And God Created Nicholas Ray.
"All a man needs is a good smoke and a cup of coffee", John Carradine, in Johnny Guitar.
King of Kings, They Live By Night (from the novel Thieves Like Us), On Dangerous Ground, In A Lonely Place, Bigger Than Life, Bitter Victory, all products of the imagination of Nicholas Ray, renegade cinematic poet- those titles alone paint moods in words, conjuring scenes of dislocation. Yet in his films he gives shelter to those runaway spirits, and under his wing that desolate beauty achieves its short-lived incandescence. Ray outlived his heroes and many of his accomplices, itself a dangerously exposed place to find yourself- from there came Lightning Over Water, Wim Wenders' study and live autopsy of his mentor. In it Ray succumbed to the camera's scalpel, with the final months of his life recorded in an attempt to interrogate the nature of time, loss and fatherhood.
Nick Ray, filmmaker with an eyepatch, putting him alongside other one-eyed pioneers, de Toth, Raoul Walsh, Fritz Lang, John Ford, Momus.
Nicholas Ray, bigger than life, a savage innocent. Which is what draws me to his films- when you walk away from one of his creations, that moment when dreamlike recollection mixes with flashes of reality, you realize how important the sense of architecture and place is to his cinematic laboratory. So the final sequences of Johnny Guitar achieve their rapturous effect by taking linear time and filling the moment with operatic expansiveness. Take a line or two from the Peggy Lee theme song, heard in a tantalizing snippet, and against it is played out the free-fall navigation of Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden, with the waterfall in the background adding to the structural complexity of the film. Wasn't Ray taught by architect Frank Lloyd Wright? Didn't Wright create his own vision of falling water? Alistair can fill in more of the details I'm sure… Sterling Hayden's perfect blue guitar, held high like a pure pop hero: the Spanish dexterity of Narciso Yepes sharpened by acid tears. Out of the past- close your eyes and hear the bittersweet caress of Townes Van Zandt singing "shake the dust off of your wings and the sleep out of your eyes". Fire and water, love and hate, black and white, searing blasts of all these components course through this film and spiral into the other great moments of battleground experience, love and foolish courage tested to the limit. Like caged animals, the characters who populate his psychodramas are forced to define themselves against the rigid enclosures which contain and coerce communication. Walls become schizophrenic blocks, painted a lurid colour to emphasize their hallucinatory outside, so that a bottle thrown against the wall of Joan Crawford's saloon shatters with crazed intensity, but barely seems to dent the surface against which its contents are sprayed. Bernard Eisenschitz, in his valuable biography of Ray, tells the wonderful story about the actor who throws the bottle in that scene being confronted by the spectre of the great director John Ford glowering in front of him on the set. As a part of his stock troupe of actors, he recoiled in fear in the face of his master, so the scene had to be re-shot several times before the actor could summon sufficient force to make his bottle throw look realistic.
I'd argue that the same sense of enmeshment recurs in many of Ray's films- suddenly caught short by the imago of father figures whose achievements tower above his own, bravado gives way to the stuttering rhythm of irrational fear, jagged eruptions of anger, self-erasure and self-aggrandisement. It's the same motion which propels Bigger Than Life, with an all-time great performance by James Mason- he the tortured schoolteacher, out of step with the times, used as a guinea-pig for cortisone, the walls stretch and contract, vulnerability gives way to delusions of messianic conviction. Bogart's fear-wracked screenwriter in In A Lonely Place exemplifies the tension between autobiographical elements and the need to create and sustain a mood through décor, music and caustic dialogue. The alienation which feeds through this depiction of a crumbling marriage and the numb descent into wordless antipathy by the washed-up writer is brought to an extreme when one bears in mind the desolation brought to proceedings by the break-up of Ray's marriage to Bogart's co-star Gloria Grahame. Through the haze of alcohol, cigarette smoke and plush Hollywood apartments, the film imparts a knowledge of beauty which is also always a knowledge of death. It's no coincidence, of course, that New Order's early singles inhabit the same mood of cracked idealism as these films, borrowing titles liberally from the director's back pages.
Then Ray created King of Kings, which only makes sense in the light of those earlier threads. Take Jeffrey Hunter's teenage Jesus, confronted by the leathery features of Nick Ray's long-time alter ego Robert Ryan as John the Baptist. I don't think the film was made to express any great religious conviction on Ray's part, and certainly doesn't stir any yearning to dunk my head in a baptismal font, but there remains an incredible power in the way both pairs of eyes meet, framed in stunning close-up, blue-eyed innocence set against wrinkled compassion on the extra-wide Cinemascope frame. Jesus becomes a true Ray creation here when he undergoes the death or suicide necessary to jolt the traveller forwards. Yet Jesus is less complicated and less sympathetic than most Ray heroes, whose journey of self-destruction and transformation takes place without fanfare, and where inner deaths and suicides pile up in a state of perpetual motion and intoxication. I'm also stirred at this point by memories of Momus's first album, Circus Maximus, with its own gallery of saints and sinners cast from biblical epics, using religion as camouflage to explore the way perverse impulses are rationalized and given mythic stature. And Momus always had a filmmaker's eye for startling compositions- witness Daniel Williams's response to the teasing cover of 'Hairstyle of the Devil' for instance.
Nick Ray died in 1979, the same year as John Wayne. Where Wayne made one of his final appearances at the Oscars ceremony of that year, claiming to have beaten terminal illness, Ray was accompanied by his European son Wenders and a camera. Lightning Over Water, while dismissed as exploitation by some, goes some way to illuminating the need to take that camera to forbidden places- long before Bob Flanagan supermasochist ensured immortality of sorts by having his own death filmed. It also bears consideration as an essay in hero worship, fuelled by the need to create an explanatory framework for the mythology which accompanied Ray, the role of high priest he would have played to a generation of admirers at home and in Europe. In his turn Wenders was ensuring that the competition for attention generated by such filming in extremis- that between audience and subject, Ray the director and Wenders the young contender, Ray the impassive force and his rapidly decaying physical shell- would be the catalyst for exploratory cinema which rejected easy psychological explanations. To those for whom his cinema of expressive urgency appeals- instinctive generosity to his suffering creations coupled with frequent outbursts of inexplicable violence- Ray remains dangerously compelling even here, at the edge of the world. Wenders aimed to film the unfilmable, probing and violating the contours of subjectivity to capture a state of illumination. In itself that sense of excess, putting his fantasy at the service of an unattainable ideal, was the greatest tribute to the world Ray and his films stalked. One by one his heroes, after all, were brought to awareness of the thresholds of tolerance and the point beyond which the facile surface of everyday life would come apart at the seams.
The drifting hobo teenagers of They Live By Night are further examples of Ray's ability to inscribe poetic truth on scenes stamped with a powerful awareness of death and exile. His young rebels are born into a hostile world whose rituals and pragmatic formalities arrive too late and take place too slowly for unbaptized travellers whose wings are clipped the moment they set foot outside.
Nick Ray, bigger than life. Paul Morley spiked his elegiac liner notes to Billy Mackenzie's beautiful farewell LP Beyond the Sun with that great phrase. Didn't they both remain loyal to teenage ideals as well? Youthfully cantankerous, as hard and sharp as James Dean's flick-knife, glinting in the afternoon sun in Rebel Without a Cause.
A pillar of salt vanishes in the desert. Robert Ryan as John the Baptist, on the set of King of Kings in Spain, takes a sip of espresso and lights another cigarette.
© Marino Guida 2000