They Live by Night
A dream in which Ray accomplishes the impossible, his leading characters get off the bus.
The closed circle of the dream denies this, of course (Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde sees to that), but for once in a million cinematic ventures, just as you would wish, in spite of rigorous dramatic logic (the wedding chapel sign in the Greyhound windshield sealing the deal for Robert Altman in Thieves Like Us), the doomed lovers extricate themselves and walk off the picture (so that Mel Brooks can take up the note in Blazing Saddles).
The elemental virtuosity has been amply commented on and praised to the skies, nowhere better than by Penn and Altman.
Knock On Any Door
This gagfest, and it’s actually closer than you would expect to John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!, is really a coruscating satire of decadent American society in the fullest sense of the word. It’s impossible to look around one of our cities and not have the sight of a colossal snafu. Ray goes beyond criticism to a simple call to arms.
It isn’t against anything but idleness and vanity and stupidity, so it’s Swiftian. Ray can make a beautiful picture, so he knows he bears a burden of responsibility for the rest of it. The construction is a measure of the range he feels encompassed by his technique, at the service of the satire.
This is half a decade before Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, and nothing else is more like Fritz Lang. It’s very similar to Robert Browning’s way of looking at things, as in “Apparent Failure”.
In a Lonely Place
Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter, meets an actress’s new husband, “you shouldn’t have done it, honey. No matter how much money that pig’s got.”
He’s requested to read an “epic” novel and make a script of it. The hat check girl at Paul’s explains that an epic is very long and a lot of things happen in it. She’s read it, so he invites her home to tell it to him.
It’s about a rich widow whose husband died at sea. She eyes the new lifeguard, “like a bronze Apollo” (a student at Columbia). She has an English butler. She drowns.
Dix sends the hat check girl home in a cab. An old army buddy is now a Beverly Hills cop. They recall “some of the worst years of our lives” on the way to the station. The girl has been found dead in Benedict Canyon.
Dix is a violent man. He fractured a producer’s jaw once. He broke an actress’s nose. His agent wants to help him escape to Mexico.
Dix imagines how it happened, for the cop’s benefit. “At a lonely place in the road,” her lover put his arm around her neck, throttled her and dumped her out. “She’s impressed with celebrities.”
The cop’s wife tells her husband, “I’m glad you’re not a genius.” Dix has a lovely new neighbor who’s called as a witness. “A girl was killed,” he observes, “and I find what I’m looking for.”
He begins writing. “Hey, turn off the radio,” he says obliviously to his chatting girlfriend, “or get some music.”
On a tippling actor, “who speaks with poetry and borrows with money.” The girl replies, “the better to drink with brandy.” The actor recites Shakespeare’s 29th Sonnet, “when in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes / I all alone beweep my outcast state...”
The agent asks the girl, “Is he sticking close to the book?” She answers, “I don’t know. I didn’t read the book.”
The police are looking for someone “with a rage to destroy something young and lovely.” That’s Dix, they think. “An erratic, violent man.”
The lovers go to a posh little nightclub and sit at the piano bar. The song is “I hadn’t anyone till you, I was a lonely one till you...”
There are several definitions of “movie star,” but the best is an actor who generates his own material, as this becomes a variant of To Have and Have Not (a very significant variant) for Humphrey Bogart’s production company.
Dix is witty and easily-stung. “I can see,” says a cop, “why that guy gets into a lot of trouble.”
The girl’s masseuse (an accoutrement of her acting career) dreams of security. “You don’t have anyone else,” she says, while rubbing her down and remembering a realtor.
The cop’s wife wants to know if a screenwriter plans out his work. He’d better, says Dix, if he has no inspiration.
The cops’ attentions unsettle Dix. A traffic accident leads to a furious altercation, Dix beats the other driver badly, and nearly kills him. Afterward, he and the girl drive away, with his arm around her neck. “These hopped-up cars” fill him with rage.
He conceives some lines for his script, “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
At the Beverly Hills Post Office, across from City Hall, he mails the driver a check.
At Police Headquarters, he meets another suspect, the hat check girl’s boyfriend, a banker. Dix commiserates. “What an imagination,” says the banker, “that’s from writing movies.” They shake hands. “What a grip,” says Dix, “that’s from counting money.”
His girl starts taking sleeping pills. In her apartment, he makes breakfast, curiously straightening a grapefruit knife. “A love scene should always be about something else,” he tells her, “like this one.”
Humphrey Bogart’s wedding proposal shows another influence on Woody Allen besides Groucho Marx and Bob Hope.
The direction is direct to the point of abnegation. Hollywood lighting, close-ups, two-shots. If ever there was a film created by the screenwriter, this is it.
The agent has a touch of Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane. “If Dix has success he doesn’t need anything else.”
