Remembering Nicholas Ray at 100 in a must-see Belcourt retrospective 

In a Lonely Place

In a Lonely Place

When asked to say something about Nicholas Ray, many people who think and talk and write about film tend to quote French New Wave legend Jean-Luc Godard, who, back when he was merely a critic, uttered the words, "The cinema is Nicholas Ray." Godard was comparing Ray to other great directors whom he spiritually associated with other art forms — D.W. Griffith was "theater," Sergei Eisenstein "dance," etc. To his mind, Ray, more than any other director, seemed to think and function and work specifically in cinematic motifs — that is to say, this director's work wouldn't make sense in any other medium other than film.

Godard was right. But one wonders if maybe his words had the curious side effect of making Ray, whose films will screen at The Belcourt in a series starting Nov. 12, seem more abstract and experimental — and thus more "challenging" — than he really was. After all, Godard went on to say, in describing Ray's achievement: "[One] is no longer interested in objects, but in what lies between the objects and which becomes an object in its turn." That's a lot of fancy talk to say essentially that Ray was a guy who understood acting, movement and emotion — the elements that gave all that in-between space its charge.

To think of this director in stark formalist terms — to try and shoehorn his filmography into the realms of the strictly visual and plastic — would be a mistake. What Ray understood better than any other director was the importance of the privileged moment: that one poetic fusion of performer, emotion, script and image, however fleeting, could justify an entire movie. And key to that formula was the actor — not just the actor as the trained deliverer of scripted lines, but the actor as a physical, living being.

Ray was notoriously attuned to his performers, and he famously had different ways of directing each one. Some he'd have to berate, some he'd have to cajole. Some, like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (screening Nov. 13 and 14), he'd have to befriend and virtually adopt. Dean and Ray were inseparable for much of the shoot of that film, traveling, partying, playing and smoking dope together.

All those efforts paid off. Ray's films may be replete with career-best performances by great actors — Humphrey Bogart in the despairing noir In a Lonely Place, Dean in Rebel, James Mason in Bigger Than Life. More notably, though, it's full of great performances by otherwise terrible actors: the ultra-stiff Robert Wagner as the titular outlaw in The True Story of Jesse James, the now-forgotten Scott Brady (brother of Lawrence Tierney!) in Johnny Guitar, professional lamppost John Derek in Knock on Any Door... the list goes on. He once even managed to turn Anthony Quinn into a convincing Eskimo (in the truly bizarre and beautiful The Savage Innocents, not screening in this series, alas).

In Ray's films, a certain glance, a particular way of moving, a careless bit of dialogue perfectly delivered, can open entire emotional worlds for a careful viewer. The drama in his bare-bones desert war thriller Bitter Victory (Nov. 27 and 28) is set in motion not by the obligatory and ill-defined mission at hand, but by a Casablanca-like love triangle among brooding archaeologist-cum-soldier Richard Burton, his former lover Ruth Roman, and her officer-husband Curt Jurgens.

Early on in the film, the three of them sit down for an awkward drink. Jurgens kicks it off by toasting his wife. Burton, the spurned lover, then very politely raises his glass but quietly avoids drinking at the same time. He's allowing the couple to share an intimate little moment together, yet at the same time, through Ray's quietly attentive staging, we can see he's dying inside. When it's Burton's turn to take his drink, however, Roman joins in, suggesting her continuing passion for her onetime paramour. It's a throwaway moment, shot seemingly indifferently — but think back on it, and you could swear it all happened in extreme close-up.

Bitter Victory is beloved by Ray's worshippers — it was the film that inspired Godard to utter those earlier words — but not well-known outside of film buff circles. Perhaps that's because it's a dud by the undemanding standards of a routine genre assignment. (As a wartime action flick, The Dirty Dozen it ain't.) The same could be said for another masterpiece, Johnny Guitar (Nov. 16, 19-20).

Anyone going into Johnny Guitar expecting a classic heroic Western along the lines of High Noon or Shane would probably be sorely disappointed. The film puts more drama into Joan Crawford's eye-popping wardrobe changes than it does into its shootouts. Our tough-guy hero Johnny (Sterling Hayden) turns out to be a deeply vulnerable, melancholy type who spends most of his time avoiding fights, leaving Crawford to sling lead in her justly celebrated gender-bending showdown with nemesis Mercedes McCambridge. What's more, we barely even get the classic Western outdoor landscapes. No Monument Valley for Ray: Most of the film seems to take place inside a garishly lit saloon that looks like some otherworldly space-cave set left over from the original Star Trek.

