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The Mystic: The Films of Nicholas Ray

The Mystic: The Films of Nicholas Ray

One thing is certain, time and space play no role at all in the construction of a film, the cinema is unaware of them; a scene can carry you into another world, another age. One simply tries to capture, in flight, moments of truth…

—Nicholas Ray

Leafing through the collected writings of the Cahiers du Cinéma focusing on reviews from the 1950s, it’s interesting to note that an entire section is solely devoted to director Nicholas Ray; there is a subsequent chapter focusing on “Auteurs,” a label that has been consistently applied to Ray, yet the anthology’s editor singles out Ray. For those familiar with the French New Wave, whether through the Cahiers or the ensuing films (or both), it’s inevitable that the name Nicholas Ray will be mentioned in both mediums, and more than once. Jean-Luc Godard famously commented in a review of Ray’s Hot Blood:

If the cinema no longer existed, Nicholas Ray alone gives the impression of being capable of reinventing it, and what is more, of wanting to.

Godard would later name-drop Ray films like famous friends in his work—inevitably a Ray film is playing somewhere in a Godard landscape, whether it is Contempt or Pierrot le Fou, and the characters are without a doubt praising it. Godard wasn’t alone in his fervor, as he and his contemporaries – Truffaut, Rivette, Chabrol, and Rohmer – were unanimous in their praise for Ray. This admiration for Ray would spread to the United States years later; certainly Martin Scorsese has been one of his greatest champions, as well as Jim Jarmusch, who was fortunate enough to study and work with Ray while he was teaching at New York University in the 1970s.

Nicholas Raymond Kienzle (1911-79) was born in a small town in Wisconsin, and originally pursued work in radio. Ray’s talent was rewarded with a scholarship at the age of sixteen to the university of his choice; although he chose the University of Chicago, he eventually became involved in architecture with Frank Lloyd Wright. In a 1958 interview with Charles Bitsch from Cahiers, Ray explained his decision to study with Wright:

Architecture is the backbone of the arts, you know: if it is real architecture it encompasses every domain. The simple word ‘architecture’ can just as well apply to a play, a score of music, or a way of life.

Watching Ray’s films, particularly those in CinemaScope, it’s clear that Ray put Wright’s philosophical outlook on design into practice with filmmaking. The geometrically minded sets and the camera’s sense of space and framing, are all enormously important not merely for CinemaScope, but Ray’s dynamic mise en scene as a whole. Wright’s ability to weave his natural surroundings into his buildings (anyone who’s visited Wright’s home and studio in Oak Park, IL may recall the way Wright built the house around the trees on the property, allowing them to grow through the structure) might have inspired Ray as well, as the director depicts an uncanny talent at making us notice the entirety of a frame—not merely the players within it, but also how they function against and with their surroundings.

After finishing his studies with Wright, Ray moved to New York City and became involved in left-wing theater, joining the Theater of Action, then under the direction of Elia Kazan. Kazan would eventually hire Ray as an assistant for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, leading Ray to move to Hollywood to continue work in film industry. Shortly after, Ray directed his debut, They Live By Night at RKO Studios, produced by John Houseman. Ray’s relationship with Hollywood would be a fickle one; he left RKO in 1953 to work as a free agent, backed by Lew Wasserman, Ray worked steadily for a decade, until a heart attack forced him to quit the production of 55 Days at Peking, ending his career with the studios. Surviving his heart attack but remaining in ill health for the rest of his life, Ray found himself back in New York, where he lived until his death in 1979. Despite success with several films, including the enormously popular Rebel Without a Cause, and a reputation as one of America’s foremost auteurs, Ray’s work is currently difficult to locate on VHS or DVD, at least in the United States. A number of the films reviewed in this feature were taped off television or accessible only through PAL copies, evidence that Ray has a stalwart fan base that remains largely European.

Reportedly, actor Robert Mitchum (star of The Lusty Men) referred to Nicholas Ray as “The Mystic;” in terms of a director seeking a sort of spiritual, or at least, emotional truth, Ray did employ enigmatic and uncommon practices, procuring subtle meaning through an operatic filmmaking style. The clash of opposing themes in a Ray film – violence and tenderness, alienation and intimacy – produces characters on the outskirts of conventional society who are sensitive to the touch, and often ready to burst. While Ray’s skewed outsider’s perspective now feels lucid, but the raw vulnerability of his characters, and meandering, often maddening plotlines proved too much for many American viewers during Ray’s lifetime, not yet ready to accept Ray’s subversive takes on events and mindsets of the era (McCarthyism and the Nuclear family top the list). An eventual recluse, who referred to himself as a “stranger,” Nicholas Ray’s films still exude a connection with audiences, and remain some of the most startling films in contemporary cinema.

Our reviews of Nicholas Ray’s films will begin on Monday, August 18th.

Introduction by Jenny Jediny


Films
1948 – 1980


They Live By Night 1948
Knock on Any Door 1949
A Woman’s Secret 1949
In A Lonely Place 1950
Born to Be Bad 1950
On Dangerous Ground 1952
Macao 1952
The Lusty Men 1952
Johnny Guitar 1954
High Green Wall 1954
Rebel Without a Cause 1955
Hot Blood 1956
Bigger Than Life 1956
Bitter Victory 1957
The True Story of Jesse James 1957
Party Girl 1958
King of Kings 1961
55 Days at Peking 1963
The Janitor 1974
Lightning Over Water 1980

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