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David Thomson on Films: The Lonely Legacy of Nicholas Ray

He died well short of his own centenary, and some who knew film director Nicholas Ray (and who tried to save him from his richly endowed self-destructiveness) were amazed he got as far as 67. But, this August 7, he would have been 100. And now, for a moment, the world seems ready to take notice and offer the chronic vagrant a home. Not that “home” has much reliability in his case. What made Nick Ray valuable and important was his living forever by night, on dangerous ground, in a lonely place. I’m playing with the titles of some of his films, to which I should add his last, unfinished problematic film—an untidy picture about picture-making on its own existential borders—We Can’t Go Home Again.

This was a project that grew out of a college teaching job in upstate New York in the early ’70s, a psychodrama in which Ray and his own students played themselves, working in every film or video format they could find. When Ray died in 1979, he was 
struggling to complete it, though it was apparent that death was the most likely closure. Now, decades later, Ray’s fourth wife, Susan, after valiant efforts to find funding, to keep the faith, and discover a form for the film, has produced a version that may be definitive. To mark Ray’s centenary, it will play at the Venice Film Festival. Will it seem like a masterpiece, or a footnote to a history so few people know now? I can’t say, but I would guess that the film raised from the dead must renew the potent but frightening legend of Nicholas Ray. There’s no doubt that Ray embodied the idea that, in the mid and late 
twentieth century, the place to look for America’s tragic heroes was among its film-makers.

At the same time, July saw the publication of Patrick McGilligan’s Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director. This is the first attempt at a Ray biography written in English (and researched by someone raised in Ray’s Midwest). The earliest work on Ray came from France and England, and a lot of it was written in the vibrant but not always helpful vein of Jean-Luc Godard’s comment, “Nicholas Ray is the cinema.” McGilligan is more down-to-earth and much more interested in research. So he is more valuable on the failure and the mess in this handsome but very insecure figure. He admits the bisexuality that some hero-worshippers preferred to overlook. He keeps a steady eye on the sheer chaos of the life: Nick Ray found his son Tony in bed with his third wife, actress Gloria Grahame, when the son was just thirteen! McGilligan follows the womanizing, the gambling, the booze, and the drugs, and he makes it fairly clear that Ray was absolved for his radical past by making a private deal with the House Un- Activities Committee. So betrayal is opened up as heartfelt and wounded territory for Ray. As such, the story told here is not quite one of “glorious failure.” It’s rather more helpless, persistent compromise coupled with a sense of artistic ambition and integrity that was more than Ray could sustain for a day or two.

Ray had worked in radio, in researching musical folklore, and in theater before he shifted over to movies at the end of the war. Working at RKO, with John Houseman as an uncommon producer and friend, Ray’s debut was a rural film noir, They Live by Night. Many could see the promise, and Ray made unexpected friendships with Howard Hughes and Edie Wassermann, the wife of the agent. He would have great moments—In a Lonely Place, with Humphrey Bogart, and Rebel Without A Cause,with James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo as angst-ridden kids in the Los Angeles high school system. Rebel is now dated, but, in 1955, it was an unprecedented identification with teenage feelings in the new America. (Ray had an affair with the 17-year-old Wood during the filming.)

Ray was obsessed with money (most gamblers are), and he found himself making big-budget epics when, by every right and instinct, he was a spiritual father to the independence of John Cassavetes. Two decades before his death, he was on the rocks, a wanderer, acting out the melodrama of ill-health and physical disorder. All of this 
occurred as the spirit of the French New Wave hit American movies. Ray had acolytes, disciples, women, and patrons who became appalled and wearied by how regularly he let them down.

As he said himself, he never made an unflawed film, though I’m not sure how thoroughly he understood that weakness or ever tried to control it. Many of his scripts were inadequate, some of his actors were dull (just look at the north African war picture, Bitter Victory, where Richard Burton labors with co-stars beneath his class). Some of the films turned out disasters, and others—like Johnny Guitar—seem to me overrated. But Bigger Than Life (with James Mason swept into bi-polarity by cortisone treatments), The Lusty Men (about the rootless lives of rodeo riders), In a Lonely Place (on self-hatred in Hollywood) and They Live by Night, a fated love story, are unforgettable works.

In addition, Ray’s papers (or what survives of them) have been purchased by the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, at the University of Texas at Austin. Is Nick Ray being tidied up? Well, I don’t envy those doing the catalog, and I daresay the material will discover more compromises than even McGilligan has found. Ray was a man of undisciplined talent, playing the heady role of himself. In the end, we can do no better that put a carefully arranged archive next to the romantic folly of Lightning Over Water, the film about Ray’s death made by Wim Wenders. No, the two achievements don’t fit, but Nick Ray was never one for explaining himself.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.