Nicholas Ray. “The cinema is Nicholas Ray” is Godard’s famous, fabulously superior statement. It has been met with a good deal of ridicule over the years, for good reason. He’s not one of the best directors of all-time like the Cashiers’ critics thought but there’s no doubt he was overlooked and underappreciated in Hollywood (as they claimed). Many of Ray’s films are really uneven but they are almost all directed with great vitality and have loud imagery. His strengths are the 3 films in the top 500 of all-time—and They Live By Night (an incredible debut) isn’t far off my top 500 list to make it 4.

Best film:  Johnny Guitar. This is like no western you’ve ever seen. It’s a gender bending (the two gangs are led by Mercedes McCambridge and Joan Crawford in bedazzled western fringy outfits). It’s a little campy, a lot gorgeous, and a masterpiece.

jaw-dropping imagery, costume design, character blocking, symmetry– in Johnny Guitar
shadow work lighting, stylized costume making up a loud mise-en-scene here in Johnny Guitar

total archiveable films: 11

top 100 films: 0

top 500 films: 3 (Johnny Guitar, In a Lonely Place, Rebel Without a Cause)

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In a Lonely Place– one of Ray’s best films, and one of Bogart’s best performances

top 100 films of the decade: 4 (Johnny Guitar, In a Lonely Place, Rebel Without a Cause, They Live By Night)

most overrated:  Bigger than Life is #546 all-time on TSPDT. That’s a couple hundred spots too high for me.

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the mirror motif in Bigger than Life

most underrated:  Rebel Without a Cause is underrated by the TSPDT consensus at this point (they have it at #534—I have it at #464) though we’re not far off.

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a flood of color here in Rebel Without a Cause
Perhaps Ray’s greatest shot– blue day for night lighting bouncing off of Dean’s face and vibrant red jacket

gem I want to spotlight:    They Live By Night

  • It is a key film in the history of film noir
  • Also well-known and often cited as one of the best film debuts of all-time
  • Begins Ray’s exploration and medication on youth (specifically troubled youth) that he would revisit throughout his oeuvre- most notably in rebel without a cause­– there are countless comparisons between these two films including these two young lovers playing house and trying to be happy normally just like the Natalie Wood and James Dean character (with Sal Mineo as their faux-child)
  • Very busy mise-en-scene- repeatedly shows these characters trapped and behind bars- it’s really well done
  • All 4 leads are superb- granger, cathy o’donnell, howard da silva, an djay flippen all do their best work here
  • The young couple on the run of course makes you think of many films in cinema history from recent American honey to bonnie and clyde
  • The first shot is a helicopter shot- that’s how you announce yourself as an auteur- it had to blow people’s mind in 1948 when they saw the shot. Ray would go back to that same shot at least 3 times- great film form here
  • Devastating ending with o’donnell- back of her head walking away reading his letter
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one of cinema’s great debuts- and Ray announces himself as a major talent with a helicopter tracking shot to start
more mirror work- here in his debut- They Live By Night

stylistic innovations/traits:    There are multiple things I think of when I think of the cinema of Nicholas Ray. His narratives often had to do with troubled youth (They Live By Night, Rebel, Party Girl). I also think of the blue lighting he used for night scenes (Truffaut, a Ray devotee, named one of his better films Day For Night after Ray and this stylistic touch). I also think of the use of the color in costume design (his crazy very un-western yellows in Johnny Guitar, the red lipstick and jacket in Rebel Without a Cause). I also think of cinemascope when I think of Ray before just about any other director. Although I don’t adore his overall filmography I like his imagery and his own ethos (sounds similar to like Ridley Scott and others I admire) puts it into context: “In the theatre, words are eighty to eighty-five percent of the importance of what is happening to you for your comprehension. In film, words are about twenty percent. It’s a different figure, but it’s almost an opposite ratio. For the words are only a little bit of embroidery, a little bit of lacework.”

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reoccurring prison/bar visual motif with his outlaw and outsider protagonists– here in On Dangerous Ground
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here in They Live By Night

top 10

  1. Johnny Guitar
  2. In a Lonely Place
  3. Rebel Without a Cause
  4. They Live By Night
  5. Bigger Than Life
  6. The Lusty Men
  7. On Dangerous Ground
  8. Born to Be Bad
  9. Party Girl
  10. 55 Days at Peking

By year and grades

1948- They Live By Night HR/MS
1950- Born to Be Bad R
1950- In a Lonely Place MS
1951- On Dangerous Ground R
1952- The Lusty Men R/HR
1954- Johnny Guitar MP
1955- Rebel Without a Cause MS
1955- Run For Cover
1956- Bigger Than Life HR
1958- Party Girl R
1963- 55 Days at Peking R

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives