Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hell is Other Movies: One Week with Nicholas Ray

The director of this week's classic, In a Lonely Place, Nicholas Ray, only had 15 years as a working Hollywood filmmaker, but in that time managed to establish himself as one of the greatest, and strangest directors to emerge from the industry.  His one big hit came mid-career with Rebel Without a Cause, but the rest of his work was only mildly successful at best and disastrous at worst, at least among the mainstream.  He was unconditionally adored by the folks in the French New Wave, and their followers.  Jean-Luc Godard, for example, began his review of Bitter Victory with this memorable bit of hyperbole: "There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray."

As I did with Hitchcock a few weeks ago and Billy Wilder last week (which I never wrote about because I caught a cold instead, but suffice it to say that 5 Graves to Cairo and Avanti! are pretty good, and One, Two Three and Kiss Me, Stupid are pretty great) I spent the past week watching some of Ray's film's I'd not gotten to yet.

Run for Cover - Netflix has this instantly available in a pretty poor, cropped print, but it's worth watching nonetheless.  James Cagney stars as a man with a shady past drifting through the West who meets a kid (John Derek) on his way into town.  When the two are mistaken for train robbers and shot, Cagney gives a big speech denouncing mob violence and helps nurse the kid back to health.  The town makes Cagney the sheriff, but finds it hard to give up their lynching ways.  Meanwhile, the kid, disfigured with a limp, can't give up his anger at the townspeople and turns bad, forcing Cagney to hunt him down and bring him to justice.  It's this kind of peculiarity in Ray's films that makes him so popular amongst auteurists (aside from his more obvious technical skills): given the most generic of film set-ups, the movie invariably turns into a Nicholas Ray film.  Derek plays another in a long line of Ray heroes who unable to cope (James Dean in Rebel, Robert Ryan in Flying Leathernecks and On Dangerous Ground, James Mason in Bigger than Life) , and Cagney is another outsider who just can't fit in (Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, the young lovers on the run in They Live By Night, even Jeffrey Hunter's Jesus in King of Kings).  As weird as it is seeing Cagney in a Western, and believe me, it is weird, the film still works because Ray's obsession with these character types, and their inability to come to any kind of resolution or peace with themselves and their world, is endlessly fascinating.

Bitter Victory - One of Ray's more acclaimed films, in certain circles at least.  Richard Burton and Curd Jürgens star as British officers sent to Benghazi to steal Nazi documents during WW2.  It also seems that, before the war, Burton and Jürgens's wife had had a relationship and she may still be in love with him.  During the attack, Jürgens fails to stab a Nazi according to plan, and Burton steps in to do it.  On the return trip, Jürgens repeatedly tries to get Burton killed, either to cover up for his cowardice, or out of jealousy, or perhaps neither, possibly just because Burton keeps needling him about how much he wants Burton dead.  One of the bleakest of WW2 films, most of it is set in the North African desert, a landscape which has never looked more alien or abstract, lending its tragedy a vibe not entirely unlike that of The Twilight Zone.  Burton was in his prime as an actor; his completely cynical and utterly romantic hero is second only to his performance as the weary to the soul CIA agent in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.  It feels like the end of the WW2 film in the way Touch of Evil is the end of film noir.  A beautiful film, I don't think I can come close to plumbing its depths in this short a space, especially after seeing it only once mere hours ago.

The True Story of Jesse James - The third major Jesse James film I've seen, after Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford from 2007 and Samuel Fuller's debut film, I Shot Jesse James.  Fuller has a lot in common with Ray, as both are revered by auteurists for their profoundly personal films made largely within the confines of the studio system, and their careers are roughly parallel, running from the late 40s to the early 60s (Fuller lasted a bit longer, making a pair of significant films in the 1980s).  Unlike those other two films, which focus as much or more on James's killer, this film is more of a straight biopic, as, after a opening sequence establishing a robbery gone wrong and James's mother lying sick in bed, various characters relate the major events of James's life in 15 minute episodes.  The character, as Ray apparently sees him, is not the charismatic hero of legend, but rather an angry young man, driven by the atrocities his family suffered during the Civil War to revenge himself on Yankees by stealing their money, first from banks, then trains.  He's barely more sympathetic than a traditionally psychotic outlaw like Billy the Kid.  Part of that, though, may be casting.  James Dean was apparently supposed to play the part, but died before the film could be made.  A wholly inadequate Robert Wagner takes his place, and resembles more a pretty, empty suit than a legendary outlaw.  Jeffrey Hunter is better as Frank James, though the age difference between him and Wagner doesn't seem close to being correct.  The best part of the film comes at the end, after Ford has killed James and the James household his rushed by curious townspeople.  Frank James chases them away, but not before a couple of on-lookers help themselves to some Jesse James memorabilia.  As the camera pulls away from the house, a homeless drifter walks along singing the "Jesse James" folksong.  His body yet to turn cold and already his true story is transformed into mythic art.

