames them from behind the neon sign, capturing them within its flickering letters. Ray shoots the long walk down the stone path to Hawkins’s front door from a high angle, trapping the would-be newlyweds against lugubrious swaths of shadow. Later, when Bowie returns to the chapel, looking for a feasible exit strategy, Hawkins refuses to help him, despite the large offering of money on the table between them. When your doom sets in upon you, not even piles of cold cash act as any comfort.
Allow two further examples of Ray’s characteristic “meaning through mise-en-scène” to suffice: When Bowie kicks Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) out of his jalopy after Chickamaw’s attempted assault, the audience watches his dwindling figure recede in the rearview mirror. Moments later, we hear of Chickamaw’s death during an attempted liquor store robbery. And later, as an uncertain Bowie and Keechie make their way in the lashing wind and rain, the two-shot positions Keechie in the foreground, her face by turns shadowed and tremulous in the wavering light, with the window spider-webbed by Chickamaw’s wayward blow (seen behind Bowie’s head) providing mute testimony to the world’s mindless aggression.
They Live By Night provides the first of several significant scenes in Ray’s films where an on-screen performer (usually an African-American chanteuse) croons a song, the lyrics clearly related to larger thematic concerns. In this case, Marie Bryant—who had appeared in Houseman and Ray’s sole attempt at a Broadway musical, Beggar’s Holiday, an updating of The Beggar’s Opera with music by Duke Ellington—performs “Your Red Wagon.” The title, according to Ray, was an idiomatic Southern expression meaning “It’s your problem,” as the dapper gangster who gets the drop on Bowie in the restroom will let him know, dismissing him as a “trigger-happy hillbilly.” Even criminal society, business-minded as much as conventional society, refuses to the shelter the outcast couple (a distant echo of Fritz Lang’s M). The song’s title also served as one of several working titles for the film, along with The Twisted Road and
Betrayed in the end by their own families, Bowie walks into a police ambush—anticipating the bullet-riddled finale of Penn’s film, though here the action takes place in the dead of night. The tension-ratcheting scene just before his demise, paced at a purposeful adagio, shows him crossing the deserted motel court, intercut with brief shots of cops hunkered down behind parked cars and various outbuildings. Having reached their very doorstep, the cops blast Bowie as he fumbles for his pistol. In the haunting final shot, Keechie watches helplessly from the doorway, as the police cars turn off their lights and darkness steadily swallows the screen.
III. In a Lonely Place (1950) and On Dangerous Ground (1952)
Next come the “prepositional noirs,” though—like They Live By Night—they’re really more hybrid assemblages than straightforward genre exercises. In a Lonely Place tosses noir, insider-Hollywood satire (in the same year as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard) and murder mystery tropes into the pop-cultural crucible, extracting one of the smartest, bleakest, and most adroitly nuanced depictions of a brittle relationship collapsing under the weight of its own internal contradictions this side of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage.
In a Lonely Place’s exemplary scene finds volatile screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) bringing home checkroom girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) in order to “tell him the story” of a lurid bestseller he’s just been hired to adapt for the screen. Every element in the mise-en-scène—every offhand line of dialogue, apparently unimportant bit of business (the girl’s constant mispronunciation of the novel’s title), disorienting shift in POV (a motivated shot seemingly from Bogart’s perspective turns out to be an “objective” setup as he saunters into the frame), and detail of set design (portentous wrought-iron gates, lending an aspect of confinement)—contributes to the sequence’s suggestiveness, so that Ray never has to tip his thematic hand. Discussion between Dix and Mildred about the pulpy “source material” doubles back on the process of the film’s construction (it’s another radically altered “adaptation” involving suspicions of foul play and utilizing voyeurism as a key plot point), but whereas we’ll never know what liberties Dix eventually took with Althea Bruce, we do know that, in the Dorothy Hughes’s novel, the protagonist is shown to be guilty from the outset and, equally as important, has nothing to do with the film industry. Ray and scriptwriter Edmund H. North hedge on Dix’s guilt or innocence, allowing audience suspicions to mount in tandem with alibi-turned-amour Laurel Gray’s (Gloria Grahame), delineating one of cinema’s most potent portraits of a man’s compulsion to destroy the thing he loves. Lending further amperage to the self-referential feedback loop: Ray and Grahame, to whom he was married at the time, quietly separated during filming. You can only imagine the tensions and hidden springs of inspiration at play while Bogart, Grahame, and Ray, putting their heads together at night on a closed set, hammered out one of the bitterest, most emotionally-hollowing endings in film history.
