In a Lonely Place (1950)

In a Lonely Place (1950) movie poster

director Nicholas Ray
viewed: 06/21/2017

The pessimism of film noir, the dark soul of post-war America already fully formed in 1950. Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place is a noir of the soul, as well as a noir of Hollywood. It’s certainly placed within the world of the machine of movie-making dreams, the dark side, behind the scenes, the drunken, the embittered, the misanthropic.

The film’s very anti-Hollywood ending, maybe the surprise that was unexpected, that love does not conquer all, vindication for a criminal charge doesn’t solve the problems, that the darkness of men’s souls may still overtake it all. Hardly riding off into the sunset after a prolonged kiss.

I’d seen In a Lonely Place before, decades ago, and was duly impressed, as I am with most of Ray’s movies. But more recently, I read the novel In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, which is absolutely among the best crime novels I’ve read. What’s amazing is how far departed the film and the book are, so far departed that they are truly absolutely distinct entities, whose qualities are as different as the works themselves.

Hughes’s novel is about a serial killer, a lost man, back from the War, haunting the greater Los Angeles as he kills and kills again. It’s a haunting, frightening portrait, not at all the psychological violence that underscores this film. In Ray’s picture, the violence is under the skin, in the heart and mind, and mostly off-screen, utterly in the soul.

It’s also remarkably funny and snappy as well. Some really great dialogue.

A classic film from a classic book (that more people should read) though barely the twain really meet.

On Dangerous Ground (1951)

On Dangerous Ground (1951) movie poster

director Nicholas Ray
viewed: 08/29/2015

Robert Ryan stars as a tough as nails cop, a cop so tough that he gets rapped for police brutality.  The city was getting to him, see?  So his boss sends him into the mountains in search of a killer of a young girl, in tow with her vengeful and bloodthirsty father (Ward Bond).  But he meets the killer’s blind sister (Ida Lupino) and is moved toward a less brutal justice for the young, mentally-deficient killer.

So, that’s the story.  But this movie is amazing.

It’s one of Nicholas Ray’s early works, along with They Live By Night (1949) and In a Lonely Place (1950), are major and unique samples of the best of film noir.   It’s also scripted by A. I. Bezzerides who also wrote the terrific noir Thieves’ Highway (1949) for Jules Dassin and went on to write Robert Aldrich’s amazing noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

Pedigrees aside, this movie is excellent.  But it’s got it’s pedigrees too.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Johnny Guitar (1954) movie poster

director Nicholas Ray
viewed: 07/31/2015

Johnny Guitar wouldn’t be the first cinema classic that I didn’t totally get.

I would be willing to bet that I wouldn’t be the first one to not get Johnny Guitar.

It’s a very strange film.  It’s a Western, sure, but it’s so weird.  Joan Crawford is markedly uncanny as Vienna, the woman who runs her gambling house near a spot of a future railroad, but who is despised by the locals.  Mercedes McCambridge is the mousy troll who is stoking the fires against Vienna, spurred by her unrequited feelings for The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), who has a thing for Vienna.  Enter into this picture the titular Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden), who plays well and shoots even better for a guy who doesn’t carry a gun.

The film is rife with subtexts, but also rife with campy bizarreness.  Crawford is both and earnest actress and an over-the-top figure of a woman with her stark lipstick and 50’s eyebrows and those wide-open eyes.  Dress her in blue jeans and strap a pistol to her hip and you’ve got some interesting gender politics going on at Vienna’s saloon.  After all, she has three devoted men working for her in her business, none more so that Old Tom (John Carradine), the most devout of the three.

There is also a Red Scare subtext, a witch hunt for the undesirables of the town which may seem more obvious than it did in 1954 (or maybe it was obvious then, too?  Who knows?)

It’s a strange film.  More atypical and anomalous than straightforward genre pic.

It’s oddity jars throughout, but somewhere along the line, I think I started enjoying it more.  By the end of it, I was thinking to myself, “What did I just watch?”  It’s something that probably makes more sense the more you have seen it, somehow becomes better the more you stop thinking it’s going to be like any other Western you’ve ever seen and just give in to the odd character of the film.

Bigger Than Life

Bigger Than Life (1956) movie poster

(1956) dir. Nicholas Ray
viewed: 04/26/10

Bigger Than Life is a film that I’ve been wanting to see for several years.  While living in England briefly in the mid-1990’s, I chanced to see Ray’s first feature film, They Live By Night (1949) and while trying to find reading about film studies at the local library, stumbled upon a book about Ray, biographical but also offering a critical overview of his films.  And of the films on which the book focused, the one that sounded particularly interesting was Bigger Than Life, but oddly enough, that film hadn’t been available in the United States on video or DVD.  Until now.

Critereon released Bigger Than Life earlier this month and so I queued it up and my long wait was over.

