At Film Forum
through August 6
Nicholas Ray made movies that understand why a lot of us stare up at screens so we can walk out in a daze afterwards: to feel the space, the love or torment or something else, between two people — whether the sloe-eyed innocent lovers on the lam in They Live By Night
, the rage-filled city cop and marooned blind woman of On Dangerous Ground
, Joan Crawford and anyone under her gaze in Johnny Guitar
, or even Richard Burton's volunteer soldier and "professional coward" superior in Bitter Victory
Film Forum's series draws on a ten-year span of Nick Ray's films (1948-1958) before his exit from Hollywood, an exile that was a collaboration between his own Romantic demons and studio incursions (or, as early associate John Houseman put it, between getting screwed and anticipating the screwing far too much). Born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle Jr. in Galesville, Wisconsin, he worked on Depression-era theater projects in New York where he met Elia Kazan and future collaborators, followed by stints organizing community productions and producing a folk music program with Alan Lomax, all before his long-shelved 1949 screen debut for RKO.
Featuring thieves on the run and a goo-goo-eyed island-of-us romance to do Borzage proud, They Live By Night
lays down qualities that distinguish the absorbing experience of many Ray films. To a certain extent that means a winning combination of established hooks (someone trying to get out of a racket or fatal calling or violent urges) and Ray's singular devotion to struggle in all its relatable, all-encompassing depths. "Only as neurotic as the audience," he said in an interview — and his vulnerable openness about fear and desire feels true and, boldly, isn't even always so sexy. They Live
pairs dewily lit young lovers Farley Granger and bone-weary-looking Cathy O'Donnell, and the brisk swing of the film's robbers-in-hiding opening is cast adrift in a more pensive, heartbreakingly tragic second act — a characteristic movement for Ray. The film's "thieves-like-us" refrain, that everyone's on the make, doesn't mean that we're all corrupt, but that we're all human; the first time I saw it, I thought Granger's innocent, named Bowie, was called simply Boy.
Apparently underrated by Ray himself, Born to be Bad
, which Film Forum presents in a restored print, applies a similar rhythm to a very different landscape. Underminer ingénue Joan Fontaine pries apart a San Francisco millionaire and his insecure fiancée, but falls for their friend, a brash writer (Robert Ryan). Ryan speaks cut-to-them-kissing one-liners; like the gay painter-for-hire gadfly played by Mel Ferrer, he lays bare the circle's defensively expressed self-interest, yet also gets burned. Fontaine's choice between money and sex is stark (Ryan says in so many words that she'll think of him when sleeping with her husband), and it's the most appealing part of a film that spotlights lingering schadenfreude reaction shots and sports a score that disorientingly sympathizes with Fontaine's gold-digger. Imperfect but entertaining, the film helps illustrate some less-trumpeted but key Ray moves: his fresh pre-Scope depth-of-field compositions, often straddling doorways, and — as almost parodied by Ryan's novelist — his feel for dialogue that is as expressive and instantaneous in effect and impact as a single striking image.