A study in contrasts, On Dangerous Ground modulates from the pitch-black mean streets of the Big City, expressive, as usual in noir, of post-war urban estrangement, to startlingly white mountain landscapes conveying another kind of desolation: solitude and its obverse loneliness. Alienated and unstable, detective Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan, in one of his finest roles) has reached his breaking point; the “garbage in, garbage out” nature of his work and persistent disparagement at the hands of the general public (a waitress laughs at the idea of dating a cop) have done a number on the man’s conscientiousness, shoving him over the line into outright zealotry. On the hunt for a gang of cop-killers, Wilson tracks one of the men to his grubby apartment. As he cowers like some cornered feral animal, Jim looms over him (Ray frames it so that Wilson’s eager fist assumes the shot’s focal point). Confrontation with this abject creature brings out the philosopher in Jim and he muses, “Why do you make me do it? You know you’re gonna talk! I’m gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk!” before savagely beating the man into submission. (Ray and noir regular A.I. Bezzerides slyly hint that the man, who engages in “rough stuff” with his moll girlfriend, might be getting a bit of a charge out of the thrashing himself.) Consequent allegations of excessive force banish Jim to the “Siberia” of snow-clad boondocks, on loan to assist a country sheriff (Ian Wolfe again) with the investigation into a young girl’s rape and murder, where he encounters Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), the blind sister of the prime suspect.
Having concocted the entire city-set first act out of whole cloth, Ray and Bezzerides now follow the source material (a British rural-procedural titled, after a line in one of John Donne’s Elegies, “Mad with Much Heart”) with more or less fidelity, excepting a significant change in the killer’s mindset and motivation. Severely retarded in the novel, the film’s Danny is a maladjusted “nature boy” (the Malden home is filled with his wood carvings, as well as a tree bole turned into a readymade sculpture that figures in several scenes), a tortured artist (like Dix Steele) who uses the same knife to carve his statuary and to commit murder. The anecdote Danny recounts, about two young girls who reject his fumbling attempts at friendship with laughter, strikes a chord with Jim, establishing Danny as a second self or secret sharer, in the same way that the single-minded father of the victim (Ward Bond), head of the local posse, determined to string up the killer, echoes Jim’s own avowedly violent nature.
The inevitable romance that develops between Jim and Mary, as often as it tips into the maudlin and platitudinous, maintains a tentative, even hesitant quality, rendered more palatable by the finely shaded performances from Ryan and Lupino. Jim’s eventual “salvation” (with much heart) after he turns his back on the Big City—signaled by a match-dissolve through Jim’s windshield between snow and shadow—proceeds quickly and without too much ado. Together with the frangible finale to Bigger Than Life, it stands as one of the most optimistic endings in Ray’s filmography. On the other hand, perhaps this is because it was shot several months later without Ray being present.
IV. The Lusty Men (1952) and Johnny Guitar (1954)
A matched pair of westerns followed, one a mournful modern-day ode to a vanishing way of life (a clear influence on Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner), the other a truly perverse “psychological western” or, the designation I prefer, “weird western.” The Lusty Men pits homeward-looking, aging rodeo star Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) against upstart wannabe Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy), positioning Wes’s wife Louise (Susan Hayward) as the upright angle in this acute triangle.
