Wednesday, March 31, 2021

#2,546. 55 Days at Peking (1963) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


Like most of Samuel Bronston’s movies, his 1963 production of 55 Days at Peking was designed to be an epic, a grand, overpowering spectacle about China’s Boxer Uprising of 1900. To this end, enormous sets were constructed at Bronston’s studio in Spain, in essence a period recreation of Peking in its entirety “Unhappily”, star Charlton Heston would write in his journal, “we never turned a camera on two/thirds of this incredible city”.

That sums up the major issue I had with 55 Days at Peking, Nicholas Ray’s last major film: it is an epic shot, at most times, as if it was a drama.

Major Matt Lewis (Heston) of the U.S. Marines has just arrived in Peking. Once there, he strikes up a romance with Russian Baroness Natalie Ivanoff (Ava Gardner). Alas, their time together will be limited, because the Boxers – a secret society intent on ridding their country of European rule – have been busy as of late, executing Christian missionaries and attacking anyone who opposes them.

Loyal to China’s Dowager Empress (Flora Robson) and controlled by her next-in-command, Prince Tuan (Robert Helpmann), the Boxers prepare for a major assault on Peking, and it falls to Major Lewis, Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven), and a small allied military force to protect the European residents of Peking until help arrives.

There are moments throughout 55 Days at Peking that have an epic feel to them, including a battle in the shadow of the city’s wall (with hundreds of extras and a fairly powerful cannon) as well as a late scene where Lewis, Robertson, and a few others attempt to sabotage the Chinese military’s ammo bunker. Alas, with a runtime of over two and a half hours, that’s not nearly enough (a handful of minor skirmishes are scattered throughout, but with Ray shooting most of the action in close-up, they just don’t feel very exciting).

Instead, 55 Days at Peking features a slew of dialogue-heavy sequences, some of which bring the pace of the movie to a grinding halt. The romance between Lewis and the Baroness is especially feeble (due in large part to the mediocre performances delivered by Heston and Gardner), while several political debates - where the city’s European leaders are trying to decide the best course of action - run on far too long (director Ray even turns up at one point as the U.S. envoy). The lone exception are the scenes involving Lewis and a half Chinese / half American girl (Lynne Sue Moon) whose father, also a Marine, was killed in battle (Heston does a fair job conveying his character’s discomfort when informing the girl of her father’s death).

As for the rest of the cast, Niven is admirable as the UK representative who must put the interests of his country above all else, as is John Ireland, who portrays Lewis’s subordinate, Sgt. Harry. Also good are Paul Lukas as the ornery Dr, Steinfeldt and Harry Andrews as a Catholic priest who knows a little something about cannons. And while Robson, Helpmann, and Leo Genn (who plays Chinese General Jung-Lu) deliver fine performances, their make-up (designed to make them appear Asian) is distracting and more than a little offensive.

As with Wind Across the Everglades, Nicholas Ray wouldn’t finish 55 Days at Peking; he suffered a minor heart attack on-set (brought on, some believe by exhaustion) and was rushed to the hospital. Bronston, who wasn’t happy that Ray had fallen behind schedule, decided to finish the movie without him, and turned the reins over to second unit director Andrew Marton.

Unfortunately, Nicholas Ray would never direct a major motion picture again, and while 55 Days at Peking isn’t terrible, the director of They Live by Night, In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without a Cause and so many others deserved a much better send-off.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Monday, March 29, 2021

#2,545. King of Kings (1961) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


Nicholas Ray may have directed it, but 1961’s King of Kings belonged to producer Samuel Bronston. The man who would eventually spearhead big-budget spectacles such as El-Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, it seemed only natural that Bronston would be the one to bring the grandest epic adventure of them all – the life of Jesus - to the big screen.

Opening in 63 B.C., when Pompey the Great (Conrado San Martin) conquered Jerusalem, King of Kings then presents the story of Jesus (played by Jeffrey Hunter) as written in the New Testament, from his birth in a Bethlehem manger to the miracles he performed, straight through to his trial and crucifixion. Joining Hunter is a supporting cast that includes Siobhan McKenna (as Mary), Robert Ryan (John the Baptist), Frank Thring (Herod Antipas), Hurd Hatfield (Pontius Pilate), and Ron Randall (as Lucius, Pilate’s second in command). In addition, Royal Dano portrays the apostle Peter and Carmen Savilla is Mary Magdalene.

Along with relating the biblical tale of Jesus, King of Kings (which was narrated throughout by the always-reliable Orson Welles) also dedicates a fair portion of its 168 minute runtime to the story of Barabbas (Harry Guardino), a revolutionary determined to rid Judea of Roman rule. Barabbas’s good friend Judas Iscariot (Rip Torn), himself an apostle, tries to convince the rebel to talk with Jesus, but Barabbas favored action over words, and would initiate a failed coup in Jerusalem on the very day Jesus entered the city (one of the film’s few action scenes, this battle is fairly exciting).

Hunter is serviceable in the lead role, and has a few strong moments (especially when Jesus is praying in the garden just before his arrest), though the standout performances are delivered by Ryan (as the Baptist), Thring (as Herod Antipas), and especially Guardino (as the oft-angry Barabbas).