The Savage Innocents - Here we find Ray in the Arctic, making a film with Anthony Quinn as an eskimo (Quinn the Eskimo, get it?)  Set in the present, but completely outside of modernity, the first half of the film chronicles Quinn's way of life, especially focusing on his finding a wife and creating a family.  This life is shattered with a bang as Quinn encounters an eskimo who has traded for a gun.  Making his way to the trading post to get his own gun, Quinn and his family encounter white men and rock and roll and Christianity for the first time.  A misunderstanding leads to the death of a missionary and Peter O'Toole (not in his own voice, which rightly annoyed him: he had his name stricken from the credits) spends years hunting Quinn down to bring him to "justice".  In addition to being a moving examination of a culture clash, the film is also very funny, and not in a condescending way, more like Dead Man or The Outlaw Josey Wales in its treatment of the relations between Natives and Europeans.  Owing an obvious debt to Robert Flaherty's groundbreaking documentary Nanook of the North, it also reminds me a lot of another Flaherty film, 1948's Louisiana Story, which also chronicles the disappearance of a traditional community at the hands of modernity.  Visually, the location work is breathtaking, anticipating Lawrence of Arabia in the widescreen vastness of its spaces, but the film is marred by a lot of bad 1960s-era process shots.

55 Days at Peking - Ray's last Hollywood film is an epic disaster, and he didn't even manage to finish it, suffering a heart attack halfway through filming (he went on to a variety of other things, notably teaching filmmaking and making a movie with Wim Wenders in the late 70s).  This one, however, is one of the many international epics that conspired to destroy Hollywood in the 1960s (think Khartoum, Exodus or Ray's previous film, King of Kings).  Set during the Boxer Rebellion, an event for which we are given little in the way of context, it tells the story of the Europeans trapped in their corner of the city as the Chinese attempt to kick them out of their country and they wait for reinforcements to save them.  David Niven plays the leader of the British delegation, whose decision it is to stay and fight because otherwise. . . well, we aren't really sure, but Niven assures us it would be bad (supposedly not so bad for the Chinese, but that's beside the point).  Charlton Heston is the American military commander in town, and he leads his men in various war movie exploits that take up much of the film (and were apparently not directed by Ray).  Ava Gardner plays a Russian countess who's being shunned because her husband killed himself after she had an affair with a Chinese officer who rehabilitates herself by hooking up with Heston and becoming a nurse.  The most interesting thing about the film is how you end up rooting for the Chinese to overthrow their racist and imperialist oppressors (this, more or less, is Heston to a buddy who's considering bringing his half-Chinese daughter, otherwise orphaned, home with him, "What chance would she have in Illinois?  She's better off here with her own kind.")  The film also features some rare pre-Shaw Borthers kung fu, featuring Yuen Siu Tien, the father of famed director and choreographer Yuen Woo-ping.  The film is a mess, and appears to have been edited down to the edge of incoherence.  Scenes end abruptly and there's little of the nuance or insight that defines a Nicholas Ray film.

In the interest of list-making, here is how I'd rank all the Ray films I've seen:

1. Johnny Guitar
2. In a Lonely Place
3. Bitter Victory
4. Rebel Without a Cause
5. The Savage Innocents
6. Bigger than Life
7. On Dangerous Ground
8. They Live by Night
9. The Lusty Men
10. Party Girl
11. Flying Leathernecks
12. Run for Cover
13. Macao
14. King of Kings
15. Hot Blood
16. The True Story of Jesse James
17. Knock on Any Door
18. 55 Days at Peking

The late Farley Granger in They Live by Night

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