Continuing a trend glimpsed in In a Lonely Place, The Lusty Men juxtaposes patently false studio sets and process photography—even beyond, one feels, the usual exigencies necessitated by studio procedures—with a gritty verisimilitude derived from documentary-style location shooting at eminent rodeo events. The opening rodeo sequence succinctly establishes the mood: Jeff goes through the motions of his routine (a brief subjective shot from atop a bucking bronco is a stunner), never bothering to interact with the other contestants, before leaving the deserted, windswept, and paper-strewn ring through the livestock exit. Hitching a ride back to the old homestead, Jeff roots around under the porch, rifling through his childish things (a tobacco tin, a stripped-down pop gun). It’s never entirely clear what he’s after (access to some ineffable past moment when everything seemed clear and clean and easy), but at any rate it’s denied him when old-timer Jeremiah (Burt Mustin), who lives there now, barges in on Jeff’s jaunt down memory lane. Showing him around the dilapidated bungalow, Jeremiah remarks that for Jeff it must be like visiting a graveyard. For Wes and Louise, arriving on the scene soon after, the ramshackle ranch is a dream home, albeit one tantalizingly just beyond their fiscal reach.
Wes soon determines to learn the tricks of the trade under Jeff’s tutelage (Jeff trades on his experience for a percentage), figuring—over Louise’s levelheaded objections, naturally—that calf-roping, bronco-busting, and bull riding will earn him a “fat bankroll” sooner than more mundane work as a hired hand. The fast buck is, after all, the American Dream bound in a nutshell. Since he seems to possess natural aptitude, Wes’s success comes quick and easy—a little too, as the story goes. The attention goes to his head, he even attracts groupies, lasses eager to be lassoed and busted. The film literal-mindedly—not to mention raunchily—sets up an equivalence between horses and women. Fending off one of Wes’s female admirers, Louise quips, “Beat it, sister. He’s got a horse.”
Tensions come to a head at a wedding party. Ray articulates the relational geometry between the characters with a series of tracking shots that follow Jeff and Louise as they arrive on the scene, then Wes and lady friend Bev as they leave the bedroom together, tracing the vectors as they cross and re-cross the room; a floor-level shot of ladies’ legs, ice buckets, and discarded champagne bottles captures Booker (Arthur Hunnicutt) dividing his attention between these peregrinations and a folk singer strumming his guitar, singing a barely identifiable version of “Worried Blues.” (Bob Dylan later covered the song on his album Freewheelin’.)
“All you’ve been doing is dragging your foot in my stirrup,” Wes tells Jeff. But when Wes calls him yellow (think James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause responding to the “chicken” charge), Jeff knocks him cold. Jeff resolves to return to the rodeo, signing up for all the major events at the Pendleton Roundup. As he preps for the bull ride, Jeff and Wes have a moment of silent reconciliation—nothing more than a look and a swapped smile—shot in a brisk high-angle/low-angle interchange. Jeff’s foot gets caught in his stirrup—ironic, given Wes’s allegation—and the bull fatally tramples him. As Jeff lays dying among furled flags and saw-horsed saddles, Louise weeps over him: Though she elects to stand by her man, her capacity to love them both in equal measure is apparent, an understated touch mitigating the otherwise conventional posturing and routine double-entendre-laden exchanges between Jeff and Louise.
Despite its “heronymous” title, Johnny Guitar centers on saloon-owner Vienna (Joan Crawford), caught in the clash between the forces of social conformity—represented by resident cattle-baron McIvers (Ward Bond), who wants to snatch up Vienna’s land before the railroad comes through, and Emma Small (a fierce turn from Mercedes McCambridge), sister of the local banker killed in the film-opening stagecoach robbery—and the outlaw gang led by the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady). Conventional motivations, however, soon go out the window: McIvers morphs into a Joe McCarthy type, quick to resort to extra-legal means in his land-grab, while Emma would rather string the Kid up than admit her love for him. Into this maelstrom of repressed desire and lynch-mob mentality rides Johnny “Guitar” Logan (Sterling Hayden), gunslinger turned troubadour.