There are plenty of big moments throughout King of Kings; along with the battle in Jerusalem, there’s the impressive staging of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus addresses a throng of followers, while the opening scene of Pompey entering Jerusalem gets the movie off to a thrilling start. And while he was a bit out of his element helming a lavish spectacle, Nicholas Ray did occasionally let his creative side shine through (during the crucifixion scene, he mounts his camera on top of the cross as its lifted into place, and the dance scene featuring Herod Antipas’s stepdaughter Salome, played by Brigid Bazlen, is also well-staged).

While King of Kings may, indeed, be an atypical Nick Ray film, as biblical epics go it ranks right up there with Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments as one of the era’s best.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Saturday, March 27, 2021

#2,544. The Savage Innocents (1960) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


I have rarely been as conflicted sitting down to write a review as I am right now. There are elements of Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents that are stunningly beautiful, and others that - viewed through a modern lens – could be downright offensive.

I will do my best to balance the two, to do the film justice while also letting any potential viewers know what they’re in for, and it’s a damn tricky tightrope to walk.

But here goes.

The last true Nicholas Ray film (he also penned the screenplay), The Savage Innocents is set in the remote arctic wilderness, and stars Anthony Quinn as Inuk, a member of a community of Inuits that have had little to no dealings with the outside world.

We follow Inuk on his adventures: fishing, hunting walruses and polar bears, and doing his best to stay alive in the extreme cold. He eventually marries Asiak (Yoko Tani), who proves to be as strong-willed as Inuk,

After making themselves known to the local whites (by trading a hundred fox pelts for a new rifle), Inuk and Asiak are visited by a Christian missionary (Marco Guglielmi), who Inuk accidentally kills (the missionary inadvertently insulted Inuk by refusing his “generous” offer to sleep with Asiak). Though he carries on with life as usual, the killing of the missionary doesn’t go unnoticed, and before long two policemen (Carlo Giustini and a very young Peter O’Toole) track Inuk down and arrest him for murder.

Quinn delivers a grand performance as Inuk, and Yoko Tani is also exceptional as his dutiful yet stubborn wife (the scene where Ariak gives birth wile completely alone in their igloo is quite powerful). As previously mentioned, The Savage Innocents also marked an early appearance by Peter O’Toole, in what would be his second big-screen role; and the sequences shot in the wilds of Canada and Greenland - as well as the film’s extraordinary score (composed by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino) - do their part to bring an almost mystical quality to the arctic setting.

Alas, as I alluded to above, The Savage Innocents has its issues as well. The casting of Quinn as an Inuit – right down to the makeup used to alter his eyes – may rub a few modern viewers the wrong way (though I stand by my initial assertion that his performance was strong. He gives the character a warmth and dignity that is palpable). More upsetting is the way women are treated as objects and possessions (even if this is based on actual Inuit customs, it’s still uncomfortable to watch). Aside from the scene with the Missionary, there’s an early sequence in which Inuk angers his friend Kiddok (Anthony Chinn) by refusing to “laugh” with Kiddok’s wife when she’s offered to him (the term “laughing” is used throughout the movie as a thinly-veiled metaphor for sex).

And while I certainly enjoyed seeing O’Toole in an early role (he is, after all, one of my favorite actors), his entire performance was dubbed! Yes, that’s right, folks… Peter O’Toole was dubbed by an American. Do you know how weird it is to see Peter O’Toole but not hear him?

It’s more troublesome issues aside, The Savage Innocents is a very well-made film. I’m glad I saw it, and because of the skill that went into it’s making (and the compassionate portrayal of the Inuits, who are much more sympathetic than any of the film’s so-called “civilized” characters), I recommend it.

But just know there will be moments when the movie will have you squirming uncomfortably in your seat. I know it occasionally had that effect on me.
Rating: 7 out of 10

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Capsule Reviews Part 2 - The Films of Nicholas Ray


Run For Cover (1955) – Nicholas Ray’s Run For Cover is a solid, entertaining western starring James Cagney as cowboy Matt Dow, who, along with his new friend Davey (John Derek), is falsely accused of train robbery. Eventually cleared of the crime, Matt is then hired by the townsfolk (the very people who suspected him in the first place) to be their new sheriff. He meets and falls in love with Helga (Viveca Lindfors), the daughter of a Swedish farmer named Swenson (Jean Hersholt, in his final screen role), and even talks Davey into being his deputy. But when a group of outlaws robs the bank, Matt learns that the life of a small-town sheriff isn’t without its dangers, and even your closest friends can become your enemies. Arguably a bit old to be playing a western hero (he was in his mid-50s), Cagney is nonetheless quite good as the sheriff who is as honest as the day is long (he proves this in the opening scene, when he and Davey are being hunted by a posse for their supposed role in holding up a passing train). And it’s his character, who always stays true to his principles, that makes Run For Cover as good as it is. Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Party Girl (1958) – Party Girl was a studio assignment for Nicholas Ray; he didn’t have a hand in writing the screenplay, nor was he involved in the film’s post-production. Still, even with his limited input, it turned out to be a damn good movie. Set in Chicago during the days of Prohibition, Party Girl stars Robert Taylor as high-profile attorney Tommy Farrell, whose primary client is mob boss Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb). Farrell eventually falls in love with dance hall girl Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse), and after undergoing an operation to fix his bum leg (the result of a childhood injury), he promises Vicki that he’s through representing criminals. But Rico has no intention of cutting his “Golden Boy” loose, and threatens to hurt Vicki if Farrell walks away. The romance between Farrell and Vicki is well-handled, and the movie even features a handful of exhilarating dance numbers, where Charisse (a veteran of Hollywood musicals) struts her stuff to great effect. Yet it’s the mob-related sequences in Party Girl that really impressed me. Cobb delivers an electrifying performance as the occasionally out-of-control Rico; in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, he hosts a party to honor a colleague, then proceeds to beat the man of the hour senseless. In addition there’s a late montage depicting a gangland war that is positively mesmerizing. Party Girl may not be pure Nick Ray, but in moments such as these his unique touch is on full display. Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

