Nicholas Ray - Director

Nationality: American. Born: Raymond Nicholas Kienzle in Galesville, Wisconsin, 7 August 1911. Education: Educated in architecture and theater, University of Chicago. Family: Married

Nicholas Ray (left) with James Dean
Nicholas Ray (left) with James Dean
1) Jean Evans, 1930 (divorced); 2) Gloria Grahame, 1948 (divorced 1952); 3) dancer Betty Schwab (divorced); 4) Susan (Ray), four children. Career: Director, Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin Playhouse, early 1930s; in Theater of Action, 1935–37; joined John Houseman's Phoenix Theater, accident results in loss of sight in right eye, 1938; named War Information Radio Program Director by Houseman, 1942; director on Broadway, 1943; assistant to Elia Kazan in Hollywood, 1944; directed first film, They Live by Night , 1948; walked off set of 55 Days at Peking , moved to Paris, 1962; teacher of filmmaking at State University of New York, Binghamton, 1971–73. Died: In New York, 16 June 1979.

Films as Director:


They Live by Night (first released in Britain as The Twisted Road , U.S. release 1949); A Woman's Secret


Knock on Any Door


In a Lonely Place ; Born to Be Bad


The Flying Leathernecks


On Dangerous Ground ; The Lusty Men


Johnny Guitar


Run for Cover ; Rebel without a Cause (+ story)


Hot Blood ; Bigger than Life


The True Story of Jesse James ; Bitter Victory (+ co-sc)


Wind across the Everglades ; Party Girl


The Savage Innocents (+ sc)


King of Kings


55 Days at Peking (co-d)


You Can't Go Home Again (+ sc, unfinished)


Lightning over Water ( Nick's Movie ) (co-d, role as himself)

Other Films:


Der Amerikanische Freund ( The American Friend ) (Wenders) (role)


Hair (Forman) (role)


By RAY: articles—

"Portrait de l'acteur en jeune homme," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 66, 1956.

"Story into Script," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1956.

Interview with Charles Bitsch, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1958.

"Conversation with Nicholas Ray and Joseph Losey," with Penelope Houston, in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1961.

Interview with Jean Douchet and Jacques Joly, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1962.

Interview with Adriano AprĂ  and others, in Movie (London), May 1963.

Interview in Interviews with Film Directors , edited by Andrew Sarris, New York, 1967.

"Nicholas Ray Today," an interview with J. Greenberg, in Filmmakers Newsletter (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), January 1973.

"Nicholas Ray: Rebel!," an interview with M. Goodwin and N. Wise, in Take One (Montreal), January 1977.

"On Directing," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1990.

"Ray's World according to Ray," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 27, September-October 1991.

On RAY: books—

McArthur, Colin, Underworld U.S.A. , London, 1972.

Kreidl, John, Nicholas Ray , Boston, 1977.

Masi, Stefano, Nicholas Ray , Florence, 1983.

Allan, Blaine, Nicholas Ray: A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1984.

Hillier, Jim, editor, Cahiers du Cinéma 1: Neo-realism, Hollywood, New Wave , London, 1985.

Erice, Victor, and Jos Oliver, Nicholas Ray y su tiempo , Madrid, 1986.

Giuliani, Pierre, Nicholas Ray , Paris, 1987.

Wagner, Jean, Nicholas Ray , Paris, 1987.

Eisenschitz, Bernard, translated by Tom Milne, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey , London and Boston, 1993.

On RAY: articles—

Archer, Eugene, "Generation without a Cause," in Film Culture (New York), vol. 2, no. 1, 1956.

Perkins, Victor, "The Cinema of Nicholas Ray," in Movie Reader , edited by Ian Cameron, New York, 1972.

Wood, Robin, "Film Favorites," in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1972.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan, "Circle of Pain: The Cinema of Nicholas Ray," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1973.

" Johnny Guitar Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), March 1974.

Biskind, Peter, " Rebel without a Cause: Nicholas Ray in the Fifties," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1974.

Lederer, Joseph, "Film as Experience: Nicholas Ray—The Director Turns Teacher," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), November 1975.

Cocks, J., "Director in Aspic," in Take One (Montreal), Janu-ary 1977.

Thomson, D., "In a Lonely Place," in Sight and Sound (London), no. 4, 1979.

Obituary, in The New York Times , 18 June 1979.

Beylie, Claude, obituary, in Ecran (Paris), 15 September 1979.

Farrell, T., and others, "Nicholas Ray: The Last Movies," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1981.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan, "Looking for Nicholas Ray," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), December 1981.

Eisenschitz, B., "Nicholas Ray, téléaste," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1985.

Houseman, John, "Houseman, Ray, and OphĂĽls," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1986.

Tobin, Y., in Positif (Paris), hors-série, January 1991.

