Showing posts with label Nicholas Ray. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nicholas Ray. Show all posts

July 15, 2017

Nicholas Ray Retrospective: Johnny Guitar (1954)

Joan Crawford stars as Vienna in Johnny Guitar, directed by Nicholas Ray.

It’s rare to have a Western with a female lead, particularly in the 1950s. Joan Crawford’s Vienna is hardly just eye candy either. She owns the screen with a look and refuses to tread in the confines of her civilization. For that reason, Vienna is a threat to everyone in the local town. Accepting her claim to valuable real estate near the railroad makes Vienna an equal to the guys, and perhaps even superior to them. It’s a clever shift in gender dynamics, though Johnny Guitar doesn’t completely bypass those norms. The title reminds us that men still try to remain front and center. The love story must drive the plot, even if it’s the least interesting part of the story.

Sterling Hayden plays the title character, who exists mostly to protect Vienna from the blood-thirsty townspeople. In a similar fashion to Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) in this year’s Wonder Woman, Guitar (whose real name is Johnny Logan) clearly plays second fiddle to the main character. He’s a past love that once lived a life of crime, but now his attention is all on Vienna. There’s an odd conflict between romance and self-determination in Vienna’s heart, and that fight exists within the film’s themes. Crawford’s Vienna is so focused that she hardly blinks, but then she falls into Logan’s arms multiple times. The script from Ben Maddow indicts McCarthyism yet can’t help but give the characters something beyond the ideological fight.

The standout among the forces of civilization is Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), who hates Vienna with all of her being. She’s jealous of Vienna’s relationship with “The Dancin’ Kid” (Scott Brady), who’s hardly a kid and doesn’t dance. Brady was 30 when Johnny Guitar was released and looks even older. McCambridge and Crawford reportedly did not get along on the set, and that hatred emanates from the screen. It’s easy to believe that the characters want to kill each other, particularly Small. The look on McCambridge’s face when she burns down Vienna’s place is chilling. It’s a vision of evil from a villain technically on the side of the law.

Ward Bond’s John McIvers may believe he’s running the show, but it’s Small that’s driving the furor against Vienna and the Dancin’ Kid’s gang. It’s the crowd mentality that drives the push to not only drive them from the town, but to hang them. The dark middle act reveals how far bloodlust can take even normal people. It’s only after the first killing that it subsides, at least for most of them. It’s easy to draw parallels between the falsehoods that drive this mission and the evils of McCarthyism. Maddow had to use Phillip Yordan’s name on the script due to his past issues with the House Un-American Activities Committee.

The final showdown is the only place where Johnny Guitar slips a bit. The shootout has power yet seems too conventional given the earlier scenes. It does include a quick stop that reminds me of the brief cease fire during Children of Men. Bond’s haunted face shows how quickly a quest for justice can get out of control. On the other hand, the last shot indicates that the love story is the driving narrative. That feels like an over-simplification given what we’ve witnessed up to that point. Vienna has lost her home and livelihood, but at least she has love. This moment ends the story on a hollow note; we root for Vienna but not in this way.

It’s easy to view Johnny Guitar as a revisionist western, but there are still parts that are genre norms. Its primary conflict is between the forces of civilization and the wilderness, order and freedom. Vienna wants the chance to go her own way, but the crowd wants to stop her because she’s an outsider. Her bright red lipstick and colorful outfits aren’t the typical garb for a woman in the “civilized” world. Crawford’s intensity sells the idea that Vienna is a singular individual that won’t cater to any societal norms. She falls for gunslingers and refuses to indict them for the behavior. It’s an entertaining twist on the conventional structure, though the end result doesn’t completely upend the typical narrative.

Johnny Guitar is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Updated Nicholas Ray Rankings

1. In a Lonely Place
2. Johnny Guitar
3. They Live by Night
4. Rebel Without a Cause
5. On Dangerous Ground

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June 19, 2017

Nicholas Ray Retrospective: On Dangerous Ground (1951)

Robert Ryan stars as Jim Wilson in Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground.

For his seventh feature, Nicholas Ray ventured into the crime world that served him well in his debut They Live By Night. Released in 1951, On Dangerous Ground depicts a cynical cop that’s lost his way in the dark city. It’s the type of character that we still see today, particularly on prestige TV series. Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is a grim anti-hero with no interest in playing by the rules. There are even Dirty Harry-like moments where the Chief tells Wilson that he must tone down his behavior or risk losing his badge. He’s a loose cannon that must be controlled!