#2,543. Wind Across the Everglades (1958) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


Nicholas Ray never got to finish Wind Across the Everglades; he and the film’s producer Budd Schulberg clashed repeatedly during its production, and their differences of opinion (complicated, no doubt, by Ray’s out-of-control drug and alcohol consumption) eventually led to his firing (Schulberg stepped in and completed the movie himself).

As a result, most Ray fans turn their nose up at the movie (though the French New Wave critics of the time declared it a masterpiece). Which is a shame, because Wind Across the Everglades features moments of pure brilliance, and enough of Ray’s unique touch is evident throughout to make it a worthy entry in his filmography.

The setting is Florida, in the early days of the 20th century, when the territory was still wild and lawless. Teacher Walt Murdock (Christopher Plummer) is hired to serve as the area’s new Game Warden, and is tasked with protecting the local loon population, which is being hunted, en masse, for its plumage.

This puts Murdock in direct conflict with a poacher known as Cottonmouth (Burl Ives), who, along with his band of criminals, shoots dozens of Loons daily, selling their feathers for a nice profit to the businessmen of Miami. Cottonmouth (who, true to his name, carries a pet snake around with him) is a powerful man, and his hideout is situated deep in the swamps of the Everglades, making it almost impossible to reach him.

Murdock, however, takes his job very seriously, and despite the warnings of the town’s leaders, as well as those of his new girlfriend Naomi (Chana Eden), he vows to bring Cottonmouth to justice, or die trying.

The cast assembled for Wind Across the Everglades is solid, and along with featuring a number of firsts (it was Christopher Plummer’s first starring role, as well as the screen debut of Peter Falk, who plays a member of Cottonmouth’s gang), the film co-stars such notables as stripper Gypsy Lee Rose (as the Madame of a Miami brothel) and circus clown Emmet Kelly (appearing briefly as yet another of Cottonmouth’s thugs).

The standout, though, is Burl Ives, whose gritty portrayal of Cottonmouth figures in many of the film’s most memorable scenes; when two escaped prisoners (one of whom is played by boxer Tony Galento) stumble upon his swamp hideout, Cottonmouth gives them a chance to earn their place in his group by fighting a pair of his cronies

As he did in Johnny Guitar, Ray continually blurs the line between hero and villain throughout Wind Across the Everglades, and as a result we both fear and admire Cottonmouth. Though often treacherous, he proves time and again that he’s an honorable thief, especially in the film’s unforgettable final act (during which we also catch a glimpse of the “hero” Murdock’s darker side).

Shot on-location in Florida’s Everglades National Park, Wind Across the Everglades is a gorgeous motion picture - enhanced by the inclusion of stock footage that features the area’s wildlife - but true to form, Nicholas Ray ensured (as much as he could, that is) that his characters and their story were never once overshadowed by the scenery.

Despite the fact he had been fired, Nicholas Ray still tried to salvage his “version” of Wind Across the Everglades. After seeing a preview of the movie, he wrote a lengthy letter to Schulberg imploring him to re-insert several excised sequences and assuring the producer that, had he been retained, he would never have permitted Burl Ives’ “overacting” in the final scene (which was shot after Ray had been dismissed).

As previously stated, Wind Across the Everglades is a strong, well-paced, highly entertaining picture in its current state. Yet the Nick Ray fan in me can’t help but wonder how much better it might have been. Rating: 8 out of 10

Sunday, March 21, 2021

#2,542. The True Story of Jesse James (1957) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


With his penchant for making movies about troubled young rebels, it seemed only natural that Nicholas Ray would direct a film about the exploits of Jesse James, the former Confederate guerrilla who - along with his brother Frank and the Younger brothers - turned to a life of crime and subsequently became a folk hero.

The True Story of Jesse James opens in exciting fashion, with the Northfield Minnesota bank robbery, the last that the James / Younger gang would ever attempt. The heist doesn’t go off as planned, and most of the gang, including Cole Younger (Alan Hale Jr.), are either captured or killed.

Jesse James (Robert Wagner) and his brother Frank (Jeffrey Hunter) survive, and while making their way back to Missouri they recount their past accomplishments, as well as the reasons why this latest robbery was doomed from the start.

