Nicholas Ray: Rebellion Amid the Darkness of Evening by William Hare, author of LA Noir and Early Film Noir
Nicholas Ray understood inner rebellion. His impressive body of film work corroborates this proposition.
Ray as cinema’s “laureate of night” was a natural inside the world of film noir, but the triumph for which so many remember him was a story about youth rebellion featuring three fascinating talents playing teens groping for meaning in life in mid-twentieth century America. The dynamic trio consisted of James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, and the 1955 film was Rebel Without a Cause.
While Rebel by definition fit into the category of a psychological study of troubled youth, Ray’s extensive background in film noir was evident in the film’s most dramatically gripping scenes as the troubled teens met amid evening darkness in an abandoned Hollywood house.
This film had its evolutionary roots in Ray’s groundbreaking 1949 noir classic, They Live by Night. Just as the later pairing of James Dean and Natalie Wood captivated world filmgoers in Rebel, the earlier duo of Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell also tugged mightily at the heartstrings.
The shrewd design of Ray in setting stage and theme was evident when the film opened with Granger hiding beneath a billboard in pitch darkness in a deserted, tumble weed strewn patch of Oklahoma wilderness, which serves as his introduction to O’Donnell. They immediately empathize as a young folks couple seeking to find their way in Depression America.
Granger is a tragic pawn of fate. After being sent to prison unjustly he is at the mercy of veteran career criminals Jay C. Flippen and Howard Da Silva after they spring him in their daring escape. From that point he belongs to them and becomes the driver and lookout man as Flippen and Da Silva rob banks in small town Oklahoma.
Ultimately Granger is gunned down in the courtyard of a dilapidated motel where he lives with O’Donnell and their recently born child. Police are tipped off by the lonely wife of a criminal serving a prison term. Her information is part of a deal with authorities to release her husband. The husband expresses grief and anger over a transaction he loathes.
Troubled youth was the theme of Ray’s effort for Humphrey Bogart’s Santana Productions with the 1949 release of Knock on Any Door. Bogart stars as a crusader on a mission to help save John Derek and other alienated young men teetering on the precipice of a life of crime.
While this was not a stellar hit in the best Ray tradition, it has one of the enduring lines of the period as Derek philosophizes, “Live fast. Die young. Have a good looking corpse.”
In 1950, also with Bogart starring in a Ray production with Santana, the next effort became one of the most memorable films ever made about Hollywood. This time Bogart is the frustrated rebel, a psychological victim of World War Two who cannot turn off his fighting bell in In a Lonely Place.
A melancholy ingredient of the Bogart film, which finds the great actor playing a screenwriter whose reputation for violence is causing him to be shunned by the industry, is that the love of director Ray’s life, Gloria Grahame, stars as an actress living across the courtyard from the troubled scenarist.
The film mirrors in many ways Ray’s marriage to Grahame. It started like a comet but soon came crashing to earth, ending in divorce not long after filming was completed. In the movie the romance culminates when Grahame cannot endure, despite her passionate feelings for Bogart, his brutal side following a choking incident.
In a Lonely Place, in the Ray tradition, finds its life by evening. Screenwriter Bogart is a creature of darkness, at his most productive best writing from evening to the advent of dawn, a true testimonial to Ray as Hollywood’s “laureate of night.”