Johnny’s guitar-strumming sublimates an aberrant compulsion, a thin veneer of culture concealing a gun-craziness the film perversely links to a textbook-Freudian dialectic of sexual potency and emasculation. When Turkey (Ben Cooper) tries to prove his manhood to Vienna by shooting up her joint, Johnny responds by blasting the gun out of his hand. It’s clear, from Turkey’s abashed peeks at his dented firearm, that the insult is far more than instrumental.
Johnny Guitar’s dramatic tectonics may owe an outsized debt to Casablanca, but, as always with Ray, the devil’s in the details—first and foremost, the issue of a rather subversive gender swap. When star Crawford determined early on in the filming that she should play Vienna as though she were the male lead, Ray screenwriter Philip Yordan ran with the notion, dressing her in mannish garb and relegating the male leads to secondary, largely passive roles. Marking another first, the film climaxes with a shootout between two women, McCambridge and Crawford stalking each other around the Kid’s hilltop hideout until Vienna puts one in Emma’s brainpan and she tumbles down to the lynch mob’s feet.
Let’s not discount >Johnny Guitar’s formal and aesthetic distinctions either—the studied use of Republic Pictures’s patented Trucolor process, which renders the greens, reds, and oranges of the landscape in fitting painterly fashion. There’s also the blatant theatricality, traceable back to Ray’s time with the Group Theatre, down to costume changes cueing emotional states and even ethical relations. When the mob, on the hunt for the Kid and his bunch, barges in on Vienna, she’s tickling the ivories onstage, her flowing white hoop-skirt—the most feminine attire she ever wears—in stark contrast to their funereal black.
V. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Bigger Than Life (1956)
Fifty years of hoopla and hyperbole—owing, as much as anything, to star James Dean’s tragic death in a car crash four days before the film’s release—have encrusted and obfuscated Rebel Without a Cause’s uniqueness. You must have eyes to see it, lurking in the interstices between the youth movie—a genre it at once concretized, elaborating on a template established by the previous year’s Blackboard Jungle, and came to epitomize—and the “social problem” picture. It’s clearly on display in the geometrical precision with which Ray introduces the three main characters—Jim (James Dean), Judy (Natalie Wood), and Plato (Sal Mineo)—in the police station opener. Slight readjustments (modest pans, unobtrusive tracking shots) bind all three together within the broad CinemaScope frame. Ray came to prefer the CinemaScope format to the more confining Academy Ratio and quickly made it his own.
It’s also discernible in the scene that perfectly demarcates both the film’s formal daring and its thematic overindulgence: Coming home from the “chickie run,” Jim finds his old man (Jim Backus) asleep in front of the TV. Torn between the need to confide in someone and the desire to avoid causing a ruckus, Jim splits the difference on a bit of business with a milk bottle—revealing thought through action, a Ray specialty—and sprawls out on the couch. An upside-down subjective POV shot picks up his mother descending the stairs, then rights itself as Jim sits up to confront her. The ensuing imbroglio plays Method-y (“You gotta give me something!”), but the precise and off-kilter blocking and framing consistently undercut the too-explicit dialogue: on the staircase (also the scene of conflict in Johnny Guitar and Bigger Than Life), caught between mother taking the high ground and father down below (“You’re tearing me apart!”), Jim responds in typical Ray fashion with violence—dragging his father across the living room, starting to throttle him (shades of In a Lonely Place). Frustrated even in his Oedipal rage (the aforementioned “You want to kill your father!”), Jim exits stage right, but not before kicking in a frumpy framed portrait of his grandmother. The production history reveals that, after rehearsing and blocking the scene in his own living room before filming it, Ray had the art department copy the interior for the scene. Similarly, Ray patterned the exterior of the Patio Apartments, in the already-uncomfortably-personal In a Lonely Place, on his first L.A. residence.
