American-born film director Nicholas Ray (1911-1979) rose to prominence in the 1950s with such films as Johnny Guitar, They Live by Night, and his best-known work, Rebel Without a Cause, which transformed leading man James Dean into an American icon. He often portrayed the sensitive, troubled outsider, a heroic figure thwarted by life and love in a dysfunctional postwar society. Although he directed more than 20 feature films between 1948 and his death in 1979, Ray's most critically acclaimed works were made between 1952 and 1955.
Trained in Theater
Ray was born Raymond Nicholas Kienzle on August 7, 1911, in the Wisconsin town of Galesville, near La Crosse. Suspended from high school on several occasions, he nonetheless showed himself to be a gifted and intelligent teen and was accepted to the University of Chicago in 1930, the same year he married a young woman named Jean Evans.
Reconfiguring his name as Nicholas Ray, he attended college for less than a year. An interest in visual design prompted him to spend several months under the wing of noted architect and arts supporter Frank Lloyd Wright; a move to New York in 1932 drew him into the left-wing theater community. Involved in Elia Kazan's Theater of Action from 1935 to 1937, he made his acting debut on the New York stage before transferring to director John Houseman's Phoenix Theatre troupe. Ray gained technical experience in a production by Joseph Losey for the Depression-era Federal Theater Project. In 1942, following the start of World War II, Ray became involved in radio when Houseman found him a job as program director for the Office of War Information. He also continued his work with theatre and directed his first play in 1943.
Ray's work in New York provided him with the connections into film, and by 1944 he was living in Hollywood. His first movie job was as an assistant on Kazan's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Assisting on several other films and in early television, Ray also directed a play on Broadway. Houseman gave him the chance to direct his first solo film, and Ray signed a contract with RKO Studios. Ray's They Live by Night was based on the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson and released in Great Britain as The Twisted Road. Filmed in grainy black and white, it is an outlaw film infused with sympathy for its main characters, a bank robber duo played by Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell. The criminal lovers flee across the rural Midwest, the law hot on their trail, and desperately grasp for fleeting moments of peace as their destiny spirals out of control. In a review of the film for the Chicago Tribune, Michael Wilmington noted that They Live by Night is "permeated with a sweetness and vulnerability unusual for any crime movie."
Days with RKO
Ray's directorial debut was not a success at the box office. His next production for RKO was the 1949 murder mystery A Woman's Secret, which starred noir actress Gloria Grahame. During the film Ray, who had divorced his first wife, married his leading lady. Grahame divorced her own husband and married Ray later that same day. The couple survived four tumultuous years of marriage—years made more difficult because of Ray's lifelong battle with alcoholism—before divorcing in 1952. Ray would marry twice more, to dancer Betty Schwab and finally to Susan Ray, with whom he would have four children. In 1961 Grahame married Ray's oldest son, Anthony Ray.
In 1949 Ray was hired to direct popular actor Humphrey Bogart in Knock on Any Door, a drama about an attorney hired to defend a juvenile delinquent played by John Derek. Bogart and Grahame starred in Ray's next movie, In a Lonely Place, a 1950 noir film that focuses on a successful screenwriter charged with murder. Through Bogart's troubled, violent protagonist, Ray showed the ill effects of nonconformity, as the screenwriter, by nature a loner, found himself branded as an outsider by the police, by colleagues, and even by former friends.
The theme of In a Lonely Place, which Ray explored again in later works such as On Dangerous Ground and Johnny Guitar, reflected Ray's attitude about the McCarthyism of the 1940s and 1950s. While RKO owner Howard Hughes sheltered his stable of directors from the blacklist sparked by Senator Joseph P. McCarthy's efforts to purge the nation of what he believed was a Communist menace, Ray watched the destruction of the careers of many talented Hollywood actors and directors, including his former mentor Elia Kazan.
In appreciation for Hughes's protection, Ray directed several films for RKO in quick succession: Born to Be Bad, about two ruthless women who stop at nothing to win a battle over a man; the John Wayne vehicle The Flying Leathernecks (1951); the highly praised 1951 noir On Dangerous Ground starring Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino as a troubled young outcast and the woman who shelters him; and The Lusty Men, a western about the competing affections of rodeo riders Robert Mitchum and Arthur Kennedy for the beautiful Susan Hayward. After all this work for RKO, Ray decided to leave the studio in 1953, a year after The Lusty Men was released.
Championed the Outsider
Out from under Hughes's thumb, Ray found himself free to expand on his developing noir vision. The result was 1954's Johnny Guitar, a stylish western produced by Republic Pictures that starred Sterling Hayden. With its somewhat stiff, stylized approach, subversive sexual undercurrents, and quasi-melodramatic story line, Johnny Guitar also introduced the symbolic use of color that characterized many subsequent Ray films. Even more so than In a Lonely Place, the film is considered to be a strong cinematic statement condemning the injustices of the McCarthy-era witch hunts.
The quality of Ray's films during the mid-to late 1950s—particularly those made after the release of Johnny Guitar—prompted critics to reexamine his early work, and he gained cult status in the United States and also in Europe, especially among Jean-Luc Godard and other France New Wave directors and critics. Well-known actors continued to appear in his films. His 1955 father-and-son drama Run for Cover featured young John Derek alongside veteran actor James Cagney. While considered a good film, Run for Cover would be quickly eclipsed by the notoriety surrounding Ray's next film.
Rebel Without a Cause
Ray's eye for color, movement, and setting that was so apparent to audiences of Johnny Guitar—and which would become even more pronounced in 1958's Party Girl— meshed seamlessly with the director's fascination with the psychology of loneliness in his landmark film Rebel Without a Cause. Released in 1955 and shot in vivid color in a wide-screen format, the film starred James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo, three of the most popular young actors of the era. As portrayed by the leather-jacketed Dean, protagonist Jim Stark enters adulthood in suburban Los Angeles, the little guidance he receives from his distant father supplemented by his supportive but equally estranged and futureless friends. Stark is the epitome of teenage rebellion, and the movie culminates in classic 1950s fashion: in a deadly game of chicken behind the wheel of a souped-up hot-rod. Dean's tragically similar death a month before the film's release helped transform Ray's motion picture into an immediate classic. Rebel Without a Cause earned three Academy Award nominations, including one for Ray's screenplay.
Rebel Without a Cause was, for Ray, an impossible act to follow, but he continued on undaunted, filming Bigger than Life (1956), Bitter Victory (1957), and other motion pictures of less renown. For several years he worked in Europe but returned to the United States to film the garish 1958 gangland flick Party Girl, his last Hollywood film. Ray returned to Europe after making 1959's The Savage Innocents and tackled the life of Jesus in the popular 1961 epic drama King of Kings. Although his stature in the United States was diminished, European critics continued to praise Ray's work.
Ill Health Ended Career
Ray returned to the epic format of King of Kings for 1963's 55 Days at Peking. A story about the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China, the big-budget film was shot in Madrid, where noted opera designers Veniero Colasani and John Moore created the city of Peking in the suburb of Las Matas. The Oscar-nominated score by Dimitri Tiomkin was equally lavish.
The pressure of directing the epic took its toll on the 52-year-old director. Although he made a brief appearance in the film as a wheelchair-bound foreign ambassador, Ray suffered a heart attack and left the set before the film was completed, leaving director Andrew Marton to shoot the battle scenes. Many critics panned 55 Days at Peking as confusing, and Ray realized his mainstream career was at an end. He remained in Europe, where he was still well known, until an offer to shoot a documentary drew him back into the United States. The documentary was never completed, and financial circumstances forced Ray to remain in the United States.
During the 1970s Ray taught courses on film at the State University of New York at Binghamton, worked with students on film productions, and cooperated with German director Wim Wenders in the making of a 1974 documentary, I'm a Stranger Here Myself. The title was taken from a line in Johnny Guitar. In 1977, Ray was diagnosed with lung cancer. As the illness took its toll, he managed small acting roles in films such as Wenders's Der Amerikanische Freund and Milos Forman's 1979 production Hair. Guardian reviewer Derek Malcolm described Ray as "a tragic, neglected figure surrounded by obsequious young acolytes." Wenders, a tremendous fan of Ray, made a documentary about him, Lightning over Water (Nick's Movie), that contained interviews with the director in his last days. It was released in 1980, a year after Ray's death. Containing lectures, interviews, and other writings, Ray's autobiography, I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, was edited by his widow Susan Ray and released in 1993.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 3rd edition, Volume 2: Directors, St. James Press, 1996.
Kreidl, John Francis, Nicholas Ray, Twayne, 1977.
Ray, Nicholas, I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, University of California Press, 1993.
Cahiers du cinema, no. 66, 1956; November, 1958; January, 1962; January, 1985.
Chicago Tribune, May 29, 1998.
Film Comment, September/October 1973.
Film Quarterly, Fall 1974.
Guardian (London, England), March 25, 1999.
New York Times, June 18, 1979.
Sight and Sound, Autumn 1973; no. 4, 1979; spring, 1981; Autumn, 1986.