Told mostly in flashback, The True Story of Jesse James covers a fair portion of the famed bandit’s later years, from his service in Quantrill’s raiders during the Civil War (though no battle scenes are actually featured) through to his marriage to his cousin Zee (competently portrayed by Hope Lange). The action scenes are well staged (especially the Northfield raid, which we see twice – once at the beginning of the film and again at the end of it), and it seems that Ray and the screenwriting duo of Nunnally Johnson and Walter Newman went to great lengths to ensure the film was historically accurate (right down to the beating a teenage Jesse received at the hands of a neighbor / Northern sympathizer, for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of his brother Frank).

And while The True Story of Jesse James can be a bit stiff at times (due in part to the uninspired performance delivered by Robert Wagner as the title character), it remains, along with The Long Riders and 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, one of the better movies made about the ill-fated outlaw.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Friday, March 19, 2021

#2,541. Bitter Victory (1957) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


I admire Bitter Victory.

I really do.

It’s a well-made World War II film about a platoon of British soldiers sent on a desperate mission in North Africa. Richard Burton delivers a strong performance as Captain Leith, former archaeologist and second-in-command, as does Curt Jurgens, who portrays Major Brand, the inexperienced officer heading up the operation.

Bitter Victory also boasts an intriguing love triangle; Major Brand is married to Jane (Ruth Roman), who, unbeknownst to him, once had an affair with Leith. In addition, this 1957 movie features a handful of competently-staged action sequences - including a raid on General Rommel’s headquarters - and the desert setting definitely works in the film’s favor (many scenes were shot on-location in Libya), as does the tension that builds between Leith and Brand (Brand is slow to act, putting the mission in jeopardy time and again, and he fears that Leith will report him to the High Command).

Hell, Christopher Lee himself, one of the stalwarts of Hammer’s classic horror films, turns up in Bitter Victory in a supporting role (he plays Sergeant Barney, the platoon’s medic).

Yet, despite the film’s many strengths, Bitter Victory never feels like a Nicholas Ray film.

For one, the pacing is sluggish; even with its action sequences the movie never really builds up any momentum, limping from one scene to the next. Also, Bitter Victory lacks the cinematic flair that Ray brought to so many of his previous movies (I mentioned above that the action scenes were "competently staged". For any other filmmaker, this would have been fine, but for Nicholas Ray, whose They Live By Night, In a Lonely Place, and Rebel Without a Cause were oozing style, it’s a back-handed compliment at best).

Again, I don’t want to discourage you from watching Bitter Victory. It’s a fine motion picture, and I recommend it. It just didn’t feel like a Nicholas Ray film to me, and with his name attached to it, I was hoping for something more.
Rating: 6 out of 10

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

#2,540. Bigger Than Life (1956) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


The opening scenes of Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life feel as if they were lifted straight out of a Douglas Sirk film. Like Ray, Sirk did some of his best work in the 1950’s (All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life), films set in the supposedly idyllic American suburbs that stripped away the artifice, exploring the conformity and pressures such a lifestyle demands.

We get that same feeling as we’re introduced to Bigger Than Life’s Ed Avery (James Mason), a school teacher who lives with his beautiful wife Lou (Barbara Rush) and young son Richie (Christopher Olsen) in a nice, middle-class neighborhood. But as we soon learn, Ed’s life is far from perfect. To make ends meet, he has to work two jobs (aside from teaching, he’s a dispatcher at a cab company). He hides his second job from Lou out of fear she might think it’s beneath him (instead, Ed’s secrecy has convinced his wife that he’s having an affair).

Even more worrying is the fact that Ed suffers from bouts of severe pain, which he at first chalks up to overwork. But when he collapses at home one evening, a frightened Lou calls Ed’s fellow teacher and best friend Wally (Walter Matthau) who takes Ed straight to the hospital. As it turns out, Ed has a very rare disorder, one that, if left untreated, could prove fatal in a year’s time. Fortunately, a new miracle drug – Cortizone - has been effective in treating this disorder, and his doctors prescribe it for Ed immediately.

It’s at this point that Bigger Than Life transforms from a story of suburbia into a living nightmare, told as only a director like Nicholas Ray could tell it.

As Ed takes the Cortizone, his mood begins to change. He worries less and less about his financial woes, quitting his second job and shelling out money he doesn’t have to buy Lou an expensive dress and Richie a new bike.

But it doesn’t stop there; as Ed consumes more and more Cortizone - in doses far greater than the doctors prescribed – he experiences delusions of grandeur, declaring himself the savior of the American education system and testing his new theories on Richie, pressuring the boy with tests and math problems night and day. What’s more, he berates Lou in front of their son, shouting that he never should have married somebody who was his intellectual inferior.

Concerned for his friend, Wally does a little research and discovers that the side effects brought on by an overuse of Cortizone are every bit as dangerous as Ed’s physical ailment. Of course, if Ed doesn’t take the Cortizone, he’ll be dead in a year. Faced with this incredible dilemma, Lou and Wally do what they can to save Ed from both the Cortizone and his own destructive behavior before it’s too late.

Bigger Than Life is an incredibly powerful, often disturbing motion picture that shines a light on the perils of drug abuse. As he did in movies like They Live by Night and Johnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray infuses the film with style to spare. One of Bigger Than Life’s most memorable images is that of a strung-out Ed standing behind Richie, who is hard at work on a math problem that Ed assigned him. Having already deprived Richie of his lunch (for failing to catch a football), Ed now says he can’t have dinner either until the problem is solved. Lit from below, Ed seems to tower over Richie in this scene, casting a shadow that fills the entire background. It’s as if Ed has become a monster, looming over his son, and we feel the mounting pressure that poor Richie feels.