The film stars James Mason, who also acted as producer, as a small town schoolteacher who is suffering from a rare disorder which causes him great physical pain and eventually leads to his physical collapse.  His illness comes as a death sentence, except he has the one chance: to try the experimental new drug cortisone, which could save his life.  He agrees immediately and starts to bounce back.

However, Mason begins abusing the drug, which gives him turns of mania and psychosis.  He becomes “bigger than life”, becoming paranoid, superior, and dissatisfied with the life and family he has.  Ultimately, his mania reaches a biblical extreme in which he decides that he must sacrifice his son to keep him pure and save him from failure.

While the film falls mostly into the family melodrama genre, it’s very much about the banality of that world and ultimately the fragility of it as well.  Mason, before he becomes sick, has secretly taken a second job at a cab company to supplement the family income.  Maintaining the small family home, maintaining the small social life, is more than he can handle.  The family home is the site of much of the drama, and Ray uses the interiors to great effect at different points through the film.

It’s a tremendous and dark film, and the film isn’t specifically about the concerns of cortisone as a treatment or even Mason’s abuse of the drug, but rather about the pandora’s box of stifled psychosis behind the facade of soft-spoken, homey America.  Many critics consider it to be Ray’s finest work, and it’s easy to see why.  Mason’s world, initially genial and soft as an American sit-com of the time, turns into a ranging disaster area.  His house, his home, his castle, humble and banal, is too small for him once he feels his oats, playing catch football inside the house with his son, running ragged and overenergized, smashing things.

And his son and his wife are not up to snuff either.  His symbolically deflated football trophy, which he takes from the mantle, reinflates and hands to his son, furthers this notion of the striving dreams of the man, who now ceding them from himself and passing them to his child, now demands results, results he never achieved.  Their house, decorated with travel posters from around the world, a world they’ve never afforded to venture into, also shows the trap that their lives have come to stand for to him.

And when the moment of traumatic violence comes, it smashes through the railing of the stairs, breaking literally, the house that has held them as the whole world comes tumbling down.  It’s not surprising that this dark-natured film played poorly in the 1950’s when it was released.  It’s a nightmare of 1950’s American life, the nuclear family, the fragility of the structures and the repressed hopes and dreams and what they can fester into.

An excellent, excellent film, well worth seeing again.  And Nicholas Ray himself, his films are well-worth re-investigating.  A major figure in American cinema.

The True Story of Jesse James

The True Story of Jesse James (1957) movie poster

(1957) dir. Nicholas Ray
viewed: 11/17/07

It’s been quoted, though I can’t say how accurately, that Jean-Luc Godard once said “Nicholas Ray is cinema”.  And as I became interested in film studies as a path in graduate school, one of the first books I read was a semi-critical overview of Ray’s life and work.  Several of his films are amazing, genre-spanning, especially his first film, They Live By Night (1949), but definitely several others including In a Lonely Place (1950) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955).  And while I’ve never gotten around to seeing all of Ray’s films, they are all in essence, in my queue.

So, when traipsing down this Jesse James path of films, I quickly added Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James.

It’s strikingly disappointing.  The film suffers from a number of key problems, largest of which is the narrative structure, which includes a number of significant flashbacks, with billowing colored clouds and the strumming of a harp (which eventually became such a stereotype in film and television that it’s a hugely campy thing now).  The structure also feels sloppy and lazy, without giving good sense of the story’s main goal.  Unlike Samuel Fuller’s noirish I Shot Jesse James (1949), this film is much more cut from the cloth of Henry King’s Jesse James (1939), telling a sympathetic life-spanning scope of James’ career.

“Cut from the same cloth” as King’s film is quite the apt and clear truth.  The film actually uses the primary action sequences from King’s film directly.  I’d noted how the sequences of the horses plummeting off the cliff and the climbing onto the moving train shots were striking in King’s film.  Well, they’re striking here too.  There are three significant action sequences lifted directly from that far superior film.

Ray doesn’t do or add a lot to this story.  Robert Wagner as Jesse James is a bit of a petulant teenager, typical of Ray’s family melodrama work, and the ideal “straight” life that he seeks is very 1950’s: a home in the center of town, 2.5 kids, the nuclear family, the American dream.  Wagner’s James is the least likeable of the portrayals that I’ve seen thusfar, lacking much sympathy or even appealing for his handsome charm and leadership.

The film’s best bit might be Alan Hale, Jr. (yes, the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island) as Cole Younger, a large, wiser character who participates in their crimes.

It’s also interesting to note that the film no longer makes the railroad the enemy, as in King’s Jesse James, but rather the crimes of the Union soldiers in post-Civil War Missouri as the instigators that drew James out of farming and into a life of crime for revenge.  Is this the “True Story”?  Whatever it is, this is clearly not Ray’s best work.