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Quotes from the TSPDT profile page for Nicholas Ray:

“Few other directors had such a sense of the effect of locations and interiors on people’s lives, or the visual or emotional relationship between indoors and outdoors, upstairs and downstairs…There is not a director who films or frames interior shots with Ray’s dynamic, fraught grace and who thereby so explodes the rigid limits of “script” material. No one made CinemaScope so glorious a shape as Ray, because it seemed to set an extra challenge to his interior sensibility.” – David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)

“A huge cult has grown around this American director in recent years, bigger than almost any film-maker, and certainly one of Ray’s uneven output, could warrant. His best films are clustered in his initial RKO Radio period – apart from Rebel Without a Cause, his only truly first-rate film outside that studio. Observers have professed to find various wonders in such later Ray films as Hot Blood, The True Story of Jesse James, Bitter Victory and others. I can only confess that their virtues escaped me at the time and, on a re-viewing, still do.” – David Quinlan (Quinlan’s Film Directors, 1999)

“One of the finest directors of the ’50s, Nicholas Ray transcended the limitations of genre to create movies of a highly personal nature. Imbued with an intense, romantic pessimism and photographed with a rare feel for the emotional resonance of colour and space. Ray’s films are distinguished by a passionate identification with society’s outsiders, his sympathies possibly arising from his own troubled relationship with the film-making establishment.” – Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)

“Those who form their own moral laws, whatever the consequences, people the films of Nicholas Ray. His tendency to cut his images on character movement makes his work extremely fluid.” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)

“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.” – Nicholas Ray (Directing the Film, 1976)

“My affection for CinemaScope initially was my affection for the horizontal line as I learned it from having been apprenticed to an architect who was someone named Frank Lloyd Wright.” – Nicholas Ray (Directing the Film, 1976)

Nicholas Ray has been the cause celebre of the auteur theory for such a long time that his critics, pro and con, have lost all sense of proportion about his career. Nicholas Ray is not the greatest director who ever lived; nor is he a Hollywood hack. The Truth lies somewhere in between. It must be remembered that They Live by Night, The Lusty Men, Rebel Without a Cause, and Bigger Than Life are socially conscious films by any standards, and that Knock on Any Door is particularly bad social consciousness on the Kramer-Cayatte level. His form is not that impeccable, and his content has generally involved considerable social issues. Ray has always displayed an exciting visual style. For example, if one compares They Live by Night with Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle – and these two films are strikingly similar in mood, theme and plot – one will notice that where Ray tends to cut between physical movements, Huston tends to cut between static compositions. Ray’s style tends to be more kinetic, Huston’s more plastic, the difference between dance and sculpture. If Ray’s nervous direction has no thematic meaning, he would be a minor director indeed. Fortunately, Ray does have a theme, and a very important one; namely, that every relationship establishes its own moral code and that there is no such thing as abstract morality. This much was made clear in Rebel Without a Cause when James Dean and his fellow adolescents leaned back in their seats at the planetarium and passively accepted the proposition that the universe was drifting without any frame of reference. Even thought Ray’s career has been plagued by many frustrations, none of his films lack some burst of inspiration. Johnny Guitar was his most bizarre film, and probably his most personal. Certainly, we can sympathize with Everson and Fenin trying to relate this “Western” to the William S. Hart tradition, and finding Ray lacking; but this is the fallacy of writing about genres. Johnny Guitar has invented its own genre. Philip Yordan set out to attack McCarthyism, but Ray was too delirious to pay any heed as Freuidan feminism prevailed over Marxist masochism, and Pirandello transcended polemics.

- Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema. Pages 107-108

“The cinema is Nicholas Ray.” Godard’s magisterial statement has come in for a good deal of ridicule, not by any means entirely undeserved. Yet it contains a core of truth, especially if taken in reverse. Nicholas Ray is cinema in the sense that his films work entirely (and perhaps only) as movies, arrangements of space and movement charged with dramatic tension. Few directors demonstrate more clearly that a film is something beyond the sum of its parts. Consider only the more literary components—dialogue, plot, characterisation—and a film like Party Girl is patently trash. But on the screen the visual turbulence of Ray’s shooting style, the fractured intensity of his editing, fuse the elements into a valid emotional whole. The flaws are still apparent, but have become incidental.

