• The Train Arrives on the Platform
    Read Now
  • The Other Akerman : The Essay Film in News From Home (1976)
    Read Now
  • Andha Canon; or The Strange Case of the Indian Film Canon
    Read Now
  • A Tribute to Meghe Dhaka Tara (Ritwik Ghatak, 1960)
    Read Now
  • Chitrangada; or The Oppositional Design
    Read Now
  • Nicholas Ray : An American Journey by Bernard Eisenschitz
    Read Now
  • General Review - Theatrical Releases
    Read Now
  • General Review - Independent Releases
    Read Now
  • Argo, Orient Yourself!
    Read Now
  • The Grandmaster: The Age of Refinement
    Read Now
  • The “Movie of Ideas”: Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus
    Read Now

Nicholas Ray : An American Journey by Bernard Eisenschitz

 | +Plus |

  BY Sudarshan Ramani

Nicholas Ray in Lightning Over Water (1980)

"Can you define the meaning of the word "dialectic"?

- Nicholas Ray to Jim Jarmusch on their first meeting [1].

In the field of literature, history and politics, there have been several worthy biographies documenting the personality of a chosen subject, the ways in which they worked and operated and their relation to a larger social and historical dimension. As far as biographies of film-makers go, or to be specific, biographies of auteurs, there haven't been many classics to show for this small but expanding genre. “Will we ever get a critical biography of Welles, Kubrick, or Eastwood as good as Brian Boyd's two volumes on Vladimir Nabokov?” lamented Jonathan Rosenbaum in a review of Godard’s latest biography. Rosenbaum notes that, “Novelists basically have friends, relatives, and editors to be interviewed, but with high-profile movie directors, one also has to contend with countless employees, potential as well as actual.” [2]

Keeping this in mind, one can see why Nicholas Ray is the ideal subject for this biography by Bernard Eisenschitz, since he was a major Hollywood film-maker who worked with some of the greatest stars yet remained outside the public view. Not for Ray the institutional stature of John Ford, the fame of Hitchcock or even the controversy of his friend Elia Kazan. The personal nature of Ray’s films, the fact that he had few box-office hits and only one major popular success (Rebel Without A Cause, 1955) allowed him to be largely invisible to the general public. The people who knew him best were his friends, his family, his collaborators and his students at New York University (one of whom was Jim Jarmusch). The only fame Ray attained was his legend among his admirers in Europe and later America, for whom he became, along with Samuel Fuller (who he met on the set of Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, 1977), the cult director for a post-war generation.

A film historian active in archiving and restoration (A leading authority on Boris Barnet and Fritz Lang), Bernard Eisenschitz is unique and radical in his approach to exploring cinema. Having known Ray in person and visited the set of the Ray-Wenders film Lightning Over Water, he was able to observe Ray directing and interacting with actors. A revered teacher at New York University (many of his students worked on Lightning...), Ray would balk at explaining or rationalizing his seemingly intuitive approach to dealing with performers. Yet Eisenschitz also perceived purpose, control and vision in Ray’s actions. Ray would die shortly afterwards, the film Lightning Over Water would end up becoming a haunting record of Ray’s final days. In the wake of his passing, Eisenschitz sought to preserve and uncover the many new questions that had arisen regarding Ray and his work methods. The fruit of that curiosity was years of research, interviews with surviving colleagues and this definitive biography of Nicholas Ray which is also one of the pivotal books on film-making and indeed, an authentic classic in the genre.

 Wisconsin Boy

The original French edition of this book (published in 1990) has the subtitle, “Les vies de Nicholas Ray”. Tom Milne’s wonderful translation uses “An American Journey” which is no less apt. Both titles capture the itinerant spirit of Ray’s life, emphasizing his authentic wanderlust. They also suggest furthermore the calling of his characters, many of them drifters, nomads, and people constantly on the move. The adjective of course is important. First and foremost, Ray was an American artist, attentive to the shifts in society even in the 60s and 70s, after his lengthy exile in Europe. Ray was one of three major film-makers to come out of the state of Wisconsin. The others were Orson Welles and Joseph Losey. Ray has much in common with both mid-westerners. Like Losey and Welles, he engaged in theatre and radio and enjoyed a diverse apprenticeship with several major artists. Like Losey, Ray was politically engaged, briefly a member of the Communist Party. All three film-makers wielded a flamboyant, baroque mise-en-scene that asserted itself more strongly as their oeuvre moved away from its naturalist beginnings. But the differences are crucial.