Unjustly neglected, and often misunderstood as a cautionary “social problem” picture about the dangers of cortisone abuse, Bigger Than Life is a far rarer bird—a jet-black comedy-cum-demolition derby that uses its “message” as a Trojan horse to sneak a bewildering array of social-critical potshots at 1950s-era conformism and middle-class, middlebrow mentalities past its unsuspecting viewers, as well as gleefully taking a sledgehammer to nearly every cherished idol of Ozzie and Harriet complacency—PTA meetings, friendly neighborhood milkmen, and somnolent Sunday services all get it in the neck.
Schoolteacher Ed Avery (producer/star James Mason) works a second job as taxicab dispatcher so he can keep wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and son Richie (Christopher Olsen, soon to be seen as James Stewart’s kidnapped son in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much) in the style to which they’re accustomed. When he collapses from nervous exhaustion (clutching his doorbell, so that incessant buzzing serves as objective diegetic correlative to his discomfort and disease), he’s rushed to the hospital, diagnosed with an uncommon heart disease and prescribed the new “miracle drug” cortisone. Ray fills the medical test montage with garish swaths of red and black, after an almost Expressionist fashion, and groups the doctors in vaguely ominous twos and threes.
Abusing his medication unleashes a megalomaniacal sense of entitlement and superiority—its germs already evident prior to his breakdown, as in the scene where Ed scolds Richie for enjoying the dumb shows and noise of a TV western—long held in check by the self-professedly dull Ed Avery. This Janus-headed approach to the material allows Ray and his flotilla of screenwriters, among them playwright Clifford Odets and film critic-turned-novelist Gavin Lambert, to radically interrogate the very institution of the paterfamilias as well as use him for a mouthpiece in their devastating satirical attacks: An address to the PTA turns into a free-for-all when Ed informs the assembled parents that their children are on an intellectual par with chimpanzees, then goes on to outline a crypto-fascistic plan for educational reform. Holding a fabled high school football victory over his son Richie (the ball holds pride of place on the mantelpiece), he begins a harsh, incessant regimen of drill practices as a pretext to terrorize and berate the boy.
Bigger Than Life’s visual and thematic schema are also Janus-faced; hearkening back to the heyday of German Expressionism, it deploys portentous shadow-play and mirrored doublings to deepen its portrait of psychological disintegration, paving the way for the New Hollywood horror renaissance by locating the source of its horror—a father’s unabashed, uncontested desire to slaughter his own son—squarely within the nuclear family. The influence on Kubrick’s The Shining is inarguable.
Bigger Than Life boasts the ne plus ultra of staircase confrontations. Convinced of organized religion’s hypocrisy and negligence after taking a banality bath during the Sunday sermon, Ed realizes, as he puts it, he must “now take all that on too.” Striding down the stairs like some Old Testament prophet, Ed recites the story of Abraham and Isaac, leaving off where Abraham raises the knife to deliver the killing blow—holding aloft a pair of scissors he’s been using as a place-marker. When Lou urges him to continue, saying, “That’s not how the story ends, Ed! God stopped Abraham!” Ed proclaims, “God was wrong!” What other film—then or now—had the audacity, drug addiction or no, to call into question the reliability of the Big Guy Upstairs?
Turning on the baleful eye of the TV (the set shows an incongruous carnival scene, the raucous calliope music making do as soundtrack for the murderous attack to follow), Ed chases Richie upstairs, when something—a baffling wash of red across the frame—prevents him from striking. As he chases Richie back down the stairs, family friend Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau) arrives, and a violent struggle between the two men ensues, shattering the stairway banister. Because the stairs lead from the public-access downstairs where parties and get-togethers are held to the private, domestic space upstairs, they represent the tensions between these two spheres, and the banister’s rupture signals the absolute collapse of the family unit.
A perfunctory epilogue supplies the resolution, rendered tentative by stressing the fact that Ed’s recovery may well be provisional, the likelihood being that eventually he will relapse. (This major revision to the source material—wherein the teacher was simply prescribed a different medication—imposes a “No Exit” baseline existentialism on what otherwise might have become mere melodrama.) The road to Ed’s provisional recovery is free-associational; a dream about Lincoln (“I dreamed I walked with Abraham, he was as big and as ugly as in life”) segues into the memory of his attempted murder. The family unit comes together for a group hug, but it may only be a matter of time before madness descends upon them again.
