The Savage Innocents (Ray, 1960)

In Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents, the blinding white landscape acts as a serene reminder of epic simplicity, and what will be lost when the evils of the white settlers begin to take root. Inuk (Anthony Quinn), Ray’s hero and central metaphor, lives a solitary life with only the pressing social obligation to marry a woman on his mind.

In these early scenes, time and space are not defined, and the film experiments with the idea of being completely immersed in the daily routines and traditions of the Eskimo, albeit a stylized over-the-top Hollywood version. Ray sprinkles in some striking on-location shots of men sledding through the endless white blanket of ice and snow or in a canoe chasing a horde of Walruses on the open water, and these moments give the film a staggering sense of place. Unfortunately, when Inuk accidently kills a preacher, ironically because the man won’t sleep with his wife, the film becomes somewhat preachy and simplistic.

Aside from one horrific sequence in the civilized camp, the relationship between Eskimo and Caucasian society gets relegated to interactions between the Inuk and a Trooper (Pete O’Toole) who’s been tasked to bring him back for trial. Ray hammers home the point that these two ideologies are so far apart communication becomes moot, yet these are the scenes where the film relies too heavily upon narrative convention. The Savage Innocents is an oddity of massive proportions, an anti-adventure film set in one of the world’s last frontiers.

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Hot Blood (Ray, 1956)

A colorful slice of gypsy lore, Nicholas Ray’s Hot Blood resonates a steamy lust for passion and heat. Shot in wide-screen technicolor, every fame bursts with reds, browns, and oranges, producing a vibrancy which often overwhelms the somewhat tiresome characters. Marco (Luther Adler), the leader of a gypsy clan, wants his dance instructor brother Stephano (Cornell Wilde) to marry and take his place. He sets up an arranged hitch to Annie (the ravishing Jane Russell), and all hell breaks loose. Epic dance numbers often parallel the personal lives playing out and Ray lets the camera stay wide for the audience to relish these hypnotic moments. A few scenes raise the temp especially, like Wilde using a whip to entangle Russell during their beautiful wedding dance, and a cat fight for the ages between a pissed Russell and her blond, anglo competition. While the ending is somewhat unsatisfying – a far too easy conclusion to the spicy proceedings – Ray’s obsession with conflicting partners and ideologies comes into a new light, one filled with instinct and unrequited, hidden love. Hot Blood lives up to it’s title, a rousing entertainment infected with dance and melodrama.

Party Girl (Ray, 1958)

With Party Girl, as in his Jesse James western, Nicholas Ray, infuses little if any innovation in this sometimes inane musical/gangster melodrama. To a great extent, Party Girl is the worst Ray I’ve seen, by a long shot too when you consider his work as a whole. Robert Taylor injects the only sign of life in an otherwise uninspired cast, which is hilarious considering he’s a notoriously bland and wooden actor. Ray jumbles many genres here, intercutting dancing/musical numbers shamelessly showcasing star Cyd Charisse’s physical attributes, then moving back into traditional waters with the rich bitch wife, the two-bit hoods, and the chivalrous prosecutor. The crime end of the picture has even less impact, especially since the storyline involving gangsters, a conflict with their lawyer (played by Taylor) and the inevitable trouble which follows, is on permanent re-cycle, overlapping plot points with reckless abandon. Party Girl, a title so mismatched with the actual story it’s funny, I guess is supposed to show the underbelly of a supposed freewheeling lifestyle paralleled through it’s many cliched characters. But hey, when you’re dealing with such meandering and trite material, it doesn’t matter much. Every director has a stinker, and I’m sure this is Ray’s.

Born to be Bad (Ray, 1950)

“I love you so much I wish I liked you!”

Novelist and old flame Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan) shoots this zinger at the conniving Christabel Caine (Joan Fontaine) and it’s just one of the great lines of dialogue in Nicholas Ray’s Born to Be Bad. Visiting San Francisco from small town America, Christabel slowly and convincingly worms her way into a wealthy existence, planting the seeds of doubt in all involved. She’s quite a dame, a femme fatale working just outside the world of Noir but with the same destructive conviction. Nick and fellow victims Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott) and Donna Foster (Joan Leslie) feel the passive aggressive wrath of Christable, but don’t realize her serpentine approach until it’s too late. Ray uses a devilish female anti-hero for the first time, and Fontaine’s performance conveys a balanced and calculated attack of self-promotion and selfishness. Christabel’s glance is enough to send shivers down the the backs of those in the know, and it’s Ray’s great feat his characters believably ignore her treacherous signs. The scope of the film feels intimate, making the crackling dialogue all the more personal and forceful. Born to be Bad, gives it’s thesis in the title, and Fontaine lives up to the task in spades.

