Although I’ve long included classical Hollywood in my realm of cinephilia, I’m somewhat new to the films of Nicholas Ray (1911-1979), the director of such classics as Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life. An intensely personal filmmaker who worked within the studio system, Ray is known for his attention to setting, architecture, colors, and investigations of psychological torment. His work initially attracted critical attention with the early Cahiers du CinÈma writers, as can be seen by FranÁois Truffaut’s 1955 remarks:
“We discovered Nicholas Ray about seven or eight years ago with Knock on Any Door. Then, at the film festival, “Rendezvous de Biarritz,” there was the dazzling confirmation of They Live By Night, which is still his best film. Then followed, though largely unnoticed in Paris, In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground, The Lusty Men, and now, Johnny Guitar.
A young American filmmaker–of the generation of Robert Wise, Jules Dassin, Joseph Losey–Nicholas Raymond Kienzle [his birth name] is an auteur in the best sense of the word. All his films tell the same story: the violent man who wants to renounce violence and his relationship with a morally stronger woman. Ray’s constant hero, the bully, is a weak man-child, when he is not simply a child. He is wrapped in moral solitude, always hunted, sometimes lynched. Those who have seen the films I have just mentioned can multiply and enrich these connections for themselves; the others will simply have to take my word for it.”
If the above description makes Ray sound like a forerunner of Martin Scorsese, the comparison isn’t too far off–Scorsese reverentially lauds Ray in his documentary, A Personal Journey Through American Movies (1995). But even given the handful of Ray films I’ve seen lately, I find myself much more emotionally engaged by Ray’s work, whose characters seem like genuinely tragic heroes. Scorsese’s violent protagonists, on the other hand, often strike me (no pun intended) as hot-headed thugs.
James Quandt of the Cinematheque Ontario has organized a traveling retrospective of Ray’s work this year, but for those of us who aren’t lucky enough to see it yet, Columbia has released a sparkling new DVD restoration of Ray’s 1950 masterpiece, In a Lonely Place. Widely acknowledged as a key work in Ray’s oeuvre, it’s a classic film noir about Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a volatile Hollywood screenwriter who recovers his creative edge when the author of a book he’s adapting is murdered. The police immediately suspect him, but an alibi witness, Laurel Gray (Gloria Graham–Ray’s actual wife), comes to his aid. The two subsequently fall in love, which only intensifies police suspicion, and the mounting pressures of the investigation provoke Steele’s violent fits of temper and, increasingly, Gray’s second thoughts regarding his innocence and their future together.
The film is shot in the classical Hollywood style with an emphasis on medium shots–its noirish visual elements only gradually emerge as the story progresses, but the film is rife with personal Ray touches. Having once studied architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright, Ray’s emphasis on place is vivid. The apartment complex Steele and Gray live in was a direct recreation of Ray’s own residence, and the screenplay suggests a thematic purpose: “You’ve got me at a disadvantage,” Steele tells Gray, “You can see into my apartment but I can’t see into yours.” “I won’t take advantage of it,” Gray promises. “I would if I were you,” Steele notes wryly.
Three Mexican-style paintings in Gray’s apartment become especially prominent in the latter half of the film, appearing in the background in several scenes. The left picture depicts a serene female portrait, the middle picture depicts a woman in the foreground and a man behind her looking into the air with binoculars, and the right picture depicts a male peasant struggling with a heavy yoke. The combination suggests Gray’s emotional balance and Steele’s internal burden, and the fragile relationship between them–together yet separate. (Graham and Ray divorced two years later.) The insertion of Ray’s personal life into key aspects of the story have often been read as part confession and part self-critique.
The DVD includes a tribute to the film by filmmaker Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), who tours Ray’s extant apartment complex while reflecting on the film, as well as an informative film restoration documentary, which begins with the ominous statement: “During Hollywood’s Golden Age, the studios produced 400 films a year. Of the 21,000 films produced before 1950, nearly half of them are lost forever.” Thankfully, In a Lonely Place isn’t one of them.
Billing itself as the “first comprehensive examination of the cinematographer’s art,” Making Pictures: A Century of European Cinematography (2003) is a coffee table book that is a treasure trove of film history, an inspiring viewing guide–and a book that could have been better produced. Celebrating the role of the director of photography, it is copiously illustrated with pictures from the multitude of films it discusses. The glaring problem: the photos are reprinted with terrible fidelity. Colors are often washed out (checkout Tarkovsky’s Solaris) or printed with baffling grain (Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad).
Aside from this serious limitation, the hefty book offers a wealth of fantastic information. It opens with a series of essays by cinematographers, such as Jack Cardiff (“Oddly enough, really good lighting should not be noticed at all, except in larger-than-life films, musicals, etc.”) and Sven Nykvist (“The most important task of the cinematographer is to create an atmosphere… I mostly perform this task by using very little light and little colour”), as well as Bernardo Bertolucci (who provides a director’s perspective) and Marcello Mastroianni (who provides an actor’s perspective).
For the next 70 pages, the book offers an extensive history of cinematography, from the zoetrope to German expressionism, from Italian neorealism to the French New Wave and contemporary films.
The next 60 pages offer a theoretical investigation of the film medium, including comparisons to classical art and painting, through a myriad assortment of essays.
Over 200 pages of text and pictures are subsequently devoted to 100 films selected by a jury comprised of three cinematographers: Jaromir Sofr (Czeckoslovakia), Tony Forsberg (Sweden), and Wolfgang Fischer (Germany). The list is as representative and diverse as one could possibly wish. I was happy to see the standard examples (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Ivan the Terrible, The Third Man, Breathless) as well as some personal favorites (Faust, The Marquise of O…, Mirror, Europa) and many I’ve yet to see (Miss Julie, The White Dove, Diamonds of the Night, Raffl, Dreamsplay). Each film includes an informative one-page analysis and an evocative capsule review by the jury.
On The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928):
“A unique visual masterpiece, this ascetic, rigorously framed film is a remarkable departure from cinematic conventions. Rudolf MatÈ portrays the human face as the centerpiece of events, filming with black shadows and white light, a distinctive milky white, the ‘Dreyer white,’ which had never been seen before.”
On The White Dove (1960):
“A rare film-poem which influenced directors of the Czech New Wave, its images and moods owe much to the artistry of Jan Curik. His visualisation of the director’s concept reveals a deep understanding of graphic stylization and the full tonal range of black-and-white film.”
The final portion of the book includes a technical overview of camera systems, film stocks, labs, and studios, likely to appease even the most devout aficionados of cinematographic lore.
All in all, it’s a handsome heavyweight package and well worth a browse at your local bookstore. Whether or not it’s worth its $65 list price, however, will likely depend on one’s tolerance for the uneven quality of its stills.