Nor is Ray’s cinematic style in any way extraneous, imposed upon his subjects. The nervous tension within the frame also informs his characters, vulnerable violent outsiders at odds with society and with themselves. The typical Ray hero is a loner, at once contemptuous of the complacent normal world and tormented with a longing to be reaccepted into it—to become (like Bowie and Keechie, the young lovers ofThey Live by Night) “like real people.” James Dean in Rebel without a Cause, Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground, Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men, all start by rejecting the constraints of the nuclear family, only to find themselves impelled to recreate it in substitute form, as though trying to fill an unacknowledged void. In one achingly elegiac scene in The Lusty Men, Mitchum prowls around the tumbledown shack that was his childhood home, “looking for something I thought I’d lost.”

Ray’s grounding in architecture (he studied at Taliesin with Frank Lloyd Wright) reveals itself in an exceptionally acute sense of space, often deployed as an extension of states of mind. In his films the geometry of locations, and especially interiors, serves as a psychological terrain. Conflict can be played out, and tension expressed, in terms of spatial areas (upstairs and downstairs, for example, or the courtyards and levels of an apartment complex) pitted against each other. Ray also credited Wright with instilling in him “a love of the horizontal line”—and hence of the CinemaScope screen, for which he felt intuitive affinity. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who found it awkward and inhibiting, Ray avidly explores the format’s potential, sometimes combining it with lateral tracking shots to convey lyrical movement, at other times angling his camera to create urgent diagonals, suggesting characters straining against the constrictions of the frame.

Equally idiosyncratic is Ray’s expressionist use of colour, taken at times to heights of delirium that risk toppling into the ridiculous. In Johnny Guitar, perhaps the most flamboyantly baroque Western ever made, Joan Crawford is colour-coded red, white, or black according to which aspect of her character—whore, victim, or gunslinger—is uppermost in a given scene. Similarly, the contrast in Bigger than Lifebetween the hero’s respectable job as a schoolteacher and his déclassé moonlighting for a taxi firm is signalled by an abrupt cut from the muted grey-browns of the school to a screenful of gaudy yellow cabs that hit the audience’s eyes with a visual slap.

“I’m a stranger here myself.” Ray often quoted Sterling Hayden’s line from Johnny Guitar as his personal motto. His career, as he himself was well aware, disconcertingly mirrored the fate of his own riven, alienated heroes. Unappreciated (or so he felt) in America, and increasingly irked by the constraints of the studio system, he nonetheless produced all his best work there. In Europe, where he was hailed as one of the world’s greatest directors, his craft deserted him: after two ill-starred epics, the last sixteen years of his life trickled away in a mess of incoherent footage and abortive projects. Victim of his own legend, Ray finally took self-identification with his protagonists to its ultimate tortured conclusion—collaborating, in Lightning over Water, in the filming of his own disintegration and death.

Philip Kemp, Film Reference.com

That Nicholas Ray’s professional name was derived from an inversion of his first two surnames sounds fitting for a filmmaking career that proceeded backwards by conventional standards, beginning in relative conformity and ending in rebellious independence. Like Jacques Tati and Samuel Fuller, Ray did a lot of living before he ever got around to filmmaking-pursuing a life largely rooted in the radical dreams and activities of the Depression years, which we mainly know about thanks to Bernard Eisenschitz’s extensive and invaluable biography, one of the best-researched factual accounts we have of any director’s career. In a sense, the celebrations of alternative lifestyles (such as those of rodeo people in The Lusty Men [1952], Gypsies in Hot Blood [1956], and Eskimos in The Savage Innocents [1960]), and passionately symmetrical relationships (such as the evenly balanced romantic couples of In a Lonely Place [1950] and Johnny Guitar [1954] and the evenly matched male antagonists of Wind Across the Everglades [1958] and Bitter Victory [1957]), and a sense of tragedy underlining their loss or betrayal, can largely be traced back to his political and populist roots. A creature of both the ’30s and ’60s, he was ahead of his time during both decades.

