Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nicholas Ray

I've gone to Film Forum every day this week for the Nicholas Ray retrospective. If anything, seeing a few of his films in a row has caused me to think about the patterns in his casting--loner pretty boys like Farley Granger and James Dean; blacklist Leftists like Sterling Hayden and Robert Ryan; strong willed, feral leading ladies like Joan Crawford, Gloria Grahame and Ida Lupino; and lots of sad-eyed P.Y.T.'s with interesting faces. These are all actors of great character, many of whom led fascinating, offbeat lives offscreen. And if good direction can be attributed to expert decision-making, Ray's eye for people only makes me admire him more.

I first checked out Johnny Guitar, just to see it again, on a nice 35mm print. It remains one of my favorite films, and certainly my favorite Crawford performance. Too much to say about that one, so I'll just stop here before I start rambling.

Next up was On Dangerous Ground-I went in to that one assuming from the get-go that I'd like it because it stars Robert Ryan (see above), but as it turned out Ryan's perfectly reticent, devastating performance was only the tip of the iceberg. The film was incredible; pretty much blindsided me. You know how The Asphalt Jungle ends suddenly out in the countryside, where Sterling Hayden goes to die out on the farm with the horses? That was always my favorite part of that movie, how it shifted abruptly from the setting of a "gritty" urban noir--down in the sewers, even--to the bright open space of a farm. Well, you get a similarly jolting change of setting here, with the first half of On Dangerous Ground taking place in the dingy city, with Ryan playing a hot-headed, nihilistic detective in a cop-hating town. Then he's given a slap on the wrist and sent out to the mountains on an assignment--to help the even more hot-headed Ward Bond track down his daughter's handicapped teenage killer, in the snow with a rifle. The outdoor photography here is beautiful and crisp, and very different from the back projection that makes Johnny Guitar so (wonderfully) hokey. The cinematography is really inventive, both in the mountains and in the city--some really exciting (and unique) handheld camerawork, and a few weird but perfect shots taken from inside cars, plus a couple of moody superimpositions as the characters drive hopelessly through the city and in the snow. The same can be said for They Live By Night, which I saw yesterday--it was surprisingly well shot, considering that it was Ray's first film. One moment in particular was so impressive that my friend, usually a quiet film-watcher, let out an uncharacteristic "wow." (At least it was a quiet "wow").

I have to say, the romance works in They Live By Night, too. Even knowing that Farley Granger was gayer than a 3 dollar bill in the real world, I was surprisingly able to suspend my disbelief and fall for his pretty face. I think it was the storyline that swayed me, because normally I'm not attracted to pretty men at all. I think the lovers-on-the-run genre has a lot going for it, because the general premise is chaotic and absurd enough to float a convincing romance. One just doesn't have the time to slip into the boring routine of everyday life; of running out of things to talk about, deciding what to make for dinner and watching TV together--when you're living a life of crime. Nicholas Ray draws attention to this, while offering us a character study of the type of people who are eager to drop everything and run off--people who are both survivalist and admirably naive, who don't own anything worth holding onto and so depend on each other as a means of substantive living. Up until the end of They Live By Night, the couple operates on the assumption that eventually they'll hit a safezone, work out their legal issues and live in comfortable amnesty. But their rotating fantasies are clearly untenable, and Ray lets us know ahead of the curve that the couple wouldn't be happy living in the "real world" anyway--they don't like to dance, they think sports are stupid, and they feel out of place in social situations. It's not so much that they're running away from a broken and irreparable past as they haven't really lived yet. They're constructing a new way of life in transit that's pretty exciting and unlike anything I've ever experienced. The whole scenario befits the movies well, and I like it!

I haven't written much here about Nicholas Ray in particular, but it should go almost without saying that I'm now hooked on him. None of the internal details that I've mentioned, like character development, acting and story would be at all effective if his direction wasn't on point. Especially with a genre as tiresome as the melodrama, the direction needs to be tight to keep me awake, let alone interested, and so far he's really impressed me. I'm going to see this series at Film Forum through.


Carrie said...

I am a bit jealous that you saw They Live by Night without me, but I will get over it. You certainly make a case for the rest of Ray's films which I have never been much interested in.

No said...

Sorry, but you were at work! Next time...