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August 25, 2007

True Stories of Nicholas Ray

The Films of Nicholas Ray: The Poet of Nightfall
Geoff Andrew - 2004
BFI Publications

The True Story of Jesse James
Nicholas Ray - 1957
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

As an introduction to the films of Nicholas Ray, Geoff Andrew's book provides a fairly good overview, particularly of Ray's themes. For those who are more familiar with Ray's films, the book may not provide as much information as might be desired.

One of the better sections is on Rebel without a Cause, with Andrew discussing the scene in the police station. The characters portrayed by James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo do not know each other, but are unified by the CinemaScope frame. Wood is separated by a glass partition from Dean and Mineo who eventually meet. That scene is just one example of how Ray made creative use of the wide screen format.

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In the chapter on Bigger than Life, Andrew examines the use of color and shadows. One of the key quotes from Ray is taken from a 1956 Sight and Sound interview: "It was all in the script a disillusioned writer will tell you. But it was never all in the script. If it were, why make the movie?"

Andrew provides a synopsis before discussing aspects of the production of each film and an analysis. While this has increased my interest in Born to be Bad and Hot Blood, Andrew has not quite convinced me that Party Girl, a film I found increasingly dull, is worth re-watching. The book is a reminder that too many of Ray's better film are still unavailable on DVD although this situation has improved in the past year.

One of the more interesting bits of information is in regards to The True Story of Jesse James. According to Andrew, as the film was originally conceived by Ray, "He planned, he said, to forgo any notion of realism and to do the whole film on the stage as a legend with people coming in and out of areas of light, making it a period study of . . . the effects of war on the behavior of young people." At least from the description, Ray is anticipating Dogville by almost forty-five years.

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While the final film, edited without Ray's participation, is a much more conventional western, The True Story of Jesse James has its moments. Breathtaking is a shot with the stunt doubles of Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter. Frank and Jesse James are trying to escape the posse trailing them following the disasterous robbery of the Northfield, Minnesota bank. At the edge of a cliff, the two men and their horses hurl themselves over the brink, into the river below. According to IMDb, that one great shot was from Henry King's 1939 Jesse James. One wishes the rest of the film were as good. Even with lowered expectations, The True Story of Jesse James is hampered by the wooden performances of Wagner and Hope Lange.

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While The True Story of Jesse James was conceived as a CinemaScope remake of Henry King's Jesse James, Ray's film undermines the romantic view of James. Ray looks at the creation of celebrity, the gap between the real Jesse James and the one celebrated in the dime novels of the late 19th Century. Ray even makes a few jabs at the spectacle of celebrity death. Soon after Bob Ford hits the streets to declare that he shot James, the neighbors of the man known as Mr. Howard crowd into the house to glare at the corpse, some grabbing souvenirs of personal belongings while being urged out of the house. If John Ford is "Print the legend", Ray is "State the facts".

In writing about other Ray films, less convincing is Andrew's argument about the influence of On Dangerous Ground on Psycho. There are some undeniable similarities - music by Bernard Herrman, shots of driving in bad weather with the camera viewing the road, and a killer in the basement. After seeing On Dangerous Ground again, the connections seem much more forced than those linking Psycho with Touch of Evil.

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One chapter is devoted to a short television play, High Green Wall, made in 1954. Andrew also includes a list of the films Ray had a hand in shooting while at RKO, as well as other films that included Ray's uncredited contributions. Those familiar with Nicholas Ray will probably find the back stories to the production of the films of most interest. For those less familiar with Nicholas Ray, Geoff Andrew's book is a good introduction to a filmmaker who was much more than Rebel Without a Cause.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 25, 2007 11:46 AM


Nice review of Geoff's book. We found it to be invaluable when writing our book on Rebel Without a Cause, Live Fast, Die Young.

One interesting story about the True Story of Jesse James is that Ray wanted it to star Elvis Presley who was a huge fan of Rebel Without a Cause, and when that didn't work out, he lost interest. By the way, in the scene where the horses jump off the cliff, one of the horses was injured, which led to rules being passed about the use of animals in film and the ubiquitous "No animals were harmed in the making of this picture..."

Posted by: Al Weisel at August 25, 2007 09:00 PM

Thanks for the compliment. I had read that Elvis dated Natalie Wood and was friends with Nick Adams. I hadn't known that Ray wanted Elvis to star as Jesse James. It sounds like another example of Tom Parker thwarting Elvis' serious ambitions.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at August 27, 2007 01:54 AM