A signal scene reveals Ray’s hand. The actor arrives for a wedding party at Paul’s. “This is not a costume,” he tells the new hat check girl, but “the formal attire of a gentleman.” Ray frames the scene briefly, as he never does elsewhere, to settle the characters in a large booth. Aha, his style is in the bag for a reason.
The agent has sent the script to the studio without Dix’s permission. Dix becomes suspicious and enraged. He accidentally strikes his agent, and afterwards is contrite. The studio likes the script.
The banker confesses. Not knowing this, the girl makes ready to leave Dix. He nearly strangles her. She looks at him as he walks away, and speaks those poetic lines of his.
The unusual technique doesn’t lack force. The police captain at his desk hands a batch of crime photos over to Dix, and the camera tilts down to a close-up of the hat check girl’s body with tremendous, cool effect. Similarly, the emotional piquancy of the injured agent wants nothing.
Shaw writes, “you have perhaps said to yourself when I have passed your windows ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’”
The bitterest of masterpieces. An artist laid bare by a flickering element of light, just the world of it put by for an unforeseeable examination of the temperament and the experience and something more.
The gag is an obfuscation of The Goldwyn Follies (where the studio head, Adolphe Menjou, takes an average girl as his muse), with significant adaptations of Suspicion and Secret Beyond the Door.
And yet, in the fullness of complexity that is the director’s hallmark, it’s a little fairy tale somewhere between his Indian namesake’s Company Limited and Alain Resnais’ Providence.
Born to Be Bad
A woman engineers herself a marriage for money, but wants the passionate novelist, too.
In the working out of all this, Ray gets down to a few brass tacks mainly having to do with American literary life. He takes endless pains with it, the theme gets stated ultimately with all the clarity anyone could wish, as an antidote to the pushing mass and welter of tripe sometimes fobbed off as professional and business considerations.
Even stinking success is fame of a sort, the novelist’s portrait-painting colleague decides in the end.
Guadalcanal, a Marine fighter squadron hurled from an aircraft carrier onto the airstrip, which is immediately bombed and strafed.
The Tokyo Express in the slot, requiring a massed attack of all forces.
The kamikaze planes, requiring a massed defense.
The three major problems. The weirdness of Guadalcanal (after Seiler), not only in doubt but questioned every minute, the squadron short of everything.
College pilots, some of them yahoos, have to be kept on the beam.
The CO is back from Midway, the Exec is a man of great solicitude. “No man is an island,” he quotes.
It nearly comes to blows between the two of them. Two-shot, CO departing Stateside with a samurai sword in his hand.
It’s a gift for his boy, a souvenir.
Close air support for ground troops is the key difficulty, hitting theirs and missing ours. The brass approve the tactic (cp. John Ford’s This Is Korea!).
Ray styles the film with studio and location footage and work from combat photographers and aerial cameras, the squadron is simply named “Jigsaw” to account for this.
On Dangerous Ground
The main structure divides easily on Det. Wilson’s rustication, which suggests itself convincingly to Truffaut in Tirez sur le pianiste and is carried out in other ways by Ray himself later (Wind Across the Everglades, The Savage Innocents).
The cop despairing of his profession in a world of humanity gone to seed plunges into a vision from silent films and D.W. Griffith. Justice herself, blind and beautiful, with a kid brother who’s just killed a girl out among the mountain cabins and snowy wastes.
“Father, forgive him,” she prays, “he didn’t know what he was doing,” and as she rises, shadowy figures in the next room behind her (men gathered to hunt the killer) slowly move to the right side of the screen where she’s standing in the foreground, as if dismissed. She steps out on the porch, where a vertical post and horizontal railing cross in a corner of the frame, then she walks left past a boy’s sled leaning on the wall.
“All his films tell the same story,” says Truffaut, “the violent man who wants to renounce violence and his relationship with a morally stronger woman.”
The Lusty Men
A source for analysts from Huston (The Misfits) to Peckinpah (Junior Bonner) and Pollack (The Electric Horseman).
A massed opposition of cattlemen and the girl who won’t dance versus unwedded Vienna and her gambling hall where the railroad’s coming.
Both are eclipsed, extinguished in the conflict, the Dancing Kid goes under, the gambling hall burns down, Johnny Guitar seizes the day.
He was hired to protect Vienna, he left her at the altar, Johnny Logan the gunslinger.
Collinson’s The Man Called Noon has the best view of Ray’s extraordinary construction, with many setups, the secret lair behind the waterfall, the cellar and mine shaft to a secret exit.
A very brilliant work, dismissed by Variety and the New York Times with contempt, observed by Godard and Truffaut.
Run For Cover
A slender reed, one that cannot be relied upon in any eventuality, not even to break finally.
Andrew Sarris, “every relationship establishes its own moral code... there is no such thing as absolute morality” (The American Cinema).