Unlike Ray, Losey was actually blacklisted by the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC) for refusing to denounce his fellow colleagues as communists. Ray was never even subpoenaed, partly as Eisenschitz suggests, on account of the mysterious patronage of Howard Hughes, and partly due to Ray’s private testimony, requisite for any continuing affiliation with the film industry on the part of 30s leftists. His contrast with Welles is stark. Ray’s films were resolutely contemporary, engaging with the problems of youth and middle-aged adults. Welles, four years younger than Ray, made films about old age, the concerns of his films drifting further and further away from contemporary America as his career went along. Like Losey and Welles, Ray eventually found himself exiled from America. But the loss of connection with America affected Ray far more than it did the other two. The most difficult section to read in the biography is Eisenschitz’s detailed description of Ray’s attempts to get several independent films made in Europe, none of which materialized. Ray himself does little to help his case, his increasingly strange and unexplained behaviour doing much to alienate sympathetic collaborators like James Mason (the producer and star of Bigger Than Life, 1956 and a planned adaptation of Dylan Thomas’ The Doctor and the Devils). It was only when he returned to America, in the wake of the trial of the Chicago 7 and later his stint at New York University that Ray resurfaced again, responding to a zeitgeist that had in fact been heralded by his film, Rebel Without A Cause (1955). The renewed political engagement of the 60s and 70s also inspired Ray whose formative years were spent in the Great Depression, putting out plays on strikes, social problems and agitprop. Ray’s connection to American reality, especially the lives of people on the margins or outside society, goes far in explaining the force of his powerful, unique films.

Ray's Lonely Men

Many of Ray’s films deal with the impossibility of home and keeping one’s roots. Thomas Wolfe, the troubled author of Look Homeward Angel, The Hills Beyond and You Can’t Go Home Again (which Ray appropriated for his final film We Can't Go Home Again) was an early inspiration on Ray. In his famous essay, “God’s Lonely Man” (immortalized in Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver), the author noted that “loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”

Several of Ray’s films are about characters who are temperamental (Humphrey Bogart, In A Lonely Place, 1950), who are briefly tempted by happiness (Farley Granger, They Live by Night, 1948), by love (Robert Mitchum, The Lusty Men, 1952), the promise of friendship and community (Sal Mineo, James Dean and Natalie Wood, Rebel Without A Cause) only to end up ruptured, desiccated or dead. Indeed, the overall pessimism of Ray’s films, unleavened by sentimentalism and convincing happy endings goes far in explaining his marginal status in Hollywood. The obverse of this sense of loneliness was a yearning for an authentic community, loneliness being a state that served as a prelude to actual engagement with society of if not, the creation of an alternative. Indeed, Ray was unique and ahead of his time for the focus and attention he devotes to sub-cultures and counter-cultures, the chronicler of Rodeo Performers (The Lusty Men), Gypsies (Hot Blood, 1956), Inuit (The Savage Innocents, 1960), Teen Gangs (Rebel Without A Cause) as well as the outlaw tribes of Johnny Guitar (1954) and Wind Across the Everglades(1958), whose violent and self-destructive community is regarded with affection and restraint of judgment. Some of the strongest moments in Ray's films comes as a result of a clash of personal choices, sad compromises and a wider social code that cannot be evaded.

In Wind Across the Everglades, a Seminole Indian who escorts Christopher Plummer through the swamps briefly looks at a woman and a child standing at the water's edge, appearing like spirits of the forest. Because he worked with the "white man", he has effectively cast himself outside his tribe and can no longer see his family who obviously still loves him. This moment comes fleetingly, uncommented on yet lingers in sadness. The Savage Innocents goes even further, mounting a searing critique of Western civilization from the perspective of an "other". Shot largely in studios and casting white actors as Inuit(Anthony Quinn plays the lead), the film is nonetheless striking for its powerful sense of life amidst harsh conditions, a vision that's no less haunting than Tian Zhuangzhuang's more naturalistic The Horse Thief (1986).


This anthropological commitment goes far in explaining the great affinity film-makers like Jean-Luc Godard and Martin Scorsese felt for Ray and his films. Beyond the shiny surface of 50s Hollywood productions, Ray's films were personal and digressive, departing constantly from traditional narrative and bursting with visual invention. The opening section of On Dangerous Ground (1952) is almost documentary-like in the way it charts out the routine of police-officers in the course of a single night, vividly etching the breakdown of a violent police officer (Robert Ryan). The film is still shocking for the way it shifts from sober film-noir lighting to frenetic hand-held camera movements, the way in which the film's style maintains a balance between naturalism and expressionism. Johnny Guitar goes the other way, all sunshine and primary colors, clad in overlit sets yet absolutely honest in its portrayal of relationships, the fading embers between Johnny "Guitar" Logan (Sterling Hayden) and Vienna (Joan Crawford), their former happiness now a painful memory.  

Johnny Guitar (1954) - Sterling Hayden and Joan Crawford

Indeed, Ray is unique among American film-makers for having little affinity to genre, being incapable of a conventional gangster film (his Party Girl is a kind of musical) or a Western (Johnny Guitar). Even a subject with as much baggage as King of Kings (1961), outwardly a bloated Hollywood epic on Jesus Christ but inwardly bursting with surprise and invention. Especially the stirring opening prologue, a newsreel of Roman Era Judea and the political-historical context of the world of Jesus and his Apostles. It is an obvious subject like this that in fact reveals Ray's fierce secularism, giving us a Jesus who is neither as charismatic or interesting as the events and supporting characters, with the best performance coming from regular collaborator Robert Ryan, surely cinema's finest John the Baptist. 

