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, and 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.
total archiveable films: 11
top 100 films: 0
top 500 films: 3 (Johnny Guitar, In a Lonely Place, Rebel Without a Cause)
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.
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.
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
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.”
- Johnny Guitar
- In a Lonely Place
- Rebel Without a Cause
- They Live By Night
- Bigger Than Life
- The Lusty Men
- On Dangerous Ground
- Born to Be Bad
- Party Girl
- 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
[…] 77. Nicholas Ray […]
lol no the French Critics were absolutely right Ray in the 50s he went on the best runs in film history from 1050 to 1956 with classics like Johnny Guitar, In a Lonely Place, Bigger Than Life ( a film that is from from overrated like you’re saying), The Lusty Men, and Rebel Without a Cause. You’re seriously underrating him
@Randy White- thanks for sharing. Ray was on an incredible run during the stretch for sure. Not on the level of many during the same period (Ozu, Kurosawa, Ophuls) but still- a great run nonetheless
You know, when I watched Rebel Without a Cause in December, I was pretty awestruck by how great it was. I went into it not expecting much more than a James Dean vehicle (I didn’t really do much prereading on it which is actually pretty rare for me) but there was so much else that was excellent about the film. The performances by Natalie Wood and especially from Sal Mineo (who very much rivaled Dean himself I felt; he’s just utterly transcendent here) were very good, especially considering both were under 18 at the film’s release. And let’s not even get started on the cinematography and incredible direction from Nicholas Ray. I particularly like the shot of Jim and Buzz looking into the water from a high angle prior to the chickie run. This month I’ve viewed several works of the French New Wave and it’s pretty obvious why Godard spoke so highly of Ray from this film.
I do agree that it’s a MS and that without its flaws it could be a MP. I don’t think the screenwriting is completely perfect; it’s often quite good but there are elements that aren’t quite up to the level of the rest of the film like Judy falling for Jim immediately after the death of her boyfriend as the most glaring example. Of course all of it is directed so well that I don’t mind it so much especially considering the quality of the rest of the film.
Just found another flaw in TSPDT. Jean-Luc Godard is not listed as a member of the Nicholas Ray fan club, since Godard has never submitted a Nick Ray film as part of a list that is included in the TSPDT rankings. Obviously, “Godard is not a member of the Nick Ray fan club,” is just a factually incorrect statement. Wim Wenders too is excluded from the list. Sure, both are listed immediately above in the “see also” section, but the rationale for the fan club list should probably be changed or at least given a different name.
@Zane- haha nice catch- good point
My ranking of Ray`s films that I`ve seen:
1. Johnny Guitar MP
2. In a Lonely Place MS (very close to anything higher)
3. Rebel Without a Cause MS
4. Bigger Than Life HR
5. They Live by Night HR
6. The Lusty Men HR
5 Best Performances
1. Dean- Rebel Without a Cause
2. Bogart- In a Lonely Place
3. Crawford- Johnny Guitar
4. Mason- Bigger Than Life
5. Grahame- In a Lonely Place
@RujK- Love seeing these- thank you for sharing.