VI. Bitter Victory (1957) and Savage Innocents (1960)
More or less finished with the Hollywood studio phase of his career (only the interfered-with The True Story of Jesse James and for-hire Party Girl remained), Ray moved to Europe, where his films were already attracting lavish critical praise, and two international co-productions followed. Both films—dominated by enormous vistas (shifting Saharan sands, barren Arctic tundra) captured in CinemaScope and, in the latter case, the even-more-expansive Super-Technirama 70 format—exemplify what Herman Melville called “the deadly space between” differing human natures, as well as between man and the indifferent, even hostile, natural world that surrounds him.
Ostensibly, Bitter Victory is a WWII film set, and partially filmed, in Libya, but instead starts off more like a chamber piece, another triangulated love affair, when Major Brand’s (Curd Jürgens) wife, Jane (Ruth Roman), turns up at Western Desert HQ on the eve of an important mission. When he introduces her to rival and second-in-command Captain Leith (Richard Burton), it soon becomes apparent they have a prior history. Before the war, Jane and Leith had been lovers until he abandoned her for archeological work in Libya: “You always seemed to prefer stones to people,” she says. Brand senses something between them, but opts to curry favor with his superiors, rather than confront his wife, providing Leith and Jane with the convenient opportunity for a farewell scene. She talks of love, he deflects the emotion into a pessimistic appraisal of the “futility” of history: “The Romans built beautiful cities in Libya: dead bones sticking out of the sand. War rolled over them. It’ll be good to see them again.” Already Leith’s death wish, a desire to return to the inorganic state, to be one with stone and mineral (as Freud would have it), rears its head.
The scene shifts to a virtuoso set piece—the nearly 10-minute, virtually silent commando raid on Benghazi—that allows Ray to flaunt his architectonic compositions and syncopated editing rhythms. Though the mission is a success, things begin to fall apart later that night, as the men make their way through the desert to the rendezvous point, when a convoy of Germans sneak-attack their encampment. The following day, Brand decides to leave Leith and the native guide, Mokrane, behind with wounded soldiers from both sides. With excruciating slowness, some of the men die, while Leith weighs his alternatives. (Burton is wonderfully expressive here, having to do nothing more than gaze dolefully into the desert wastes to register Leith’s internal warfare.) Deciding to put the men out of their misery, Leith levels his gun at a German officer, who pleads for his life, appealing for mercy by holding up a family picture. Leith fires anyway. The British infantryman, on the other hand, wants to die. Leith attempts carrying him to safety, over the man’s agonized protests. He doesn’t get very far before Mokrane stops him. The soldier is dead. “I killed the living,” Leith says with abashed irony, “and I saved the dead.” Human endeavor, it seems, may also be futile in the end.
Reunited with Brand and the rest of the men, the company must traverse the desert on foot. The low contrast photography blurs the line between sky and sand (compared to the earlier nighttime German raid), increasing the viewer’s impression of aimless wandering, an almost bibilical exodus mood, even perhaps a kind of sand-blindness. The animosity between Brand and Leith grows: Brand’s suspicions about Jane and Leith are confirmed, Leith needles Brand relentlessly about an act of cowardice committed during the Benghazi raid. Brand sees, but does nothing to prevent, a scorpion crawling up Leith’s leg. When he’s stung, Mokrane kills and disembowels a camel, so Leith can drink ammonia from its bladder—anticipating a similar moment in The Savage Innocents. But the ironic reversals aren’t quite over yet; directly following, a ghibli (sandstorm) blows up. Leith throws himself across Brand, saving his life, his dying words paraphrase Whitman, “I contradict myself! I always contradict myself!”
