Weekly Top Five: The Best of Nicholas Ray | Bleader

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Weekly Top Five: The Best of Nicholas Ray

Posted By on 07.14.13 at 09:01 AM

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Bigger Than Life
  • Bigger Than Life
The Hollywood classic Rebel Without a Cause screens at the Logan this Thursday, July 18, at 11 PM. The film is most famous for featuring James Dean in his career-defining role, but anyone who knows anything knows that it's also one of the finer films from director Nicholas Ray, one of the most important American filmmakers of his generation. Stymied by studios and misunderstood by postwar moviegoers, Ray never rose to the level of fame he deserved until after his career was more or less over, a sad reality that fortunately hasn't prevented modern audiences from discovering and appreciating his films as the masterworks they are. You can catch my five favorite after the jump.

5. Bitter Victory (1957) This gorgeous, desert-set war drama is Ray's last great film, a black-and-white CinemaScoped parable that unfolds in a listless, almost unnerving manner. The elegiac nature of the narrative wasn't exactly Ray's intention. Columbia Pictures cut the film to bits, rendering its lyrical nature virtually incomprehensible. Yet therein lies its appeal—the film is perhaps Ray's most dreamlike, filled with striking imagery and more than a few visual metaphors. Dave Kehr eloquently summed it up when he wrote, "The film barely makes sense on the narrative level, but Ray, as always, is able to illustrate what he cannot articulate."

4. Johnny Guitar (1954) For all its color and melodrama, this classic surwestern (a term coined by Andre Bazin to describe a western that's "ashamed to be just itself") is a rather serious cultural commentary, noted for its cold war allegory and not-so-subtle feminist leanings. Its flamboyant touches are less frivolous sidetracks than comically lyrical accents.

3. Bigger than Life (1956) Ray's most impressionistic film, a stunning dissection of suburban malaise and middle-class woes in the 1950s. As in most Ray films, symbols and metaphors abound, but no sign is more telling than Ray's dressing of little Robert Simon in James Dean's iconic red jacket from Rebel Without a Cause, a subtle but no less stirring touch.

2. They Live by Night (1949) One of the great debut films, the rightful precursor to the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, and Pierrot le Fou. Ray would continue to make films about youthful societal outcasts, but he'd rarely match the sense of immediacy on display here.

1. The Lusty Men (1952) A quietly disarming drama about lost souls in search of a home, Ray's pet theme. The elegiac tone perfectly matches the film's sleepy western settings, as does Robert Mitchum's typically unaffected demeanor. It's the kind of film that takes its time, lulling the viewer into a sense of calm even as the dramatic gears churn. The documentary-esque nature of the mise-en-scene also impresses.

Honorable mentions: In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground, obviously, and I'm also quite fond of Knock on Any Door, if only for the climactic courtroom scene.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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