But Ray finds ways to make us care. Indeed, for all the undermined genre conventions, it's almost impossible not to get wrapped up in Johnny Guitar's howling melodrama. At one point, Johnny, the reluctant gunman, is finally left alone with his former lover, bar-owner and businesswoman Vienna (Crawford). To rekindle their romance, he conjures up a vision for her, leading her through her desolate saloon as he pantomimes a happier lost time: "We're having a drink at the bar in the Aurora Hotel. We're celebrating because we're getting married. ... Laugh, Vienna, 'cause it's your wedding day!" And for an instant, she buys it, as does he. The setting doesn't change, but suddenly, we're all there, wherever the Aurora Hotel may be. The emotional moment, present for an instant, crashes against us like a tidal wave — and then is gone forever.

But Ray did more than just subvert beloved genres with explosive volatility. He had his popular successes as well. The first film in the series, In a Lonely Place (Nov. 12-13), is one of the most sensitive and intelligent noirs produced in Hollywood, starring Humphrey Bogart (as noted above, never better) as a Hollywood screenwriter whose violent inner demons begin to consume him after he is suspected of the murder of a hatcheck girl.

The film isn't just a deeply affecting portrait of a vulnerable if hard-shelled soul. It's also a veiled portrait of the director's own disintegrating marriage. In the film, Bogart strikes up a torrid, briefly happy but ultimately destructive affair with a neighbor played by Gloria Grahame, Ray's own estranged wife at the time. The director's sympathy for Grahame, the most bruised and heart-tugging of '50s femme fatales, is as wrenching as his empathy for his self-destroying hero. (One wonders if Godard was inspired by this unique arrangement to make Pierrot le Fou, his own classic look at the meltdown of his relationship with star Anna Karina.)

You may have noticed that the word "vulnerable" keeps popping up. What distinguishes Ray's filmography more than anything is his attraction to these wounded, desperate heroes — at a time when Hollywood's male protagonists tended to reflect more traditional notions of unfazed masculinity. That fondness served the director well with his most enduring hit, the immensely popular problem drama Rebel Without a Cause, with James Dean in the role that made him an emblem of teenage angst.

Dean already brought the energy of an exposed nerve ending to his performances. In his previous film, East of Eden (directed by Elia Kazan, who had been something of a mentor to Ray back in the day), he had portrayed a similarly peculiar, weak and troubled young man. In Rebel, however, Ray found a way to channel Dean's fragile anguish into an iconic lament for an entire generation's spiritual rootlessness. In Ray's hands, the actor's torment became so electrifying that the misunderstood juvenile delinquent became pop culture's most compelling object of identification and desire for the next few decades — a yawp against the ennui of the modern nuclear family.

That irradiated unit reaches full-on Level 7 core meltdown in Bigger Than Life (Nov. 26-27), a deranged melodrama in which mild-mannered suburban teacher James Mason undergoes an experimental cortisone treatment for an injury and winds up a delusional madman. The film can be read as all sorts of things: a cautionary tale of technological transformation, a dissection of the male ethos, an exposure of the fascist mindset latent in everyday American life, a meditation on canted angles in film, you name it.

But what's most remarkable is how well this ridiculous set-up works. Together, Ray and Mason capture a desperation that's truly haunting. You want this family to somehow pull through — even after Mason decides that, like Abraham when beseeched by God, he will murder his adoring little boy. (When it's pointed out that God let Abraham off the hook, Mason utters the film's most immortal line: "God was wrong!")

Ray was a director of large emotions. Despite the fact that his Hollywood career was a shooting star that barely lasted a decade, he thrived best when he was able to work with big actors and wide emotional canvases. As a result, when he lost the ability to command meaningful budgets — a partly self-inflicted wound caused by his own drug addiction and alcoholism — something important seemed to die inside him.

The feature that serves as his last solo directorial credit, We Can't Go Home Again (screening once Dec. 6), is a deeply experimental film shot with his students at Harpur College in the early '70s, incorporating multiple images projected at the same time. Left unfinished at the time of his death, the film was recently completed by the director's widow, Susan Ray, and will screen alongside her touching documentary remembrance of the filmmaker, Don't Expect Too Much.

The film world has been waiting for Ray's incomplete swan song for a long time. But in some senses Susan Ray's documentary is the more accomplished film in this double bill. The multi-image presentation of We Can't Go Home Again tramples on what fleeting privileged moments Ray and his inexperienced students managed to capture. Don't Expect Too Much, by contrast, places the emphasis back where it belongs: on the decaying, brilliant figure at the center of this emotional whirlwind of a film, a career and a life.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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