Yet in true Ray fashion, the cinematic bells and whistles never outshine the characters or their story. James Mason delivers one of his strongest performances as a man whose addictions have unleashed the demon inside, while Barbara Rush is equally excellent as the patient wife who wants to protect both her husband (from himself) and her son (from Ed). We watch in stunned silence as she remains calm throughout, even as her entire world is falling apart, until she has no choice but to take matters into her own hands.

The tension never stops mounting, reaching its zenith in a final act that would have been right at home in a horror movie. Bigger Than Life is a masterpiece.
Rating: 10 out of 10

Monday, March 15, 2021

#2,539. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


Ever since I was seventeen years old, the age I was when Nick died, people have asked me if I knew James Dean. I’d always do the math in my head. He died in 1955. I was born in 1961. There was a six year difference between his death and my birth. I tried figuring out a way that I could have known him. People seemed to want that from me. Rebel Without a Cause is a ghost tapping my shoulder so I won’t forget who my father was

– Nicca Ray, from her book Ray by Ray: A Daughter’s Take on the Legend of Nicholas Ray.

On September 30, 1955, actor James Dean was driving his new Porsche - which he nicknamed “Little Bastard” - to Salinas, California to enter it in a race. At approximately 5:45 pm, two hours after he was pulled over by the police and ticketed for speeding, Dean collided with another vehicle on U.S. Route 466. Suffering multiple injuries, including a broken neck, Dean was pronounced dead at Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital at 6:20 p.m.

A member of the Actors Studio, Dean’s star shined brightly for a very short period of time. He appeared in a number of televised plays in the early ‘50s before being tapped by Elia Kazan for the role of Cal Trask in 1953’s East of Eden.

Dean would appear in only two more films, both of which were released posthumously: Giant, directed by George Stevens; and the movie that would become his trademark, Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause. Capturing teen angst like few movies ever have, Rebel Without a Cause is one of the seminal films of the 1950's, and considered by many to be one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.

Having just moved to a new neighborhood, troubled teen Jim Stark (Dean), whose relationship with his parents (Jim Backus and Ann Doran) is tentative at best, attempts to make some friends. Unfortunately, he instead draws the ire of local bully Buzz (Corey Allen), who is now bound and determined to make Jim’s life a living hell.

Jim does manage to befriend both Judy (Natalie Wood), Buzz’s equally troubled girlfriend, as well as social outcast Plato (Sal Mineo). But a tragic accident will not only threaten to tear the three apart, but change their lives forever.

Nicholas Ray let his creativity run wild throughout Rebel Without a Cause. A scene with Jim and his parents, set soon after the accident, features spinning cameras and distorted angles, effectively conveying the chaos that rages in young Jim’s mind, and the confusion and anger that has made life unbearable for him.

As Jim's two friends, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo deliver what might be the finest performances of their careers, portraying characters whose home lives are as tumultuous as Jim’s. Judy’s father (William Hopper) all but ignores his daughter, while both of Plato’s parents are out of the picture, leaving him to be raised by the maid (skillfully portrayed by Marietta Canty).

It’s James Dean, though, who makes Rebel Without a Cause an undeniable classic. From his initial appearance on-screen, where he drunkenly cozies up to a toy monkey he found on the street, to the sequence set in the police precinct, when he pours his heart out to Detective Ray Fremick (Edward Platt), Dean is absolutely masterful. It is a performance for the ages, and director Nicholas Ray complements it perfectly, ensuring we the audience are, at all times, tuned in to his main character’s plight; the scene where Jim begs his father to support him against his domineering mother will damn near break your heart.

Rebel Without a Cause premiered less than a month after Dean’s death, and to see how spectacular he is in it is to recognize that Hollywood lost something very special that late September day in 1955.
Rating: 10 out of 10

Saturday, March 13, 2021

#2,538. Johnny Guitar (1954) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar is a western, but it is also not a western.

What I mean is, the movie has all the tropes one would normally associate with the genre: the period setting, the vast landscapes, gunfighters, shoot-outs, etc., etc. 

But it is a movie that centers more on passion (both love and hate) than it does action or adventure, and its characters are not your typical western heroes and villains. In fact, they’re all a little of both; we cheer for them one minute, pray they’ll get their comeuppance the next. Yet we hang on their every word, their every exchange, and by the time Johnny Guitar is over, we are as emotionally drained as those characters lucky enough to escape with their lives.

Joan Crawford plays Vienna, owner of a casino / saloon on the outskirts of a dusty Arizona town. Vienna’s place may not be packing them in just yet, but with the railroad planning to lay down track in her front yard, she knows it’s only a matter of time before she will be a very wealthy woman.

Vienna does have one problem, though: the locals, led by rancher Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) and community leader John McIvers (Ward Bond), are doing everything in their power to put her out of business. In fact, Emma - fueled by her veiled feelings for Vienna’s former lover The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) - so detests Vienna that she wants to see her dead!