In a Lonely Place
In a Lonely Place

Yet the signs of Ray’s personal stamp weren’t merely stylistic but also occult gestures of a particular kind: alluding to the direct references to Ray’s personality, his first Hollywood apartment, and his recently busted-up marriage to Gloria Grahame in In a Lonely Place, American film critic Dave Kehr once noted in a capsule review that “The film’s subject is the attractiveness of instability, and Ray’s self-examination is both narcissistic and sharply critical, in fascinating combination.” (1) (The same sort of deadly romantic mix, which led some French enthusiasts to link him to Rimbaud, was noted more critically by Jean-Marie Straub when he once observed that Ray, in contrast to the relative clarity and lack of sentimentality in a Hawks or a Buñuel, “is always fascinated by violence, and so, at a certain moment, he slips on the side of the police.”) (2)Furthermore, a passionate desire to place his mark on the work can even be felt in Ray appearing in the final shot of Rebel Without a Cause, walking towards the planetarium-not the sort of detail needed by the plot, the theme, or the mise en scène, but something closer to a naked paw print perhaps, a gesture of possessiveness and exhibitionism that paradoxically thrives on an innate sense of privacy.

Yet the strength of his first dozen or so years as a filmmaker remains unshakable: 18 features, most of which could plausibly be called masterpieces of one kind or another. (At the very least, They Live By NightIn a Lonely PlaceOn Dangerous GroundThe Lusty MenJohnny GuitarRebel Without a CauseBigger Than LifeBitter VictoryWind Across the EvergladesParty Girl, and The Savage Innocents-and potent stretches in most of the others, including even King of Kings [1961].) Robin Wood once noted that no one ever gives a bad performance in a Ray film, not even Anthony Quinn, and on balance the statement is far less hyperbolic than it sounds. It’s hard to think of another Western with as many vivid and singular characters as Johnny Guitar, or two wooden actors used more creatively and movingly than Robert Taylor and Cyd Charisse in Party Girl. Maybe that’s because even within a vision as fundamentally bleak and futile as Ray’s, a clear view of paradise is never entirely out of mind or even definitively out of reach. This is the utopian promise of the ’30s and the ’60s that his work keeps alive, and it remains a precious legacy.

- Jonathan RosenbaumSenses of Cinema

There was a time when film enthusiasts fought fiercely over Nicholas Ray and what he stood for. He was a test case, and rose to the challenge in his special way. He had an intensely brooding but romantic view of himself and of his inevitable “outsider” status. He was as tall and handsome as a western hero, and spoke slowly – so slowly that you could believe he had forgotten you and the conversation – as if to indicate the desperate burden of sincerity or determining what he believed. Women and men were drawn to him by the same gravitational pull; it had something to do with the demons that never left him.

For years, he was idolised by the young French writers who would become the directors of the New Wave. François Truffaut once noted: “There are no Ray films that do not have a scene at the close of day; he is the poet of nightfall, and of course everything is permitted in Hollywood except poetry.” Contrasting Ray and Howard Hawks, he added: “But anyone who rejects either should never go to the movies again, never see any more films. Such people will never recognise inspiration, poetic intuition, or a framed picture, a shot, an idea, a good film, or even cinema itself.” Jean-Luc Godard offered another sweeping panegyric: “There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.”

He was not a rapid developer, unlike Welles, say, who was four years his junior and also from Wisconsin. Ray met a young writer, Jean Evans. They lived together for several years and married in 1936. But Ray was not faithful and not simply heterosexual. Houseman had discerned how confused he could be: “Reared in Wisconsin in a household dominated by women, he was a potential homosexual with a deep, passionate and constant need for female love in his life. This made him attractive to women, for whom the chance to save him from his own self-destructive habits proved an irresistible attraction of which Nick took full advantage and for which he rarely forgave them. He left a trail of damaged lives behind him – not as a seducer, but as a husband, lover and father.”

There is a biography of Ray, by Bernard Eisenschitz (published in Britain by Faber). It is useful and devoted, if far from complete. Like many admirers who tended Ray in the hope that he might recover and work again, Eisenschitz glosses over the bisexuality and quite ruinous personal indulgences. Ray had the looks, talent and friends that might have made a great career. There was a great film-maker inside him, yet he relentlessly hacked away at his support and supporters. Was it self-loathing, a warped self-pity? Was it a defence, or was it that deeply fatalistic vision that is expressed by Richard Burton in Bitter Victory: “I kill the living and save the dead”?

