At a crucial point in Nicholas Ray’s flamboyant western Johnny Guitar, Sterling Hayden confesses, “I’m a stranger here myself.” He could be speaking for nearly all of Ray’s heroes and for the director himself. Ray was a poet of chaotic emotions; his most personal films are populated by alienated dreamers and transcend the limitations of genre. Having worked as an actor, he encouraged improvisation and was particularly attuned to problems of performance. Few stars were ever better than under his tutelage: Robert Mitchum and Susan Hayward in The Lusty Men; Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place; Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground; James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause; Richard Burton in Bitter Victory; Christopher Plummer in Wind Across the Everglades; even Charlton Heston comes to intermittent life in 55 Days at Peking.
In 1933, Frank Lloyd Wright invited the 22-year-old Ray to become one of his first students at Taliesin—the pupil would later also become a great manipulator of space in his own fashion. When Ray moved to New York, he worked with Elia Kazan and John Houseman onstage. Kazan took Ray to Hollywood as an assistant on his first movie, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Houseman produced They Live by Night (1948), Ray’s lyrical first feature, a tale of doomed lovers on the run. Ray remained for seven years as a contract director at RKO, alternating personal works with hack projects, near masterpieces with near turkeys.
A Woman’s Secret (1949), a muddled soap opera told in overlapping flashbacks, features Gloria Grahame as a slutty chanteuse. The actress became Mrs. Nicholas Ray, divorced him, and went on to marry his son by a previous marriage, causing shock waves in fanzinedom. During his stretch at the studio, Humphrey Bogart borrowed Ray to direct two independent productions. The first, Knock on Any Door (1949), a they-made-me-a-criminal drama about the trial of a slum kid charged with killing a cop, does not enlighten, but Bogart is electrifying in In a Lonely Place (1950), as a tired, cynical screenwriter, at once sentimental and sadistic. A radical demystification of the classic Bogart hero, it explores the insecurity beneath the macho facade. The Lusty Men (1952), Ray’s last RKO feature and a fine chunk of Americana about rodeos and their riders, is a typical work—focused on outsiders and misfits. Containing one of Mitchum’s finest performances, as a former bronco-busting star fatally unable to settle down, Men was shot by the great Lee Garmes, whose lighting often recalls Walker Evans.
For the rest of his Hollywood career, Ray bounced from one studio to another, never really his own master. He became an auteur hero of French nouvelle vague directors years before he was taken seriously here, although Rebel Without a Cause (1955), made at Warners, became a worldwide cult phenomenon, in large part due to James Dean’s pitch-perfect work in the role that did the most for his image and posthumous myth. Set in Chicago during Prohibition, Party Girl (1958), Ray’s last Hollywood production, was conceived by MGM as a vehicle for two of its expensive contract stars, Cyd Charisse and aging matinee idol Robert Taylor. He’s a mob lawyer; she’s a hoofer—both glamorous self-loathing whores who lose their cynicism through their love for each other. This inane story inspired what is arguably Ray’s most beautiful and fluent mise-en-scène. Sleekly stylized in every shot, it’s a dramatic kissing cousin to the great MGM post-war musicals.
Ray’s last two theatrical films were huge productions made in Spain: King of Kings (1961), for what it’s worth, the best biblical epic ever made, and 55 Days at Peking (1963), which he left before completion, never to work in mainstream cinema again. After years of wandering, illness, and drug and alcohol dependency, he accepted a post teaching film at Harpur College in upstate New York. We Can’t Go Home Again (1973-1976), an experimental work made with his students, never reached a definitive form before he died in 1979. MOMA Gramercy’s comprehensive series, curated by the Cinémathèque Ontario, includes 23 films and a rarely shown teleplay. It’s a heartening change from the parsimonious, half-assed mini-retros that have have been all too frequent in recent years.