Town of Madison, somewhere along the Denver & Rio Grande, a town among mountains, a gun-happy sheriff, a wayward “ward of the town”. A Swedish girl and her father where the railroad ticket ran out. A man judging the town fit to live in or not.
Misapprehension, gunplay, a new sheriff, a lynching, certain facts come to light.
The fairy tale element walking a tightrope between Old World strictures and the wide open spaces.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times saw for some reason an inferior version of Zinnemann’s High Noon, a film he much admired, the result was “sheer horse opera without freshness or feeling and with practically nothing to say.”
The Catholic News Service Media Review Office, “disappointing”.
Hal Erickson (Rovi), “curiously Freudian”.
Geoff Andrew (Time Out), “strangely gentle, even poignant”.
Halliwell’s Film Guide, “adequate”.
Godard (Cahiers du Cinéma), “if the cinema no longer existed, Nicholas Ray alone gives the impression of being capable of reinventing it, and what is more, of wanting to. While it is easy to imagine John Ford as an admiral, Robert Aldrich on Wall Street, Anthony Mann on the trail of Bellou la Fumée or Raoul Walsh as a latter-day Henry Morgan under Caribbean skies, it is difficult to see the director of Run For Cover doing anything but make films.”
Rebel Without a Cause
The title oddly echoes Ionesco’s Tueur Sans Gages (Killer Without Pay), and it’s an ironic little epic reduced to high school size, affording Ray a fine satirical view treated very lightly under its somber overtones (Jim Backus is a fine example). A general motto might be the Chinese saying which in English means “one and one make two, and three’s a crowd.”
The particularly fine photography of that noble building, Griffith Observatory, and especially the ornamental bronze grillwork of its great doors (which can be clearly seen), shows it as a House of Astronomy and a “house of mysteries.” The score is noteworthy for, among other things, citing or anticipating Stravinsky’s Agon briefly.
For Valéry, all artists are gypsies, thieves, parasites on society, Ray’s gypsy wants to be a ballroom dance instructor to the gadjos and even tours with one, dancing in saloons.
A gypsy girl has tricked him into marrying her, he is to be king of the gypsies in New Market, Pa.
“Artificial Romany hokum” (Halliwell’s Film Guide).
Godard is aware of the problem and doesn’t mention The Jazz Singer (Cahiers du Cinéma).
“An oddity” (Geoff Andrew, Time Out Film Guide), “not really a success” (Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader).
Bigger Than Life
School’s out, a teacher at his desk reaches for the pocket watch and keychain with penknife before him and feels a tremendous pain in the neck.
A beautiful young teacher asks him for a “push”, his wife has the car, he recommends the gym instructor.
His home is decorated with travel posters and maps. The pain becomes incapacitating after he’s asked to fill in for the beautiful colleague when she has a flat on the way to school, he’s hospitalized and diagnosed with a rare inflammation of the arteries. Cortisone saves his life, but has the side effect of filling him with folie de grandeur.
Truffaut has analyzed this well (he compares it to Buñuel’s El), omitting the decisive point that the crisis is resolved in a dream of Abraham Lincoln, after the hallucination of Abraham and Isaac, the patient observes upon waking in the hospital again that his doctor is not the president, he is cured of the side effect.
The True Story of Jesse James
The strange form, all in flashback, is an anagram of the Civil War and shows the Northfield raid to have been his Gettysburg.
Variety had no idea of this, its reviewer was thoroughly bored, disenchanted, even.
Time Out Film Guide imagines a “teen-dream romance” on the very theme of “disenchantment”, Halliwell’s Film Guide says it lacks “style”. Dave Kehr (Chicago Reader) says Ray directed this “as an extension of his Rebel Without a Cause”.
Deutschland Siegt an Allen Fronten.
Thirty British soldiers and commandos stage a raid on Benghazi for documents pertaining to Rommel’s drive.
The Major (Curd Jurgens) is a coward, the Captain (Richard Burton) observes this and has to fill in.
The Captain knew the Major’s wife (Ruth Roman) before the war.
The Major leaves him for dead twice, and receives the DSO to his surprise, which he pins on a training dummy that fills the screen thus ornamented in the final shot, like the dummy head in Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz.
The late Captain was an archæologist in Libya, tenth-century Berber ruins are out of his line, “too modern”.
The knife in his trembling hand and the scorpion he shrinks from (it kills the Captain) give the Major away. Ray is cinema, says Godard, because these points occur in an unidentified welter of desert, nothing but images.
Wind Across the Everglades
The fad is feathers, women must have them for their hats, certain men get them by slaughtering birds in their thousands, the Audubon Society sends a warden in to safeguard the rookeries.
The drama unfolds on every level in the lives of men and women, and is precisely the same in Huston’s The Roots of Heaven.
That is to say, it’s the easiest thing to know and the hardest to understand, witness the reviews.