- David Thomson, The Guardian

Poor Nick Ray. No artist should be asked to weather such unmitigated awe. The French were right to honor the convulsive strangeness of “Johnny Guitar” (1954), the tale of a saloonkeeper (Joan Crawford) fighting, with the aid of an old flame (Sterling Hayden), to survive a lynch mob. Only foreign eyes, perhaps, could widen with suitable amazement, and without a tremolo of sniggers, at the movie’s lunging gestures and superheated tones. When our heroine is advised to change out of her milk-white dress to evade pursuit, she sensibly slips into a shirt of blinding red, suggesting that she has also found time to don a radioactive bra. What Godard and his colleagues could not register—and what, as moralists of the pure image, they would dismiss as irrelevant—were the qualities that an American audience would bring to bear. Good sense, the narrative urge, a limited patience for the warped and the whimsical: all would be tested by a film like “Johnny Guitar,” which seems about as clued in to actual cowboys as Puccini’s “The Girl of the Golden West.” The movie is majestic, but, like the face of Joan Crawford, which could have been chipped from the buttress of a Gothic cathedral, it is howlingly close to mad.

Ray’s movies, which deal with everything from dancing Gypsies to a middle-class cortisone addict, teem with solitude; one staggers out of them with the dizzying suspicion that men and women are like planets and moons, each following a predestined curve, repeatedly tugged or slung away by the gravity of other bodies.

- Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

All our critics distinguish, more or less explicitly, between commercial and personal cinema. The distinction is occasionally valid, often silly, and always dangerous. It is quite legitimate, for example, to point out that Nicholas Ray has frequently been obliged to work from a scenario with which he was not satisfied: Run for Cover, Hot Blood, Party Girl; that many of his films have been mutilated after completion: The James Brothers, Bitter Victory, Wind across the Everglades, The Savage Innocents, King of Kings; and that the stories of The Lusty Men, Johnny Guitar and Bigger than Life might look uninviting on paper. But film is not paper, and never can be except in the wishful imagination of a critic who regards his eyes only as the things that he reads with. The distinction between personal and commercial cinema has become a weapon for use against films which do not impress by the obvious seriousness of their stories and dialogue. The director’s contribution is as irrelevant to the critical success of They Live by Night and Rebel without a Cause as it is to the critical neglect of Johnny Guitar, Bigger than Life, or Wind across the Everglades. It is nonsense to say that in Party Girl Ray’s talent is “squandered on a perfect idiocy” (Louis Marcorelles in, of all places, “Cahiers du Cinema”). The treatment may or may not have been successful: there is no such thing as an unsuccessful subject. Ray has himself criticised the literary preoccupations of some screenwriters. “‘It was all in the script’ a disillusioned writer will tell you. But it was never all in the script. If it were, why make the movie?” The disillusioned writer and the insensitive critic are alike in discounting the very things for which one goes to the cinema: the extraordinary resonances which a director can provoke by his use of actors, decor, movement, colour, shape, of all that can be seen and heard.

Primarily, one sees and hears actors. Ray’s films contain a number of performances which can be called great because they give complete characterisations: Bogart (In a Lonely Place), Mitchum (The Lusty Men), Dean, Wood, Backus (Rebel without a Cause), Burton (Bitter Victory) and Christopher Plummer (Wind across the Everglades) spring immediately to mind. But the director’s control is proved not so much by the perfection of individual performances as by the consistency with which Ray’s actors embody his vision. This consistency is the result – it’s an ancient paradox – of the director’s search for the particular truth of each particular situation. Johnny Guitar’s isolation is depicted in such specific terms that we appreciate, without directorial emphasis, the wider significance of his remark “I’ve a great respect for a gun, and, besides, I’m a stranger here myself.” In They Live by Night Cathy O’Donnell is unable to put her watch right because “there’s no clock here to set it by.” The remark has a specific, complex, dramatic context. We are aware, as the character is not, of its more general relevance for a girl who was “never properly introduced to the world we live in.”

Again, while insisting on Ray’s genius in conveying the general through the particular, the abstract through the concrete, I have no wish to claim that it is uniquely his gift. It is simply the ability which distinguishes the true filmmaker from the pseud-director who provides “photographs of people talking.” And it is an ability which one feels not just in Ray’s direction of his actors but in his use of the entire vocabulary of film.

- V. F. Perkins, “The Cinema of Nicholas Ray.” Published in Movies and Methods. Edited by Bill Nichols. Published by University of California Press, 1976. Page 351-352.