Enter Johnny (Sterling Hayden), a cowboy who would rather carry his guitar than a six-shooter. Vienna claims she hired Johnny to perform at her Saloon, but it soon becomes clear that there’s more to this mysterious stranger than meets the eye.

Like many westerns, Johnny Guitar makes great use of its main locale; some scenes were obviously done in studio with a backdrop, yet enough were shot in the hills and valleys of Arizona to give the movie an authentic western vibe.

The performances are also stellar, especially Joan Crawford, who brings a likability to what could have easily been a very unlikable character. A former prostitute with a shady past, Vienna shows an unwavering determination to see her dreams come true, no matter the cost. Crawford’s verbal spats with the also-excellent McCambridge have a real power to them (further enhanced, no doubt, by the fact the two actresses loathed one another in real life).

As for the guys, Hayden and Brady do a fine job playing men of questionable character, whose affections for Vienna put them at odds with one another; and the always-reliable Ernest Borgnine is pitch-perfect as Bart, a member of the Kid’s gang nobody seems to trust (not even the Kid). Yet as good as the men are (including Ward Bond, John Carradine, Royal Dano, and Ben Cooper), it’s Crawford and McCambridge who take center stage, and give the film its raw energy.

Toss in some very memorable scenes (including one of the more intense hanging sequences you’re likely to come across), the sharp direction of Nicholas Ray, and the crisp dialogue of screenwriter Philip Yordan (there’s a romantic give-and-take between Vienna and Johnny that’s pure gold), and you have a western that, though it may not fit neatly into the genre, stands as one of the finest of the 1950s.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Thursday, March 11, 2021

#2,537. The Lusty Men (1952) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


After suffering a leg injury, rodeo star Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) decides to hang up his spurs. While visiting his old hometown, he meets ranch hand Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy), who himself dreams of joining the rodeo circuit. Wes’s wife, Louise (Susan Hayward), is opposed to the idea, and is none too happy when Jeff agrees to coach Wes in exchange for half his earnings.

As it turns out, Wes is a natural cowboy, and it isn’t long before he’s winning one tournament after another. Initially, Wes promised Louise that he would only compete until he won enough money to buy their dream ranch, but Jeff knows from experience that Wes is hooked on the lifestyle, and will never give it up.

What’s more, Jeff is falling in love with Louise, who is tired of being a rodeo wife, and he figures it’s only a matter of time before she leaves Wes and the rodeo for good.

Robert Mitchum delivers a nuanced performance as Jeff, a former champion who speaks plainly and knows everything there is to know about the rodeo, including how dangerous the sport can be (in the opening scene, we witness the accident that ends Jeff’s career, and in a beautiful yet somber moment watch him leave the empty fairgrounds for the last time, limping to the exit as the wind kicks up the dust all around him).

Matching Mitchum every step of the way is Arthur Kennedy as the high-spirited Wes, a dreamer with enough talent to make those dreams come true, but it’s Susan Hayward who steals the show as Louise, the practical wife who fears for her husband’s safety, yet stands by him all the same, hoping he’ll come to his senses before it’s too late.

Along with its splendid performances, The Lusty Men offers an exciting, sometimes harrowing glimpse of life on the rodeo circuit. Throughout the movie, director Ray utilizes stock footage from actual competitions, some of which is positively terrifying (especially a handful of the bull-riding sequences, where riders are thrown and nearly gorged), and features several characters whose bodies have yet to recover from their years on the circuit. At one point, Jeff introduces Wes to his old friend Booker Davis (Arthur Hunnicutt), who shows Wes his mangled leg (“Twenty years rodeoin' done that”, Booker tells Wes, “Leg busted nine times, kneecap five, and the ankle four”).

In typical Nicholas Ray fashion, The Lusty Men is a taut, effective human drama, expertly paced and superbly acted. Yet it’s the insight the film provides into the life of a rodeo cowboy that helps it stand apart from the rest.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

#2,536. On Dangerous Ground (1951) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


A gritty, unflinching look at the life of an urban policeman, Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground is in many ways a classically-styled film noir, right down to the soaking wet pavement of its city streets. But like most of Ray’s films, it's the characters themselves that take center stage.

The lead this time is played by Robert Ryan, who brings a believability to the role of Jim Wilson, a cop with a chip on his shoulder. Ignoring the advice of his more experienced partners Pop (Charles Kemper) and Pete (Anthony Ross), Jim often loses his cool on the job. After dishing out a particularly rough beating to a suspected cop killer, Jim’s superior, Captain Brawley (Ed Begley), thinks it’s best that Jim leave town for a while, and orders him to assist on a murder case in a rural upstate community.

Teaming up with Walter Brent (Ward Bond), whose daughter was the victim, Jim tracks the killer to a small home in the middle of nowhere, and there meets Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), a blind woman whose brother Danny (Sumner Williams) is the prime suspect.

Brent has vowed to kill the man responsible for his daughter’s death, but Jim promises Mary that he will do everything in his power to bring Danny in alive.

It’s here that the true story of On Dangerous Ground lies; the redemption of Jim Wilson, and how his run-in with Mary Malden transforms him from a hard-edged cop with a short fuse into a smarter, more insightful lawman.