The apotheosis of a tendency within Ray’s work, taken to nearly Surrealist lengths, The Savage Innocents was filmed for the most part on soundstages in France and Britain, but with second-unit footage shot above the Arctic circle, and some principal photography involving the lead actors, haphazardly cut in—and the integration of these wildly disparate scenes from time to time skirts camp and on occasion imparts a certain Brechtian “alienation effect.” Also contributing to the mood, the fact that a young Peter O’Toole, in only his second film role, had his voice re-dubbed by the Italian producers. (An admitted fan of the film, Dylan wrote “Quinn the Eskimo [The Mighty Quinn]” to express his admiration.)
Inuk (Anthony Quinn) is indeed an “innocent” who spends practically the entire first hour cavorting and giggling with his Inuit kind; it’s no coincidence that the film suggests “to laugh” as the Eskimo circumlocution for carnal knowledge. Resembling not so much Flaherty’s Nanook of the North as Welles’s Touch of Evil in its racial politics (none of the actors are actual Eskimos, of course; at best the film settles for vaguely “Asiatic” types like Yoko Tani, playing Inuk’s wife Asiak), The Savage Innocents exudes sympathy for this band of outsiders. When the plot eventually does kick in, the narrative focuses on Inuk’s quixotic interactions with “civilization,” as represented by a trading post ruled over by a lone white trader and staffed by a gaggle of Americanized Inuit. The White Man is a prude (and, of course, a bigot), refusing to interact with any of the natives save his right-hand man. Ever the patriarch, the trader even pulls the plug on the natives’ innocent fun—doing the twist to a tune called “Iceberg” playing on an old-fashioned jukebox—and sends them all to bed.
Sensibly enough, Inuk and Asiak run away. But now civilization won’t leave them be. An unctuous missionary turns up at their igloo, looking to introduce them to his “friend” Jesus (they imagine he means a real person), and when Inuk offers to let him “laugh” with Asiak, the man starts crowing “It’s a sin!” until Inuk cracks his head against the ice-wall. The following spring, two troopers flying in to investigate wreck their seaplane. One drowns, while the other’s (O’Toole) hands are terribly frostbitten trying to save his partner. Inuk guts a sled dog, forces the trooper to shove his hands in. “It hurts!” the man cries. “Good,” Inuk replies. “Means life is coming back. Only death is painless.”
The scenes between Quinn and O’Toole are key to the film’s refreshingly non-paternalistic subtext. Rather than applaud the wondrous advantages of material culture (the jukebox scene sets the tone at wryly bemused) or, on the contrary, simple-mindedly idolizing the simplicity of the native Inuit, Ray navigates a middle ground based on mutual appreciation and reciprocity. Or, as Asiak puts it, bidding farewell to the recuperated trooper, “When you come to a strange land, you should bring your wives and not your laws.”
Following two epic catastrophes funded by notorious producer Samuel Bronston (King of Kings and 55 Days at Peking, during which Ray suffered a heart attack and was replaced), Ray’s filmmaking career was, for all intents and purposes, over and done with. On the scene in Paris during the May 1968 student uprisings, Ray eventually did go home again (briefly), shooting footage for two documentaries, one on the murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton, the other chronicling the 1969 anti-war protest march on Washington. From 1971-73, he taught filmmaking at Harpur College (SUNY Binghamton), overseeing production of an experimental split-screen work-in-progress, We Can’t Go Home Again, which had its provisional premiere at the 1973 Cannes film festival. From 1976 until his death in 1979, Ray and his third wife, Susan, occupied a loft in SoHo. He made cameo appearances in Wim Wenders’s The American Friend and Milos Forman’s Hair and, over the last few months of his life, collaborated again with Wenders on the documentary Lighting over Water (a.k.a. Nick’s Movie).
August marked the centenary of Nicholas Ray’s birth. The Venice Film Festival will be marking the anniversary by premiering a new documentary about Ray’s life and career, Don’t Expect Too Much, as well as a newly restored and re-edited version of We Can’t Go Home Again.