Robert Ryan (The Naked Spur, Bad Day at Black Rock) is the perfect choice to play this unhinged guy. His expressive face says plenty with limited dialogue. When Wilson mercilessly beats a suspect, the camera stays on Ryan’s face. It’s a frightening look inside a cop that has seen far too much. Screaming “You know you’re gonna talk! I’m gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk!”, Ryan is quite believable. There is no doubt that Wilson is going to gather the info he needs no matter what it takes. The line between cop and criminal is razor thin, and Wilson might be worse because he’s acting with the arm of the law.

An effective opening sequence presents a series of nighttime calls to cops for an extensive search for suspects. The emphasis on the procedural aspects is surprising from a director like Ray, who often seems more interested in a story’s emotional context (that comes later). During the first act, there’s little sense that we aren’t going to stick with the cops. I knew little about the plot going into this viewing, and the fast-paced opening works well. Ray puts the camera inside the cars and gives us obstructed looks at the action in the city’s back alleys. This helps set the mood of a depressing crime world, and even the audience is likely on board to escape it.

What makes On Dangerous Ground stand out is its odd left turn during its second half. Sending a city cop to the country to investigate a murder isn’t that surprising. What makes the shift different is how little Ray and Co-writer A.I. Bezzerides seem to care about the case. It’s really just a set-up to bring Wilson into contact with Mary Malden (Ida Lupino). She’s blind and living mostly alone in the snowy wilderness. Lupino’s glassy stare helps make sure we get the point, even if Walter Brent (Ward Bond) can’t see that she’s blind for a while. His revenge-minded father of the victim is so blinded by rage that he almost clumsily burns down the cabin. The hard edges of the first act disappear, and we’ve shifted into a family melodrama and love story.

Before Wilson and Brent meet Malden, they join a town-wide manhunt for the killer. It’s the film’s most epic sequence and has a strange town mania for the chase. It’s the most exciting thing to happen in the town for quite a while! In this revenge-fueled setting, Wilson doesn’t seem like he’s out of line. In fact, his measured approach in the new setting is a contrast to the townspeople’s. Bond is dialed up to 11 as Brent, and Wilson seems eerily composed by comparison. Part of the change is this wide-open landscape plus an interest in Malden. The change of scenery pulls the darkness away from Wilson, and he’s comfortable here.

Lupino and Ryan do their best with the material, but the story grinds to a halt in the third act. It’s a surprising move to slow down so much in what’s essentially the movie’s climax. Even when Brent and Wilson chase down the suspect, the result seems more inevitable than thrilling. An exception is the one-on-one meeting between Wilson and the killer, which works because of the cop’s internal conflict. His interest in both Malden and this small-town life means more than catching the bad guy. The conflict appears mostly in Ryan’s facial expressions, which shift as his demeanor softens with Malden. Taking care of her gives him a much-needed mission.

Despite some awkward moments, On Dangerous Ground is a worthy noir because of Ray’s direction. He finds inventive places to put the camera, especially in driving sequences. One crash gives the sense that you’re inside the car as it tumbles over in the icy snow. This film also runs a brisk 82 minutes. A two-hour version of this film would be tedious. A slow Bernard Hermann score adds to the sleepy tone of the scenes inside the house. Wilson needs this quiet life to push back his demons, but it’s less inspiring to us. What clicks is the way his demeanor shifts back to depression when he drives back into the city. That world would eventually kill Wilson’s soul, and he must escape or risk falling prey to the worst parts of himself.

On Dangerous Ground is currently streaming on Filmstruck and available to rent through Amazon.

Updated Nicholas Ray Rankings

1. In a Lonely Place
2. They Live by Night
3. Rebel Without a Cause
4. On Dangerous Ground

This post contains affiliate links. Making any purchase through those links supports this site. See full disclosure.

June 1, 2017

Nicholas Ray Retrospective: They Live By Night (1948)

Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell star in Nicholas Ray's They Live By Night.

