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.
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Like Ryan in Born
and the essential On Dangerous Ground
(and like all Ray's best male leads, really), Robert Mitchum can move disarmingly in The Lusty Men
between a magnetic-seductive savoir-faire and pools of uncertainty. After a bold and terrific scene of bereft homecoming (to his old family farm, repossessed), rodeo vet McCloud (Mitchum) is idolized by a married bull-rider aspirant (Arthur Kennedy). Ray pours on the subcultural detail of nervewracking bucking-bronco footage; the bandstand music is so relentless as to be macabre. Professional and personal, there's a love triangle with his protégé's hardscrabble wife (Mitchum: "Anytime your plumbing don't work, just call McCloud"), with Ray delicately shading in McCloud's unspoken (and self-denied?) long game of knowing his friend might not survive. There are no illusions about where the lives of Ray's heroes can lead: voices of experience come from ragged bachelors contentedly fooling themselves and jarringly hard-bitten old women.
Ray compared the use of primary color on screen to close-ups, and by that measure, the amazing Johnny Guitar
is shot from a few inches away. Joan Crawford presides as proprietress of an empty casino that looks hewn into a cliff; old flame Sterling Hayden (Mr. Guitar himself) arrives, and the Dancin' Kid and his thieving gang (featuring Ernest Borgnine) hang around and model bolo scarves. Though sometimes treated as a cult oddity, JG
is frankly arresting in its sense of drama. The masculine rivalry turns out to be between Crawford and rival Emma (Mercedes McCambridge, a green Fury), who goads the sheriff's posse that's dressed in funereal black-and-whites the entire film. Crawford's commanding, wounded voice, whether heard or unheard, pierces through every scene, is on everyone's mind, is still on my mind. The one time she wears a dress, it bursts into flames. So she puts on pants again. Gypsy (Roma?) romance Hot Blood
, with Jane Russell, is worth it mainly for the bizarre spilt-paint-buckets palette rooted in orange. Its bigga-family donnybrooks and on-again-off-again courtship flirt with the formulas of a musical, which allows two highlights: a bang-on-a-can dance-off and a bullwhip-equipped wedding dance number that's a very public seduction.
The inspiration for Film Forum's gnomic Godard tagline, Bitter Victory
is aptly titled, starring Richard Burton condemned to a desert mission with the contemptibly pencil-pusher-risen superior who married his old love. Shot in black-and-white 'Scope on Libyan dunes, it's akin to the same year's Paths of Glory
in its remorselessness about institutional cowardice, but personalized through Burton's Captain Leith — beyond cynical, brave, yet on the edge of brittleness. (Unlike Paths
, it's set in the more recent Allied North African campaign of World War II.) Anchoring an entire weekend in the series like one of its own Scope architectural monuments is Ray's brand-name movie, Rebel without a Cause
, though Jimmy Dean's Method leanings and aphasia drive me into James Mason's cortisone-addled arms in Rebel
-for-Dad must-see Bigger Than Life
. (If you've already seen Rebel
, Knock on Any Door
is a jagged precursor curio in kid-gangster clothes, with Bogie conjuring drama out of line readings alone, as an ex-hood lawyer called to defend a frenzied-desperate pretty-boy hood who can't quite make good.)
Film Forum's series is just shy of go-any-day reliability (A Woman's Secret
and even Party Girl
each feel bogged down by era-specific woodenness of male leads and scenario). But if you've ever been looking for something you thought you'd lost, the searches in Ray's work are essential viewing.