A Nicholas Ray-trospective (Webster Film Series, 06.09.11 – 06.26.11)

A Nicholas Ray film always offers something of interest—this guy couldn’t do "ordinary" if his life depended on it.



Jean-Luc Godard famously said of Nicholas Ray "There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray." Many American filmmakers, from Martin Scorsese to Jim Jarmusch, are also big fans of Ray’s work, but outside of Rebel Without a Cause Ray’s films aren’t that well known, in no small part because so many of them are still not available on DVD. That’s a shame because a Nicholas Ray film always offers something of interest—this guy couldn’t do "ordinary" if his life depended on it. The Nicholas Ray-trospective at Webster University offers the ideal opportunity to see some of Ray’s films, both the well known and the obscure, on the big screen where they belong.

The series begins with three of Ray’s early films that already demonstrate one of his lifelong concerns, sympathy for the outsider. Knock on Any Door (June 9, 7:30 pm), released by Ray’s production company Santana Productions in 1949, stars Humphrey Bogart as an idealistic attorney who takes on the case of Nick Romano (John Derek), a young man from the slums accused of killing a policeman. Ray’s social theorist side comes out in this film as he has Bogart’s character make an impassioned speech to the jury about corrosive effects of poverty on his client, including the argument which provided the film’s title: "Until we wipe out the slums and rebuild them, knock on any door and you may find Nick Romano."

Next up is Ray’s first film, They Live By Night (June 10, 7:30 pm), originally released in 1949 by RKO. This film, based on the same novel that Robert Altman adapted for his 1974 film Thieves Like Us, helped establish the template for "couple on the run" films of which the most famous example is Arthur Penn’s 1967 Bonnie and Clyde. Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell star as reluctant bank robbers and victims of circumstance who, like Knock on Any Door‘s Nick Romano, would prefer to be leading an ordinary, law-abiding life if they only had the chance.

In a Lonely Place (June 11, 7:30 pm), a 1950 Santana Productions release, again stars Humphrey Bogart. This time he plays Dixon Steele (doesn’t that name just say "Hollywood"?), a screenwriter who feels himself a bit above it all and has a tendency to settle matters with his fists, who finds himself accused of the murder of a hatcheck girl (Mildred Atkinson). His lovely neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame) provides him with an alibi and they start up a relationship but, well, can a leopard change his spots?

Bigger Than Life (June 12, 7:30 pm), my favorite Ray film, offers an amazing critique of conventional 1950s morality (it was originally released in 1956 by 20th Century Fox) which contemporary audiences understood all too well and the film failed miserably at the box office. From a comfortable distance of 50+ years we can appreciate the art (and feel superior to the characters) in this tale of the transformation of an ordinary schoolteacher (James Mason) into a murderous despot under the influence of cortisone, a new and poorly understood drug. What’s really frightening is how extreme the behavior of Mason’s character must become before anyone in the film recognizes it as delusional rather than the ordinary expression of a man’s desire to be the master of his own household and all who dwell within. Bigger than Life offers many examples of Ray’s skill in creating visuals that represented his characters’ inner states and will be presented in a newly restored 35mm print.

On Dangerous Ground (June 17, 7:30 pm), co-directed by Ida Lupino and originally released in 1952, crosses the grittiest of noirs with the most hopeful of romances. It stars Robert Ryan, a guy who could really be scary, as a hot-tempered New York City cop assigned to investigate a child murder in the countryside. Lupino co-stars in this 1952 RKO release as a blind woman with a secret and Ward Bond plays the father of the murdered child who is so crazed in pursuit of the killer that he makes Ryan’s character look like a pacifist. If the contrasting halves of A.I. Bezzerides’ screenplay are a little too obvious for you there’s still the superb cinematography by George E. Diskant and the score by Bernard Hermann left for you to admire.

Ray’s over-the-top western Johnny Guitar (June 18, 7:30 pm) demonstrates the director’s talents as a smuggler of weighty themes into genre films. It manages to be both a serious critique of McCarthyism and a camp classic which has supplied at least as much fantasy material for women of a certain persuasion as Betty Grable’s famous over-the-shoulder come-hither pose did for GIs during World War II. As for the McCarthyism references, you’d have to be tone-deaf to miss the underlying meaning, in a 1954 American film, of dialogue such as "a posse feels safe because it’s big," "either you side with them or with us," and "just tell us she was one of you…and you’ll go free."

For most people, if they know any Nicholas Ray film it’s Rebel Without a Cause (June 19, 7:30 pm). And rightly so; who could ignore a film that offers, among other things, James Dean’s most memorable performance, breakout roles for Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo (the latter credited by many with portraying the first gay teenager in an American film), and another filmic template, this time for the troubled-teen movie? The psychology of Rebel is certainly dated today (instead of blaming society, Ray has graduated to blaming the parents) but his masterful cinematic technique and use of symbolic color remain as impressive as when the film was first screened in 1955.

There’s good over-the-top (Bigger Than Life) and bad over-the-top (King of Kings, Ray’s 1961 Biblical epic). In my opinion Party Girl (June 24, 7:30 pm) comes out on the wrong side of the continuum. But don’t take my word for it; this gangster flick starring Cyd Charisse, Robert Taylor and Lee J. Cobb has an 80% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes so maybe you’ll see something in it that I don’t. The story involves a mob lawyer (Taylor) who wants to get out of the business, a boss (Cobb) who doesn’t want to let him go, and a showgirl (Charisse) who makes the most of several opportunities to display her terpsichorean talents.

The Savage Innocents (June 25, 7:30 pm) stars Anthony Quinn as an Eskimo (reportedly inspiring the Bob Dylan song "Quinn the Eskimo") who slays a priest (Marco Guglielmi) after the latter declines to borrow Quinn’s wife for the evening. I bet you haven’t seen that particular plot point on screen before. An international co-production that competed at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, location shooting in Northern Canada offers some consolation for the rather dated depictions of the Inuit culture.

The series raps up with Lightning Over Water (June 26, 7:30 pm), perhaps the most unusual biographical documentary ever made. Co-directed by Ray and Wim Wenders (whose style owes much to Ray) as Ray was dying of cancer, Lightning Over Water was released in 1980 and screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s a wildly eclectic film that seems determined to mix all possible categories: film and video, reality and fiction, suspension of disbelief and breaking the fourth wall. This is one film that really has to be seen to be believed. | Sarah Boslaugh

Films in the Nicholas Ray-trospective will be screened in Moore Auditorium, Webster hall, 470 E. Lockwood Ave. in Webster Groves. Admission is $6 for the general public, $5 for seniors, Webster alumni and students from other schools, and $4 for Webster University faculty and staff. Advanced tickets and discount admission passes are available. For more information, including directions and the complete Film Series calendar, visit www.webster.edu/filmseries.


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