We’ve reached a saturation point when it comes to new content, particularly with movies and television. My backlog of films and shows to catch up with from even the past year is massive, and it keeps growing. Finding the time to look back at past greats is harder than ever. It’s also much easier, though. Streaming services like Filmstruck, MUBI, and Fandor offer so many past gems for cinephiles looking to expand their knowledge. I’m a subscriber to Filmstruck and appreciate how they spotlight legendary directors.

A perfect example is the work of Nicholas Ray, who directed nearly 30 films during a lengthy career. I’ve only seen two of his pictures — In a Lonely Place and Rebel Without a Cause. While those movies represent his best-known work, there’s a lot more to uncover. During this series, I’ll dive much further into Ray’s output and write about each film on this site. I’m starting back at the beginning with his debut feature They Live by Night. If this experience gives any indication, I’m in store for plenty of interesting material during the upcoming weeks.

In his first project, Ray displays a confidence that makes it easy to stick with the action. The striking helicopter shots of the escaped prisoners bring an epic feel that’s rare for the time period. It’s a grand way to introduce what’s essentially a pretty small story. Reportedly the first use of a helicopter to shoot an action scene, the sequence helps distinguish this movie from the typical crime film. Ray incorporates several other helicopter shots into the mix, and it also makes the camera feel like an ominous watcher. We’re observing the characters from afar and aren’t on their level.

Not Part of Our World

This gloomy atmosphere stems from a strange introduction that precedes the helicopter footage. We see Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) in love while title cards explain that “This boy...and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in…” Throughout the film, characters talk about being real people and finding regular life. Because of the prologue (and our knowledge of the genre), we know it’s a fool’s errand. Even with the best of intentions, there’s little chance for the young couple in this rotten world.

Circling back to the escape, our vantage point above the convicts builds a distance at the start. It’s also just a cool shot. When the getaway car fails, we quickly see what kind of guys we’ve joined. They don’t murder the innocent driver but do beat him convincingly. These aren’t vicious killers but are hardly innocents either. T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) are veteran bank robbers, and Granger’s Bowie is their young understudy. Those guys are too far gone to reform, but Bowie still believes there’s a chance for a normal life.

Bowie and Keechie share a meet cute while he’s recovering from an injury at her father’s house. Both have an innocence that the older characters are missing. Her dad is a drunk that can do little without grabbing the bottle. It’s the naïve innocence that draws Bowie and Keechie together, and Granger and O’Donnell are the right choices for these characters. Even when he’s acting tough, it’s hard for Bowie not to seem like a kid. Keechie is upbeat but has seen the rough edges of people through his father’s experience. Her eyes convey more reality than what she says.

Farley Granger and his fellow hoods flee the law in They Live By Night.

A Bad Influence

This world’s rough edges appear in the form of Chickamaw, a one-eyed and angry guy with few social graces. Whatever you do, don’t mention his eye. He takes a strange interest in Keechie, drinks heavily, and smokes cigars. There’s a surprisingly nasty moment with their associate Mattie (Helen Craig) that happens with Chickamaw off-screen. Her behavior in the aftermath strongly implies that Chickamaw tried to rape her. There’s nothing explicit due to the Production Code, but it’s pretty easy to read between the lines.

Da Silva plays Chickamaw like a sexually frustrated subhuman that needs to rob banks for satisfaction. To quote Heat’s Michael Cheritto, the action is the juice for him. Ray makes this explicit later in the film when he faces down Bowie. The crazed look on Chickamaw’s face resembles a monster, especially due to his missing eye. I recognize Da Silva mostly from his goofy turn as Ben Franklin in the musical 1776, so this is quite a different side of the big guy.

His counterpart T-Dub seems like the friendlier associate for Bowie, though he’s really just subtler. Flippen’s hardened face makes T-Dub seem older than the actor’s late 40s age would seem. Bowie looks at him like a father figure, but it’s all business for the long-time criminal. When he reveals his true colors to Bowie, the friendly mask disappears. Bowie is an investment, not a friend of a protégée. There’s no escape from guys like T-Dub and Chickamaw once they’ve entered your life.

I must take a moment to express my love for all the different character names within this movie. Bowie and Keechie seem fitting for the innocent young couple, while Chickamaw and T-Dub match the images of the grizzled criminals. Other names like Mattie, Mobley, and Hagenheimer fit nicely too. If these characters were named John, Sally, and Bob, it wouldn’t have the same effect. Using uncommon names also contributes to the idea that these characters aren’t part of the regular world. They’re on a different plane and won’t connect to everyday society.

