Friday, 25 March 2016

Nicholas Ray

There is a peculiar restlessness to the films of Nicholas Ray, and a strong, unsettling undercurrent of violence and neurosis, in the style as well as in the characters. The struggles and the anxieties within the characters leak out and affect the mise en scène, turning every space into a potential battlefield. And that violence is frequently acted out against objects. Chickamaw crushing Christmas ornaments with his hands in They Live By Night (1949), Jim assaulting an office desk in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Rico Angelo shooting at a photograph of Jean Harlow in Party Girl (1957). His characters are all on dangerous ground, living by night in lonely places, and if they win their victories are bitter.

Ray had ten good years, 1949 - 1958, and although he struggled a lot, not least with himself, there is an abundance of truth and beauty there. Films of great sadness and hopelessness but tinged with compassion and poetry; even though love cannot last it was still sweet while it lasted. "I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me."

Patrick McGilligan's description of The Lusty Men (1952), my favourite among Ray's films, is apt for most of his work. "Plot and genre conventions had gradually been shaved away in the scripting process; the episodic nature of the story reflected Ray's ruminative personality, its plotting was secondary to the character studies and emotional landscape."


  1. It's a shame that contemporary audiences tend to interpret the melodramatic elements in Ray's films as comic. At least that's my experience, especially with JOHNNY GUITAR. Are things different in Sweden?

    1. Unfortunately Ray is not talked about so I wouldn't know how people respond to his films today, although he was highly regarded in the 1960s.