Bigger Than Cinema: Nicholas Ray

Was Nicholas Ray the perfect Hollywood genre director?

This was what came into my mind as I headed out from the screening of Johnny Guitar, a film playing in the Nicholas Ray retrospective at Film Forum. That movie, which is not in fact about “Johnny Guitar” is difficult to categorize because of the avalanche of contradictions it embodies. It is a western, with requisite elements of the frontier, the railroad and the returning, retired gunslinger. It is a deconstruction of the western presenting outlaws as posers and scapegoats, non-violence as admirable and a woman gunslinger, Vienna (the enthralling Joan Crawford) as more of a hardy character than any man in the film. It is also, by turns, a satire, a gaudily-colored “B-movie” and one of the most potent and articulate films about McCarthyism.

Sound impossible?

The “me” who was waiting in line to see it would have agreed with you. As for the “me” who came out, well, he was compelled to write this.

But it’s not just Johnny that defines Nick Ray’s career: he is in Scorsese’s massive compliment to him, the best of the “smugglers”, filmmakers like Sam Fuller and Fritz Lang who snuck messages and interesting aesthetic ideas into their films unbeknownst to the studio heads that employed them. A great example of this in Ray’s career was Bigger Than Life, a film independently produced by its star, the great James Mason, but later sold to a studio. In that movie, a schoolteacher and all-around virtuous man (Mason) enjoys a good son and a beautiful wife, but can’t make ends meet. He works odd-jobs in his off hours for more money for the family. But despite his apparent virtue and all-American work ethic, he is struck by a rare heart disease and, given a death sentence by his doctor, embarks on an experimental treatment. The treatment works and he survives, but strange things begin to happen. He starts noticing injustices in his life, he starts harkening back to the bible. He sees corruption and wrongness everywhere and complacency and idiocy in his schoolchildren, as well as his own son. At one point, his wife, who becomes the protagonist of the film as he degenerates, tries to avert him from his plans to sacrifice his son ala Isaac and Abraham, pointing out that God stopped Abraham, Mason utters the epic words of the movie: “God was wrong.”

There’s obviously something going on here beyond the wild mood-swings of experimental treatment. Bigger Than Life, made in 1956, is in many ways a scathing indictment of the false pretenses and complacency of 1950s America, an attack on the idea of the American Dream. But what is so brilliant is that unlike contemporary examiners of American malaise, like Lars Von Trier or Sam Mendes, Nick Ray makes his message oblique, giving his film a “happy” ending where the aforementioned filmmakers’ Dogville and Revolutionary Road respectively, make their criticisms all too obvious. By the end of Bigger Than Life, Mason’s character is “cured” and can go back to his wife, son and life. But while some viewers may see this as happy, for Nick Ray it is the ultimate subversion: suggesting that the return to complacent 50’s lifestyle is really a tragic defeat.

In those films and in his others, like the spectacular In A Lonely Place, Nicholas Ray proves himself the American version of acclaimed Japanese filmmaker and contemporary Kenji Mizoguchi. Like Mizoguchi, who also made genre films for studios, Nick Ray was an auteur before auteurs, a filmmaker that put his brand, his indelible mark of a quality on each of his films. Like Mizoguchi, he also gave women their due, as women are the strong-willed and independent protagonists of both Johnny Guitar and Bigger Than Life, as well as In a Lonely Place, showing a sensibility transcending the times. But even to compare Nicholas Ray to Kenji Mizoguchi, a master of cinema, is misleading: he is his own beast, an auteur in his own right and style.

Was Nicholas Ray the perfect director of Hollywood genre films? Perhaps that’s not even a question anyone can answer.

A simpler question might be: should you see his movies?

The answer: a resounding yes.

The Nicholas Ray Retrospective at the Film Forum continues through August 6th.

Nicholas Feitel also writes for his own blog, Feitelogram.

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2 Comments on “Bigger Than Cinema: Nicholas Ray”

  1. kazu Says:

    Since seeing THEY LIVE BY NIGHT about a year ago I have not been able to get enough of Nicholas Ray. I like the bold comparison you make between Mizoguchi and Ray — certainly not an obvious pairing, but I do see an overlap in terms of a sophisticated sensibility, and perhaps an edge of darkness.

  2. Chadd Says:

    I’m definitely gonna go see The Lusty Men and Party Girl.

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