Singular Thinking

Bowie is a character type we often see — the idealistic young criminal blinded by love. He can be tough but doesn’t have the grit to overcome life on the run. Keechie is more interesting because of the piercing facial expressions from O’Donnell. Her singular approach is naïve but with some rough edges beneath the surface. She spent her young days working as a mechanic in a cold household. This is a fantasy life for her, and Bowie better not lose it.

One scene that solidifies her worldview is her comparison of women to dogs. It’s a cringe-worthy moment that feels especially prescient in the time of Trump, but it helps explain Keechie’s approach. She’s all about building this life with Bowie and has few aspirations beyond their family. What’s less clear is whether her comments are meant to be cute or as an expression of love. That’s a frightening concept but not outlandish in this late ‘40s noir world.

Keechie is on board to escape to new life with Bowie, and the glowing look on her face when he tries to hold a stranger’s baby reveals other aspirations. It’s all part of the American dream! The trick is that Bowie seems really uncomfortable with the baby and might not fit with family life. Keechie may have chosen the wrong guy, even if he means well. An escaped convict is not usually the right choice to elope with and start a family.

Cathy O'Donnell and Farley Granger are Keechie and Bowie in They Live the Night.

A Fantasy Life

The closest that Bowie and Keechie come to finding that dream is a run-down cabin in the woods. They buy fancy items and convert it into a place that resembles a comfortable home. The cash from the bank robbery makes it easy to slide into this happy dream. They’re married and in love! What can go wrong? Ray shoots the pair with regular close-ups of their smiling faces, and it’s almost possible to believe they’ll be okay. The cracks are still there at each step, however.

There’s something off about the late-night wedding, and it isn’t just its cheap price. Bowie and Keechie are happy in love, but the reaction from the wedding chapel owner Mr. Hawkins (Ian Wolfe) tells a different story. He recognizes that they won’t succeed here and should get out of the country. Presenting his pal in Mexico is a scheme, but Hawkins probably only mentions it when the patrons fit. When a desperate Bowie circles back later to accept his offer, it’s too late. Hawkins drops his fake business persona and tells Bowie there’s no hope. This bitter and honest take is the last straw in destroying the couple's fantasy.

The cabin owner Mr. Lambert (Byron Foulger) also seems friendly, but it’s mostly an act. A suspicion lurks beneath his smiling face, and it’s only a matter of time before they contact the authorities. Each step along the way, an apparently happy moment is undercut but something fake. Bowie and Keechie spend a night on the town and enjoy an energetic performance from a singer played by Marie Hill. Ray also focuses on the way she grabs tips while singing for the audience. There’s always an ulterior motive. The magical night also ends when a drunk stumbles into the couple’s table. There are no happy endings in this realm.

No Daylight

The previous cracks were just the set-up for the ultimate fall during the final act. Chickamaw and T-Dub enter the picture (and quickly fail), and it foretells Bowie’s eventual fate. The normally exciting revelation of Keechie’s pregnancy brings no joy and only nastiness on both sides. Keechie’s “you don’t see me knitting anything!” reveals how even her idealistic self is gone. They’re forced to travel by night however they can, and that’s no way for a pregnant woman (or anyone really) to live.

The film’s title connects to this part of the movie, where traveling during the day is too dangerous. They Live By Night does imply some type of life for this couple. The desperate final scenes make it clear that living anywhere is impossible. Even other criminals want no part of Bowie due to his fame. One hood sees him in the restroom and offers him a gun but also orders him to leave town. Mattie is their last safe haven, and she makes a deal with the cops to save her husband. It’s all over.

They Live by Night is familiar because many more recent films have used a similar formula. Despite that fact, it still retains its charms thanks to interesting techniques from Ray and the way the lead actors (especially O’Donnell) dive into their parts. Ray’s shots from inside the car are quite striking even today. He also creates a subtle feeling that the walls are closing in on the couple. Bowie is frequently shot from behind a fence or bars, and it shows that he’s still in prison even while on the run. There’s plenty to like in this story, which represents a remarkable debut for a talented filmmaker.

They Live by Night is currently streaming on Filmstruck and available to rent through Amazon