Friday, July 24, 2009

Savage Innocence: the films of Nicholas Ray

All his films are crossed by the same obsession with twilight, the solitude of beings, the difficulty of human relations.—Jacques Rivette

Nicholas Ray is in the top rank of American filmmakers for a number of reasons, among them that he made such a deep impression in such a short period of time with so few films, and that the films have remained emotional powerhouses a half century later. His best-known film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), is grounded in Fifties America, but its depiction of the trials of a teenage misfit is timeless. In a similar fashion, They Live By Night (1949) is in the top rank of “lovers on the run” films, The Lusty Men (1952) is an impeccable portrait of macho self-destruction, Johnny Guitar (1954) is one of the most unique Westerns ever — a baroque creation that is both sincerely operatic and wildly satiric (both of Western clichés and McCarthyism), Bigger Than Life (1956) is perhaps the ultimate statement on the American family in the Fifties (and an amazing template for The Shining, minus the violence), and Bitter Victory (1957) is one of the best war movies ever, exploring cowardice and bravery while giving the young Richard Burton one of his first great movie roles.

This week’s Funhouse episode presents a survey of the filmmaker’s career, in conjunction with the current Nicholas Ray retro at the Film Forum in lower Manhattan. I urge everyone reading this to try and check Ray’s films out on the big screen, especially his later CinemaScope creations. Barring that, I think ya just gotta see the films in one sitting, as his sense of pacing was immaculate, and the stronger films do still pack quite a punch. Since the Internet continues to yield untold pleasures and is one of the finer (and most accessible) research tools, I offer the following clip-survey, courtesy of (you guessed it) YouTube:

An interview clip, from Ray’s Seventies teaching phase:


For some reason no trailer for the perfect They Live By Night can be found on YT, but a French firm has put up an isolated scene from early in the film:


In a Lonely Place (1950) is one of Ray’s best, and also gave Bogart one of his finest roles. The film costars the wonderful Gloria Grahame (who had been Ray’s wife, but the two were in the process of separating while the film was being made). Here is the trailer:


Johnny Guitar has many memorable moments but this exchange of dialogue between Johnny (Sterling Hayden) and Vienna (Joan Crawford) is among the most famous. Godard has been a fan of the film since it came out, and still is — it was included in his recent Histoire(s) du Cinema project:


And in case you can’t imagine what a baroque Western looks like, check this out:


Rebel Without a Cause is available in its entirety on YT:


The trailer for Ray’s masterful Bigger Than Life:


This Bigger Than Life scene serves as a backdrop on the show this week. Here you can watch it with dialogue intact:


Ray’s Bitter Victory (1957) is available on DVD perfectly letterboxed and is a must-see. The opening can be found here:


An eye-catching interlude from Wind Across the Everglades (1958):


Another item that appears on this week’s show, under my commentary. A Cyd Charisse musical number from Party Girl (1958) in BRIGHT Technicholor:


And for those in search of a complete Ray rarity, one generous poster has put up the film The Savage Innocents (1960), which has never been available on VHS or DVD in America. The film is best known for having inspired Bob Dylan to write "Quinn the Eskimo" which became a hit for Manfred Mann. It is also the last real Nick Ray feature film, as his next two works were for-hire epics, and the student film he worked on for years, We Can't Go Home Again hasn't been shown publicly since it was first conceived, and it was a quite complicated piece that involved different types of film (8, super 8, 16, 35mm). The Savage Innocents has been buried for quite some time, and I wonder if that is due to the fact that it would currently be labelled un-"p.c." in its depiction of Eskimos. What Ray was after, however, was to depict a race that has its own moral codes and perfectly organic way of life — and is then disrupted by the white man's sense of "order" and "civilization."


Most viewers had their first and final glimpse of Ray himself in Wim Wenders’ elegiac Lightning Over Water, aka Nick’s Movie:


But this is truly the most amazing Ray rarity on YouTube, the short “The Janitor,” which Ray made for an anthology called Wet Dreams in 1974. It’s quite a bizarre and debauched piece that features Nick in two roles. It is well worth your attention, and I can guarantee you haven’t seen it anyplace else if you live in the U.S.:

1 comment:

Larry Slade said...

Finally saw Bigger Than Life at the FF last week. It was totally great, entertaining and quite thought provoking. Terrific movie.