Rebel Without a Cause (Ray, 1955)

So much has been said and written about Nicholas Ray’s iconic masterpiece it’s difficult to write a fresh, novel analysis of the film. The most I can say is upon a third viewing, it appears I underestimated and undervalued Rebel, initially recognizing it’s beauty and importance but none of it’s dynamism and magnetic pacing. But hey, I was eighteen and had been weaned off Pulp Fiction. Now, seven years later, Rebel took on new life for me, especially in a glorious 35mm print projected on the big screen. The opening credit sequence says it all – James Dean as Jim Stark, drunk, wandering the streets of suburbia, lays down in the gutter, finds a toy monkey and tries to cover it up with a dirty newspaper, tucking it in to sleep. Here’s a kid aching for some strong guidance by an adult, a role model of some worth, as we later see in the police station sequence which introduces the three main leads; Stark, Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo). Each has offended the moral code of small town life, showing their depression and anger with the parental world that has either abandoned or flat out ignored them. It’s amazing that Rebel consists of only five or six major sequences. 1. Police Station, 2. Planetarium, 3. Racing/Buzz dies, 4. Jim fights with his family, 5. Mansion, and 6. Back to the planetarium. Ray dictates all of these sequences in terms of character, showing the situations with which Jim, Judy, and Plato have grown within, or more appropriately, grown stagnant. Nicholas Ray, a filmmaker who charts the crisises of morally ambiguous characters, hits his apex home run with Rebel, the prefect fit for the perfect misfit director. Whether it be Judy’s orgasmic reaction to the chicken race or Jim’s necessary anger/frustration with his father for not standing up to his mother, Rebel personifies the hidden neuroses and trauma’s children can suffer at the hands of their ignorant parents. The consequences blow the adults away and Ray gives us the feeling Jim might be acting out long after the tragic end at the planetarium, trying fruitlessly and diligently to convince his parents they’re tearing him apart. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and Ray, Dean and company understand that all too well.- Screened at the 2007 San Diego Latino Film Festival

The Lusty Men (Ray, 1952)

Parades of Western glory open Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men, as crowds of people cheer on dressed up cowboys and Indians on horseback riding through the paved streets of a small town, a spectacle of a time long past. We shift to a montage of rodeo events; bronco taming, bull riding and the like. There’s an eire of commercialism in this sequence, a long respected occupation gleaned as entertainment for the masses, and it’s a motif that will infect Ray’s characters till the very end. The artificial nature off this beginning shifts into a standard western romanticism, with rodeo hero Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) returning to his childhood home to reestablish himself. But his family lineage is long gone, his home owned by a man who purchased it at an auction. Under the house, McCloud finds two colt revolvers and a tin with two dimes, artifacts of his western childhood. Jeff gets hooked up with Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy) who finds him a job as a ranch hand. Wes recognizes Jeff as an icon, instantly looking up to him. Jeff sees talent in Wes and against the wishes of Wes’s wife Lousie (Susan Hayward), they decide to take a crack at the rodeo circuit. Teacher and apprentice, one reliving the glory days through the other’s raw talent. Of course they find success, and the vices, and the ego, and the consequences. The Lusty Men shows the affects of a brutal, rugged, and completely modern form of diversion, one based on the hollow shell of the western code of ethics and ideology. Ray shows how every aspect of the wild west has been tamed, corralled, and branded by a synthetic, unseen hand. His trio reject the stable, hardworking ranch for the fast paced, thrilling, and dangerous rodeo lifestyle. There are campers attached to trucks, hot showers, house parties, a saloon aching with retro feel, and most importantly characters obsessed with the glamourous lifestyle of celebrity. Mitchum’s McCloud has been through it before, yet he doesn’t act like a traditional western hero and save the day. He, like everyone else, becomes a part of the machine. Ray’s use of rodeo images infuses his picture with the detail of his other westerns, but it’s not a sign of nostalgia for the long lost west. Instead, the rodeo reflects the growing uncertainty in a changing relationship with the past, a whole way of life reforming into a commercial entity in order to survive. The Lusty Men revolves around this idea of survival, each of it’s characters deciding the right path to take in the face of a modern day faux western America. For some of Ray’s characters, playing cowboys is a lustful act, which leads to the typical cliches of demise. Actually being cowboys means hard work and dedication, most of all, a true understanding of why each is essential to the West.

The True Story of Jesse James (Ray, 1957)

Told mostly in flashback, Nicholas Ray’s telling of the Jesse James story has a multi point of view/Citizen Kane style narrative, jumping back and forth between impressions of the famous outlaw by family and friends. The director’s patented use of vibrant colors compliment a wide angle cinema-scope mise-en-scene, creating a vastness in environment as well as in the approach to historiography. Nicholas Ray is a fascinating director, but none of his obsession with dual relationships, moral confusion, and social consciousness come into play in this very traditional western. Starring Robert Wagner (of Hart to Hart fame) as Jesse, Ray’s film is a jumble of flashbacks, connected through whimsical, colorful dissolves and sappy music. Disappointed doesn’t begin to describe my response to The True Story of Jesse James, mainly because Ray’s other venture into the genre, Johnny Guitar, is so effortlessly risky and inventive. The beginning chase sequence of Jesse James promises this type of unpredictable storytelling, but little else in the film warrants any excitement. The last shot, with a black man singing the song of Jesse James, purports to display the complex legend of the outlaw in the making, but it really reverberates the classical Hollywood aura Ray’s film has oddly embraced throughout.