The auteurists' favorite, Nicholas Ray made movies for little more than a decade, but his films are among the most incisive, bizarre, and intelligent of the 1950s. A believer that great directors leave distinctive signatures on their work, Ray's eye for setting, color, and kinetic action merged with a socially conscious interest in personal psychology to reveal a darkness at odds with "normalcy" in such films as In a Lonely Place (1950), Johnny Guitar (1954), and his most famous film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
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Born and raised in Wisconsin, Raymond Nicholas Kienzle Jr. got kicked out of high school numerous times, but he also wrote local radio shows that won him admission to college. Renaming himself Nick Ray in 1931, Ray's eclectic post-high school education included a year at the University of Chicago and several months at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin art colony, where he studied architecture and drama. Moving to New York in 1932, Ray became active in left-wing theater, including acting in Elia Kazan's directorial debut for the Theater of Action, and working on a Joseph Losey production for the Federal Theater Project. Out of the FTP by 1940, Ray worked in radio and was hired by John Houseman to produce radio programs for the Office of War Information.
Ray subsequently earned his first Hollywood experience as an assistant on Kazan's debut film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945). After assisting on several other films and directing a Broadway show and a TV show, Ray headed back to Hollywood to work for Houseman at RKO on a film adaptation of Thieves Like Us, retitled They Live By Night (1949). Given the chance to direct, Ray infused the film with an edgy intimacy and sympathy for the young outlaw lovers. Though barely noticed on its first release, They Live By Night was championed by the Cahiers du Cinéma critics and became one of his most highly regarded films. Staying on with RKO after Howard Hughes bought it, Ray directed murder-mystery A Woman's Secret (1949), co-starring his second wife-to-be, Gloria Grahame, and was loaned out to direct Humphrey Bogart as a sympathetic lawyer to delinquent juvenile John Derek in Knock on Any Door (1949). Derek's desire in Knock to "live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse" would effectively sum up the fate of future Rebel star James Dean.
Ray then teamed Bogart and Grahame in the potent noir In a Lonely Place (1950). Centering on a screenwriter who may be a murderer and his starlet lover, In a Lonely Place was both a lacerating examination of Hollywood and male violence, and a diagnosis of Ray and Grahame's failing marriage. Protected by Hughes from the blacklist, Ray churned out several more films for RKO, including a Technicolor combat movie, The Flying Leathernecks (1951), starring John Wayne and Robert Ryan, and the pristinely black, white, and gray rural noir On Dangerous Ground (1951), featuring Ryan as an urban cop redeemed by Ida Lupino. After his skillful rodeo drama, The Lusty Men (1952), featuring Mitchum, Arthur Kennedy, and Susan Hayward in a loaded love triangle, Ray left RKO in 1953. Backed by his agent Lew Wasserman, Ray worked steadily for the rest of the decade.
Ray's first film as a free agent was also his most brilliantly strange. A floridly colored Western, Johnny Guitar (1954) pitted stalwart saloon owner Joan Crawford against twitchy, jealous townswoman Mercedes McCambridge with laconic titular character Sterling Hayden as Crawford's old boyfriend. Though the fight is allegedly about property, and allegorically about the Communist witch hunts, McCambridge's sexual hysteria and Crawford's butch wardrobe of blue jeans, bright shirts, and the best lipstick in the West suggested a kinkier undercurrent. Ray followed his deliriously Freudian oater with Run for Cover (1955), a Western featuring James Cagney and John Derek in an Oedipally fraught relationship.
After his Westerns, Ray set to work on an original story about contemporary youth. Starring James Dean in his definitive performance, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) became one of the decade's most trenchant statements on suburban-bred teen alienation. Suffering from weak and/or negligent parenting, Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo's disaffected trio seethe with frustration and act out with misdirected violence and a pointless, lethal chickie run, while creating an alternative familial world. Ray's widescreen compositions reveal Dean's estrangement at home and the impossibility of the trio's imagined life in an abandoned mansion, while his masterful use of color, particularly Dean's red jacket, speaks to the emotional turmoil. With Dean's death days before its release, Rebel Without a Cause became a hit and earned Oscar nominations for Wood, Mineo, and Ray's story (Dean was nominated for East of Eden  instead).
Returning to the underside of suburbia in Bigger Than Life (1956), Ray depicted the extreme results of emphasizing surface achievement, as drug-addled father James Mason's megalomaniacal pursuit of perfection turns into child abuse. More downbeat, Bigger Than Life did not repeat Rebel's success. After another offbeat Western, The True Story of Jesse James (1957), Ray headed to Europe to direct Bitter Victory (1957), a somber war drama starring Richard Burton and Curt Jurgens as Burton's jealous rival. Taking any assignment he could find, Ray returned to the U.S. to direct Budd Schulberg's production Wind Across the Everglades (1958). An odd story about a 19th century Florida gamekeeper, Wind was marred by creative conflicts between Ray and Schulberg. Stylish gangland story Party Girl (1958) was Ray's last Hollywood film.
Settling in Europe after shooting The Savage Innocents (1959) in England and Italy, Ray turned to epics with King of Kings (1961), a handsome widescreen rendering of the life of Christ. While shooting his next epic, 55 Days at Peking (1963), however, Ray suffered a heart attack and was replaced, ending his mainstream career. After kicking around Europe, Ray returned to the U.S. for an aborted documentary on the Chicago Seven in 1969, losing his sight in one eye shortly after. An itinerant film figure in the early '70s, Ray taught, oversaw an experimental film made with his students, and participated in a biographical documentary that drew its title from a line in Johnny Guitar and I'm a Stranger Here Myself (1974). Yet his health declined significantly during his final years and he battled well-publicized amphetamine and alcohol addictions. It was during this same period that Ray also contributed a segment to the quasi-pornographic omnibus film Wet Dreams (1974), alongside the notorious adult film impresario Lasse Braun and others - a decidedly low point for the director who had once helmed Rebel Without a Cause.
Ray rebounded somewhat, however, first by settling in New York City in 1976, then by playing a small role in director/fan Wim Wenders' film The American Friend (1977). Though he was diagnosed with cancer in 1977, Ray appeared in Milos Forman's Hair (1979), and began a collaboration with Wenders on Lightning Over Water (1980), a documentary of Ray's last days. Ray died in 1979, just before he and Wenders stopped production. Including Grahame, Ray was married four times and had four children; his son from his first marriage, Anthony Ray, married Grahame in 1961. ~ Lucia Bozzola, Rovi