We discover at the outset of On Dangerous Ground that Jim Wilson, unlike his partners, lives by himself (Ray shows the contrast brilliantly in the opening scene, introducing us to Pete’s wife and Pop’s large family before taking us inside Jim’s apartment, where he sits alone, staring at mug shots while waiting for his two partners to pick him up). The implication is that Jim, a bachelor with no family, devotes his entire life to being a cop, and it is eating him up inside. After smacking around yet another suspected criminal, Jim is confronted by Pop, who lays it on the line for him; a flustered Jim asks Pop how he can live with himself after 16 years on the force, spending day after day chasing down lowlifes and thugs. “I don't”, Pop shouts back. “I live with other people! When I go home I don't take this stuff with me, I leave it outside”, adding “To get anything out of this life you've got to put something in it - from the heart”.

Then Jim is sent upstate, and what was intended as a punishment of sorts ends up being his salvation. First, he joins forces with Walter Brent, expertly played by Ward Bond, a grieving father whose sole purpose is to find and kill his daughter’s murderer. It’s probable that Jim sees a bit of himself in Brent, whose angry temperament is more a hindrance than a help as the case unfolds.

Then Jim meets Mary, who, though blind, is arguably the movie’s most insightful character (despite her disability, she cares more for her mentally disturbed brother Danny - the suspect Jim and Brent are after - than she does her own well-being). Ida Lupino delivers a stirring performance as Mary, and like Jim, we come to admire her character’s inner strength.

As with many of Nicholas Ray’s films, On Dangerous Ground is wonderfully shot (by George Diskant, who also handled the cinematography for Ray’s debut, They Live by Night). In addition, this 1951 film noir is expertly paced, with an engaging story, and features a stirring score by legendary Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann (Vertigo, Psycho, Taxi Driver).

But it’s the characters populating On Dangerous Ground that will stay with you long after the movie has ended.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Capsule Reviews - The Films of Nicholas Ray


A Woman’s Secret (1949) – Former night club singer Marian Washburn (Maureen O’Hara) confesses to shooting and seriously wounding her protégé Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame), but Marian’s longtime friend, piano player Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas), is convinced there’s more to the story than meets the eye, and with the help of Detective Jim Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) he sets out to solve the mystery surrounding this very bizarre crime. Told primarily in flashbacks (which also provide backstories for its main characters), A Woman’s Secret boasts several strong performances; Melvyn Douglas shines as the wisecracking Luke, as does Maureen O’Hara, who conveys a convincing vulnerability as the enigmatic Marian (yet it’s Gloria Grahame who steals the show as the ditzy but likable Susan). As for the story, it drags in spots and features a few too many characters; even Detective Fowler’s wife, Mary (Mary Philips), who fancies herself an amateur sleuth, gets in on the fun. That said, A Woman’s Secret is an intriguing mystery, and in the end proves a mildly entertaining diversion. But with Nicholas Ray directing and a script penned by Herman J. Mankiewicz (who also wrote Citizen Kane), it should have been better.
Rating: 6 out of 10

Flying Leathernecks (1951) – A flag-waving World War II extravaganza, Flying Leathernecks may not feel like your average Nicholas Ray film, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. Major Dan Kirby (John Wayne) has just taken command of the Wildcats, a Marine Air Squadron stationed in the Pacific. Though he and his executive officer, Captain Carl Griffin (Robert Ryan), rarely see eye-to-eye, the two manage to put their differences aside when the Wildcats are transferred to Guadalcanal, providing air support for ground troops during one of the most brutal battles of World War II. The role of Dan Kirby - a rugged, no-nonsense career soldier who personally leads his men into battle was tailor-made for Wayne, who also manages to bring a little warmth to the character (a trip stateside and a reunion with Kirby’s wife, played by Janis Carter, is effectively touching). And while the part of Captain Griffin was a bit outside of Ryan’s wheelhouse, the scenes in which he’s facing off against Wayne’s Kirby are among the film’s strongest. Despite its overly-patriotic leanings, Flying Leathernecks also features some of the most violent battle stock footage of any movie from this era, with blood and carnage aplenty (added by Nicholas Ray, no doubt, a staunch opponent of warfare, to clue audiences in on the fact that war is, indeed, hell).
Rating: 7 out of 10

Thursday, March 4, 2021

#2,535. In a Lonely Place (1950) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


For me, Humphrey Bogart was always a “Man’s Man”, a rugged, tough-as-nails actor who played strong lead characters.

But as I think back on some of his greatest performances, I see my initial perception only told half the story. Bogie was, indeed, at his best portraying strong leads, but many of these characters also had an inherent flaw, or a vulnerability that only an actor of Bogart’s stature could convincingly convey. Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny was an experienced officer, yet his by-the-book approach, coupled with an acute paranoia, would force his second-in-command Lt. Maryk (Van Johnson) to turn on him.

But Queeg is just the tip of the iceberg; Charlie Allnut (The African Queen) was an alcoholic tugboat captain who was slow to act, and Fred C. Dobbs (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) would let his greed get the better of him. Even Rick (Casablanca) loses perspective when old flame Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) strolls into his gin joint, while Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) carried on an affair with his partner’s wife. You sense the strength in each and every one of these characters, but it’s their weaknesses that make them so compelling.

Which brings me to Dixon Steele, Bogart’s character in director Nicholas Ray’s extraordinary 1950 drama / film noir In a Lonely Place. A Hollywood screenwriter who has fallen on hard times, Dixon - “or “Dix”, as he’s known to his friends - has a very short fuse, and his temper often gets him into hot water (in the very first scene, Dix argues with a director interested in hiring him, then slugs another filmmaker for insulting an aging actor).

Dix’s reputation for stirring up trouble even makes him the prime suspect in the murder of cocktail hostess Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), especially since he was the last to see her alive (Dix invited the eager young lady to his house, hoping she could adequately explain the plot of a book he was being hired to adapt, but was none too eager to read).

Fortunately for Dix, pretty neighbor Laurel Grey (Gloria Grahame) - who watched Dix say good night to Miss Atkinson - manages to get him off the hook with the cops, if only temporarily; police Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) still believes he’s guilty, and orders Dix’s old friend, detective Bruh Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), to keep an eye on him.

As for Dix, he’s more than thankful that Laurel spoke up. In fact, he falls deeply in love with her, and she with him. Happy for the first time in years, Dix starts writing again, and is even talking about marriage. But it’s only a matter of time before his explosive temper rears its ugly head, leaving Laurel to question not only their relationship, but if Dix is actually guilty of murdering Mildred Atkinson.

This is part of what makes In a Lonely Place such a fascinating character study; we the audience know Dix is innocent. We watched him walk Mildred to the door, and bid her good night (she was killed a few hours later, her lifeless body dumped on the side of the road). Yet from the moment he’s questioned by the police, Dix acts like a man who is not only capable of killing (while at Bruh’s house for dinner, Dix explains, in graphic detail, how he thinks Mildred’s murder was carried out), but likely to do so before the movie is over (a minor traffic accident escalates into an all-out brawl, with Dix beating the other driver to within an inch of his life).

Bogart is brilliant as the conflicted Dix, a man whose volatile nature is his own worst enemy, and Gloria Grahame shines as Laurel, the love of Dix’s life who is torn between her feelings for him and her doubts about his innocence (before long, Laurel admits to being terrified of Dix, to the point that she’s afraid to turn down his marriage proposal).

Along with its cast, another intriguing aspect of In a Lonely Place is how Nicholas Ray toys with the audience, teetering us back and forth between liking Dix and realizing he’s a potentially very dangerous man. Many of Ray’s best films deal with flawed individuals (Bowie in They Live by Night, Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause), characters we admire in spite of their weaknesses. With In a Lonely Place, the director gives us yet another lead that fits into this niche, and in so doing has crafted a singular motion picture, with a performance by Humphrey Bogart that ranks among his all-time best.
Rating: 10 out of 10

Monday, March 1, 2021

#2,534. They Live By Night (1949) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


Nicholas Ray’s directorial debut, They Live by Night opens with escaped convicts Bowie (Farley Granger), Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) and T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) on the run. After hijacking a car (and beating its driver to a pulp), the three make their way to a service station owned by Chickamaw’s brother Mobley (Will Wright) and Mobley’s daughter Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell).

In need of some quick cash to spring T-Dub’s brother (who is also in jail), the three return to a life of crime, robbing a small-town bank and getting away with a sizeable loot.

With more money than he can spend, Bowie invites Keechie to leave town with him, and on a whim they get married. It isn’t long before Bowie and Keechie are deeply in love, at which point Bowie promises his new wife that his days of robbing banks are behind him.

But when Chickamaw and T-Dub try to recruit Bowie for another heist, the young man discovers pretty quickly that saying “no” to his old pals could be hazardous to his health.

With They Live by Night, Nicholas Ray established right out of the gate his penchant for trying new things; the opening scene, in which Bowie and his cohorts are flying down the highway in a hijacked vehicle, was shot from a helicopter, bringing an added level of energy to an already exciting sequence. The film is also expertly paced, and features plenty of crisp dialogue (Ray also co-wrote the film with Charles Schnee).

Yet as impressive as They Live by Night is on a technical level, it’s the characters themselves that drive the movie. Farley Granger is superb as the naïve Bowie, and the chemistry between he and Cathy O’Donnell (also strong as the equally innocent Keechie) is tangible, to say the least. Their scenes together are the heart and soul of the film, and even though we realize their time together will be short, we nonetheless root like hell for a happy ending for them both.

The secondary characters are equally well-developed. Howard Da Silva’s Chickamaw is a brute with a chip on his shoulder; he loses his temper whenever someone brings up his disability (he’s blind in one eye), and later on destroys a car radio when the newscaster suggests Bowie is the leader of their gang, and not him. At the outset, Jay C. Flippen’s T-Dub acts more like a father to Bowie than an accomplice, but changes his tone later on when Bowie announces he’s through robbing banks (resulting in what is arguably the film’s most disturbing scene). Rounding out the supporting cast is Helen Craig as Mattie, T-Dub’s sister-in-law, who is willing to do whatever it takes to get her husband out of jail; and Ian Wolfe as the proprietor of the fast-service wedding chapel where Bowie and Keechie get hitched.

A well-crafted film noir / romance that has withstood the test of time, They Live by Night ranks right up there with Citizen Kane and Reservoir Dogs as one the finest movies ever made by a first-time director.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10