The commotion caused by no stir in the story at all, as told by the New York Times and Time, signals that the picture wasn’t screened properly, otherwise the reviewers (one anonymous and the other nameless) would doubtless have noticed the mirror trick employed by Ray to give the title character (Cyd Charisse) an exact reflection in the mob lawyer played by Robert Taylor, and then it would have dawned on that fair city.
“Chicago in the Thirties”, shortly before The Untouchables on television and utilized by De Palma in his mob dinner scene (here the implement is a solid silver miniature pool-cue, heavy enough to brain a henchman disloyal to the boss, Lee J. Cobb). Gunsels up for murder raps receive the majestuous trappings of the crippled attorney who cows judges and wows juries and floors the Press with an unalterable force of personality expressed in the girl’s nightclub dance, but not shown in the courtroom, only the result.
Mob war disturbs this arrangement, another mirror. The haughty, prideful attorney valued for his services yet disdainful of the boss becomes a witness and a liability. The high point of the film is his plea for “bigness” from the boss, who squints askant with one big eye and can’t be bothered.
The cops bust all this up shortly thereafter. The artfulness looks forward to Kubrick’s Spartacus for the mind of Crassus. The tough and self-contained cookie and the crooked mouthpiece have their daintiness and a prophylactic métier, there’s nothing new about them (as the critics thought) save that each is the other for all intents and purposes.
The chorus girls at the Golden Rooster are a blaze of gold upon the stage, for a hundred bucks apiece they show up (“after that you’re on your own”) at the boss’s party. All that gold reappears in a vanity table among the crass fittings of a bedroom cum cloakroom.
The Savage Innocents
The evident basis is W.S. Van Dyke’s Eskimo, though the effect on location is Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North.
Eugene Archer, a dull critic if ever there was one, is galvanized into life and writes for the New York Times an appreciation at 129 minutes as “badly-cut” but vying with Antonioni and Godard.
Variety saw all of it as cinematically perfect but dramatically inadequate in the second half, a “melodrama”.
The beauty of the polar regions, as recorded by Ponting on Scott’s last expedition, is the key in which Ray composes his variations.
King of Kings
Ray’s meticulous handling of this film earned him no respect whatsoever from Halliwell’s Film Guide, and the remarks printed there are evidence rather of a deep disaffection with the cinema than of anything else. This is true of much film criticism, so that it can be added to the famous axiom that those who would rather do something else write film reviews.
The initial sequence of Herod’s death lays out his earnest dilemma, Yordan’s that is, with an overhead shot conveying the dead king in the upper part of the image, below him the son on the throne. This is the principal element of the dramatic construction, and it’s instantly repeated as the forces of Barabbas occupying the lower part of the screen, above them the Roman army defiling past. Vertical elements, then horizontal organization on the two thieves, and a crucial diagonal as well.
The Herod shot continues as Jesus looking down at John the Baptist (on a diagonal) seen through the grill of the prison window. The point of all this spectacular reflection of an architectural theme is the great modulation of the Sermon on the Mount (analogous perhaps to Raphael’s School of Athens) as a vision of Paradise with heavenly multitudes.
There is a pivot in this vertical construction on champ contre champ, so that a reverse shot can dilute the image or serve to quell the issue, as when the Baptist harangues the palace and it’s not exactly determined who’s on top. Herodias is the harlot, Jerusalem (who has dallied with Assyria and Egypt), and this is exactly fitted for George Stevens’ film, as are the followers of Barabbas “who yelled the loudest”. Judas is a modulation from Pichel’s Day of Triumph. Barabbas and the Baptist occupy the same cell in turn (its diagonal arrangement might come from Hitchcock).
The final shots resolve the dilemma cinematographically. Jesus bids his disciples go and preach (they depart on the instant to right and left), Peter stands an embodiment of unity between sky and earth, the shadow of Christ falls upon the line of nets, a diagonal cross like the one on Jesus’ back or the sun symbol on the throne of Herod Antipas.
Barabbas is associated with the Bad Thief by the device of his contraposition with the Roman Lucius in a prison shot marked with a cross of bars in front of the camera, and with the Good Thief by his change of heart (or nearly) at the Crucifixion.
55 Days at Peking
The difficulty for the critics seems to lie as it were in one strand of the story, the one about the baroness (Ava Gardner) and her fabulous necklace, which makes a veiled reference to The Bitter Tea of General Yen it would appear, and repeats much of the general action in The Rains Came.
There is only a Marine contingent and, briefly, a U.S. Minister at Peking among the foreign devils, but that is enough in the light of Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing to define the position of Chinese barbarity, European exploitation and American disinterestedness.
Generally speaking, there is a twofold preparation with this Forbidden City in Spain, first of Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (and Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg) and then Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor.
The one about a crazy priest who loses his ring to the title character.
The director plays both parts.