Method and Style

James Dean and Nicholas Ray on the set of Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

Eisenschitz's book goes far in exploring the working methods that created Ray's distinct style. A mix of copious research of the subjects of his films combined with constant interplay and improvisation with actors. The production of The Lusty Men for instance is striking for going against the grain of what we think of as common for the studio system. The film began production without a complete script, it involved extensive location shooting with much of the dialogue created in collaboration with actors Robert Mitchum and Susan Hayward, the film's ending arrived at more as a stopping point than a capstone that resolves the film. Irresolution is Ray's stated preference; it led to In A Lonely Place becoming one of cinema's most compelling love stories and a brilliant reflection of the creative process, rather than the cut-and-dried lurid crime thriller Ray was initially contracted for. In Ray's hands, an actor like Humphrey Bogart is released of the macho bluster and glib arrogance that characterized his famous screen image, giving a performance that is brave, vulnerable and frightening, one that had more to do with the actor's real self than any other role played by him.

What makes the films of Nicholas Ray so beautiful and strange is its organic texture, the sense that the films are alive in a way, that they are "as big and beautiful and ugly as [they are] in life". Which is to say that Ray's films have an imperfect quality that is nonetheless natural and in keeping with the film. Some of these imperfections, as Eisenschitz notes, have to do with troubled productions or studio censorship, the fact that Ray did not always have a say in the editing of his films. But these ruptures and incursions only make the flashes of life and unpredictability have that much greater force.

Wind Across the Everglades, Ray's final American studio film (every commercial feature after would be made in Europe, and Ray did not return to American life and subjects until the 70s) is overshadowed and neglected by its fantastically unstable production which resulted in the removal of Ray from the director's chair during production, leaving the final scenes to be shot by the film's assistant directors and the film's screenwriter-producer Budd Schulberg(of On the Waterfront fame). Ray's own ambivalence to the material is reflected in his angling the film towards the film's villains, the gang of poachers headed by Burl Ives' Falstaffian Cottonmouth. Indeed our first glimpse of Cottonmouth in the film, apperaing upside down on the plates of an old camera viewfinder, is pure Ray. We can see that a film that did not originate with Ray, to which he only fitful interest ends up becoming a personal and original film, even if it is flawed.  Eisenschitz's biography is dilligent for clarifying the circumstances and evasions that has led to this most obscure and secret of Ray's best films(as I would argue) to be neglected, insisting on the film's strangeness and the development of the theme on the elective affinities which bind antagonists, stirringly achieved in the climactic drinking scene between Christopher Plummer and Burl Ives. This last scene, definitely shot by Ray, ends in ironic affirmation, "Boys, he's joining us!".

Work and Life

Biographies of artists in cinema largely rise and fall on the extent with which they merge an understanding of the person's life with his work, mostly favoring the former over the latter. In contrast, Eisenschitz places Ray's films at the centre, with Ray's life and career information serving as a key to understanding the special qualities of his films. A well-read man with a variety of interests, Ray was not given to long explanations and a frequent point of contention among collaborators are his famous long pauses, his evasions to answering basic questions, all part of his casual manipulation of actors to ease them into their roles. Ray's observations of his films are also brief and halting, characteristic of many of his contemporaries who never entirely accepted their latter-day renown as serious artists. Eisenschitz tells us that Ray never integrated himself into any place other than America, he would not learn another language in his extensive European exile and always regarded himself as a Hollywood film-maker despite working against the norm and going against the grain of films made at the time. Is it any surprise that Ray is as divided and contradictory as his best characters?

It is one thing to see several films and then write down common themes, ideas and visual motifs which recur and another to actually match these observations with the process of film production. Indeed, much of the most radical books on film-making published recently has turned towards this research-driven approach. A book like Hitchcock At Work by Bill Krohn reveals that the most emblematic style known to cinema by any film-maker derives from a carefully developed and discretely flexible style of working. Eisenschitz’s book likewise shows that a personal style is not developed by stylistic or technical idiosyncrasies but rather a broader experimental spirit driven by a total commitment to human truth. On that count, Ray is above and beyond reproach, a major artist of singular talent.


Nicholas Ray : An American Journey
Written by Bernard Eisenschitz | Translated by Tom Milne
Paperback Edition: 624 pages | Publisher: Univ Of Minnesota Press; Reprint edition (June 9, 2011)


1. Jim Jarmusch : The Hollywood Interview | Alex Simon and Terry Keefe

2. Jean-Luc Godard: Lights, Camera, Paradox! | Jonathan Rosenbaum