Rosenbaum, J., "Guilty by Omission," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 27, September-October 1991.

Kennedy, H., "The Melodramatists," in American Film (Marion, Ohio), vol. 17, January-February 1992.

Margulies, I., "Delaying the Cut: The Space of Performance in Lightning over Water ," in Screen , vol. 34, no. 1, Spring 1993.

Wollen, P., "Never at Home," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 4, May 1994.

Hauisch, M., "Der Poet der nacht, Nicholas Ray und sein werk," in Film-Dienst (Köln), vol. 46, no. 17, 13 August 1996.

* * *

"The cinema is Nicholas Ray." Godard's magisterial statement has come in for a good deal of ridicule, not by any means entirely undeserved. Yet it contains a core of truth, especially if taken in reverse. Nicholas Ray is cinema in the sense that his films work entirely (and perhaps only) as movies , arrangements of space and movement charged with dramatic tension. Few directors demonstrate more clearly that a film is something beyond the sum of its parts. Consider only the more literary components—dialogue, plot, characterisation—and a film like Party Girl is patently trash. But on the screen the visual turbulence of Ray's shooting style, the fractured intensity of his editing, fuse the elements into a valid emotional whole. The flaws are still apparent, but have become incidental.

Nor is Ray's cinematic style in any way extraneous, imposed upon his subjects. The nervous tension within the frame also informs his characters, vulnerable violent outsiders at odds with society and with themselves. The typical Ray hero is a loner, at once contemptuous of the complacent normal world and tormented with a longing to be reaccepted into it—to become (like Bowie and Keechie, the young lovers of They Live by Night ) "like real people." James Dean in Rebel without a Cause , Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground , Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men , all start by rejecting the constraints of the nuclear family, only to find themselves impelled to recreate it in substitute form, as though trying to fill an unacknowledged void. In one achingly elegiac scene in The Lusty Men , Mitchum prowls around the tumbledown shack that was his childhood home, "looking for something I thought I'd lost."

Ray's grounding in architecture (he studied at Taliesin with Frank Lloyd Wright) reveals itself in an exceptionally acute sense of space, often deployed as an extension of states of mind. In his films the geometry of locations, and especially interiors, serves as a psychological terrain. Conflict can be played out, and tension expressed, in terms of spatial areas (upstairs and downstairs, for example, or the courtyards and levels of an apartment complex) pitted against each other. Ray also credited Wright with instilling in him "a love of the horizontal line"—and hence of the CinemaScope screen, for which he felt intuitive affinity. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who found it awkward and inhibiting, Ray avidly explores the format's potential, sometimes combining it with lateral tracking shots to convey lyrical movement, at other times angling his camera to create urgent diagonals, suggesting characters straining against the constrictions of the frame.

Equally idiosyncratic is Ray's expressionist use of colour, taken at times to heights of delirium that risk toppling into the ridiculous. In Johnny Guitar , perhaps the most flamboyantly baroque Western ever made, Joan Crawford is colour-coded red, white, or black according to which aspect of her character—whore, victim, or gunslinger—is uppermost in a given scene. Similarly, the contrast in Bigger than Life between the hero's respectable job as a schoolteacher and his déclassé moonlighting for a taxi firm is signalled by an abrupt cut from the muted grey-browns of the school to a screenful of gaudy yellow cabs that hit the audience's eyes with a visual slap.

Nearly all Ray's finest films were made in the 1950s, their agonized romanticism cutting across the grain of that decade's brittle optimism. "The poet of American disenchantment" (in David Thomson's phrase), Ray viewed social conventions as a trap, from which violence or madness may be the only escape. In Bigger than Life , James Mason's smalltown teacher, frustrated by his low social status, gains the feelings of power and superiority he aspires to from a nerve drug. Under its influence the character is transformed into a hideous parody of the dominant father-figure enjoined by society. Similarly—but working from the opposite perspective— In a Lonely Place subverts Bogart's tough-guy persona, revealing the anguish and insecurity that underlie it and, as V.F. Perkins puts it, making "violence the index of the character's weakness rather than strength."

"I'm a stranger here myself." Ray often quoted Sterling Hayden's line from Johnny Guitar as his personal motto. His career, as he himself was well aware, disconcertingly mirrored the fate of his own riven, alienated heroes. Unappreciated (or so he felt) in America, and increasingly irked by the constraints of the studio system, he nonetheless produced all his best work there. In Europe, where he was hailed as one of the world's greatest directors, his craft deserted him: after two ill-starred epics, the last sixteen years of his life trickled away in a mess of incoherent footage and abortive projects. Victim of his own legend, Ray finally took self-identification with his protagonists to its ultimate tortured conclusion—collaborating, in Lightning over Water , in the filming of his own disintegration and death.

—Philip Kemp

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: