Nicholas Ray According to Jacques Lourcelles

Jacques Lourcelles’ Dictionnaire du cinéma. Les Films (Robert Laffont, 1992) – part of a reference-book series on cinema published by Robert Laffont and edited by Guy Schoeller (the others are on directors and actors) – ranks among the great monuments of film criticism. [Late 2022 Update: A new, expanded edition split into 2 separate volumes, pre- and post-1950, has just appeared from Bouquins éditions.] And monumental it certainly is: 1,725 pages of small type, each page laid out in two columns. Credits and a reliably complete synopsis for each entry, except in the final “supplement” of extra capsule reviews. No photographic images of any importance. Almost no errors (that I have ever spotted) of any kind. Lourcelles (now 82) says that he took seven years to write it, rewatching 95% of the films included. But the film culture that informs the project goes back at least 30 years, to the beginnings of his engagement with public, combative cinephilia in the sometimes controversial pages of the magazine Présence du cinéma that he contributed to from 1961, and edited between 1965 and its final issue in 1967. The entries in his Dictionnaire offer a model of how to write concise yet comprehensive, accessible yet analytical film criticism. [The 2022 re-edition also contains, in Vol. 2, Lourcelles’ major essays, in order to offer a further, “transversal” approach.]

Thousands of films are included from all over the world, arranged alphabetically by their French release titles, spanning the entire history of cinema (especially after the coming of sound) – but, notably, progressively fewer as we reach the 1960s and beyond. (Jerry Schatzberg’s Honeysuckle Rose is one of the few films to sneak in from the dawn of the 1980s.) Lourcelles makes absolutely no apology for the proud subjectivity of his choices, and the perspective that underlies them – is there any other reputable book of film history that basically (beyond a few pointed barbs) omits the Nouvelle Vague entirely? Many sacred cows are slaughtered along the way, and just as many relatively unknown works are vaunted. But Lourcelles is never entirely predictable or rigidly doctrinaire: Jacques Rivette may be dismissed as a good critic who became a bad filmmaker, but Marguerite Duras’ India Song (1975) is hailed as “magical”.

A relative recluse who has published little since his magnum opus, Lourcelles is best known in the history of film culture for being part of the so-called “MacMahonist” group of the 1960s (named for their association with the MacMahon cinema in Paris), which vaunted the work of particular directors: Raoul Walsh, Otto Preminger, Ida Lupino, Blake Edwards, Fritz Lang, Joseph Losey … and Nicholas Ray is at a high level of the pantheon for Lourcelles. Ray scores 8 entries (as compared to 23 on Lang, 6 on Edwards and zero on Terrence Malick); as with any good reference encyclopedia, Lourcelles appears to have devised them so that they can be read in or out of sequence, depending on the reader’s whims. I shall discuss the entries chronologically. Each critique is organised in a single (sometimes very long) paragraph, and Lourcelles uses a clipped, telegraphic style of writing that produces a literary effect (often richly droll) that I have attempted to capture, wherever possible, in the English translation.

They Live by Night (1948) introduces Lourcelles’ major analytical themes in relation to Ray: transgression of genre, lyricism, poetic metaphor, and even a recurring note of secretly autobiographical identification with the director’s eternal misfit heroes.

Ray’s debut feature, made within the framework – at once strict and open to every transgression – of the film noir. From this first work, and almost spontaneously, Ray became an expert in genre transgression. He neglects – even more than John Huston did in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) – the “action” strictly speaking, erasing several spectacular scenes, and skipping in a direct ellipse the break-in where Chickamaw (Howard De Silva) meets his death. What interests Ray is immersing his innocent couple, Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), in a nocturnal, violent world composed almost entirely of places of passage (motel, waiting room, highway, etc.) that ooze the melancholia and anguish of those who pass through them. The tough detail of the secondary characters – one-eyed Chickamaw or Mattie (Helen Craig) the helper, who in themselves hold little interest for Ray – serves to exalt the youthfulness and vulnerability of his two heroes, portrayed with that tone of tender, poignant lyricism that has never wielded so much power as in his work. Like many of Ray’s films, this is essentially a poetic work – i.e., one in which a metaphoric figure guides the total intrigue of the film, in its major developments as in its parentheses. The out-of-sync-ness, the inability to adapt to an environment (in this case, a decrepit environment) that mark the two heroes: this represents the best image Ray could have possibly found to express the inner exile of humanity and this feeling of strangeness in the face of everything – first of all, to themselves – that certain people experience for their entire lives.

In his sympathetic consideration of Knock On Any Door (1949), which he evaluates as a relatively minor Ray film on various levels, Lourcelles emphasises its dimension of piercing – and fundamentally pessimistic – social commentary.

Beginning in the 1930s, Columbia produced a long series of films, often on very small budgets, on juvenile delinquency. This one, Humphrey Bogart’s producing debut, richer in its ambitions than in its resources, sits entirely within that given framework. Ray manages to express himself in a personal way, even if the film has neither the originality of his debut work at RKO (They Live By Night) nor the maturity of those that follow. His portrait of a teenager discovering and giving in to his own violent impulses is appealing on its own terms, as well as providing a first draft of the characters in Rebel Without a Cause. Ray categorically refuses any indulgence in his visual depiction of violence, even to the point of courting a certain blandness, particularly in comparison with the films noirs of the time. But the dénouement (revelation of the accused’s guilt) acquires, in this context, even greater tragic force, above all because of the surprise it gives the spectator. This is the culminating point of a social pleading that has not always avoided a certain clumsy (albeit sincere) rhetoric as embodied in Bogart’s lawyer character. The true point of the film pierces through this awkwardness. Ray has no precise solution to offer, and likewise no angry accusation to make. His goal is to underline the powerlessness of adults, with which he feels at one, in the face of these shipwrecked teenagers immersed in the disastrous environment left to them by their elders. And the film forcefully suggests that it is only beginning from the admission of total failure that any positive change could possibly arrive.

In the entry on a masterpiece, The Lusty Men (1952) – a film today echoed in Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho (2021) – Lourcelles turns to the dynamics of typical character relationships (friendship, father-son figures) in Ray, and the central hero’s solitude. Characteristic terms in the French appreciation of Ray during the 1950s – disenchantment, twilight – reappear here, as well another note of personal identification, this time extended to his entire generation of like-minded cinephiles.

Chronologically, this is the first important film to describe the nomadic, cruel, mythical and artificial world of rodeo (Richard Fleischer’s Arena [1953] and Joshua Logan’s Bus Stop [1956] would follow later). With great documentary acuity and a refusal of easy dramatisation, Ray offers a definitive description of this universe, on the basis of a meticulous script by Horace McCoy and former cowboy David Dortort. All the same, he privileges the relationship established between the two main characters. One, being more experienced than his companion, becomes a model for the other, a dangerous temptation, and finally a comparison to be surpassed. This type of relationship constitutes one of the most basic themes of Nicholas Ray’s Ïuvre (cf., among others, Run for Cover and Rebel Without a Cause). All of this gives originality, density and intensity to the film, but it is far from being what is most essential. The essential thing is the psychological and moral, lyrical and intimate grasp of the character played by Robert Mitchum, a man who has completed the first phase of his life and does not succeed in fulfilling the second phase. Disenchantment, undefinable dissatisfaction, restless wandering, a feeling of having become a stranger in a world where he has no place (the feeling of most Ray heroes) characterise the rootless figure of Jeff McCloud, whom the auteur regards with an eye at once brotherly and stripped of complacency. Mitchum’s admirable performance clearly serves this aim better than any other imaginable actor. This end of a life which has missed its chance yet, in a certain way, extends itself through another life (that of the complementary character played by Arthur Kennedy) takes place in a twilight, desolate but not hopeless, that carries the indelible stamp of the filmmaker. A source of poetry and of reflection, it is this light that primarily designates Nicholas Ray, for many cinephiles, as the essential filmmaker of his generation – without him, this generation would have remained precarious, frustrated for expression of its most intimate truth.

Lourcelles reminds us on several occasions in these entries that Ray was “discovered” (and nurtured) by French critics beginning in the late 1940s, and that fitting American appreciation (mainly via belated TV broadcasts) trailed well behind. Johnny Guitar (1954) brings out cinephilic rapture in Lourcelles (it is among the book’s longest entries) – but also a careful reminder of the film’s production context.

This rates among the masterpieces of American cinema even though, on its release, that seems to have been grasped only in France. However, everything is exceptional and unique in this mythic Western that has often ranked, since the early 1970s, at the top of lists of the best films of this genre as voted by critics and cinephiles the world over. It is amazing, first of all, that a film so original, so personal, could have emerged from Republic Pictures, a US company which had the poorest track record in terms of auteurs. (Practically none from the newer generation found a berth there. Among an older generation, only Allan Dwan managed to consistently express himself there between 1946 and 1954. John Ford and Frank Borzage also made some important films at Republic, and we must give credit to the company for distributing Fritz Lang’s House by the River [1950].) It is a no less amazing fact that the main character is a woman (the film was conceived as a vehicle for Joan Crawford) – and, moreover, both of the most significant and active protagonists in the story are women, indelibly connected by a visceral hatred, a Freudian jealousy that registers as unique within the annals of the Western. As for Nicholas Ray, far from seeking in the Western a special quality that most filmmakers of his generation found most often in the genre’s historical or moral aspect, he chose to use the form to tell a sentimental, lyrical, disenchanted tale, in which some are pleased to recognise autobiographical elements – the director and his star having had a relationship some years beforehand. Whatever the case, this diversion of the genre (including as well an anti-McCarthyist aspect common to several Westerns of the time including Dwan’s Silver Lode [1954]) gives rise to scenes of tearing melancholia. Love, lived as reminiscence, expresses itself in regrets, questions and mock confessions in the superb and justly famous dialogue. All the characters, even the most modest, make their mark (for, instance, John Carradine’s role as Vienna’s employee). Several of them serve the usual thematic of this auteur: a violent guy who attempts to put aside his hidden violence (Johnny/Sterling Hayden); a teenage victim of this same violence, who starts practicing it himself without really knowing what he’s doing (Ben Cooper in the role of Turkey). Finally, it is not the colour process in itself – the unfortunate TruColor, the defects of which led to its swift abandonment – that gives rise to such interesting plastic research here. Ray constrained himself to eliminate as much blue (a colour that bothered him) as possible, in order to accentuate – and this is a paradoxical phenomenon in a colour film – black and white tonalities. The black clothes of the angry lynch mob. The white of J. Crawford’s dress, playing piano in her saloon that resembles a cave. To the entirely classical constriction of time and place, Ray opposes a cluster of baroque elements, particularly in the set through which the characters move. And this contrast – itself baroque – adds still more to the fascination and provocative originality of the film. It is all testimony to the extreme freedom of a poet developing at the heart of a genre that is at once extremely codified and yet open to every innovation.

Lourcelles is sensitive to the interplay between the conventions (and possibilities) of a given film genre, and the special inflections or subversions that a true auteur can bring to it. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is grasped here as a personal variation on and investigation of the sociologically-flavoured “juvenile delinquent” cycle in American cinema.

James Dean’s second film and the first big success of Ray’s career – previously, he had been appreciated by only a handful of the initiated. Rebel Without a Cause will be, in truth, Ray’s only commercial triumph. It will allow him to continue a career in Hollywood that, nonetheless, prematurely ends a dozen years later. The substance of the script risks invasion by the clichés of the “teenager problem” films that abounded in this period. But this substance is transcended by the poetry and lyricism of the style. Ray’s lyricism embeds characters into environments (planetarium, sheer cliff at ocean’s edge, an abandoned, baroque, Cocteauesque villa) that evoke, for the most part, an end-of-the-world atmosphere, an existential vertigo felt by these adolescents, the film’s heroes, in search of their identity and desperately frustrated by the values around them. Their conflictual relations with parents increase their own uncertainty in the face of life, at the same time serving as a pretext for their morose enjoyment. Ray’s art here consists of using sociology as the launch pad for a poetic meditation on solitude, violence and the irremediable solitude of particular people. He too, as an artist, has a need for alibis in order to establish a connection to the wide public, and that doesn’t happen without giving his film a certain ambiguity, a perfume of decadence that constitutes yet another of its charms. On the strict sociological plane, Rebel Without a Cause is indeed far from possessing the realist force of a film such as Knock On Any Door and, right throughout the narrative, the social status of the gang gathered around Buzz (Corey Allen) remains quite vague. If the film manages to overcome its own decadentism, this is notably thanks to its dramaturgical rigour and exacerbated theatricality. The entire action is condensed to 24 hours (from the middle of one night to the next) and unfolds in a reduced number of key sites that are at once material and magical, explored with extraordinary mastery via CinemaScope. These environments contain, in the course of at times very long sequences, unforgettable bravura fragments. The film prolongs, for the most part, an intensification of the James Dean myth as created by Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955). But it’s clear that Ray’s favourite character is Plato (Sal Mineo), a teenager even more fragile than Jim Stark (Dean). Plato’s frustration in relation to friendship and parental affection leads him straight to tragedy. This character, moreover, holds a preponderant place in an early draft of the screenplay, before the role of Jim was given to Dean.

Run for Cover is a film that seems to gather and rehearse, in a muted key, themes and approaches characteristic of Ray’s cinema. Here, Lourcelles underlines a particular quality of “force” or “pressure” that arises from the doubled, structural organisation of the piece – and the emotion this interplay creates.

After Johnny Guitar, Ray once more shakes up the Western and, at the heart of its violent universe, places the emphasis – as much in his style as in several of his characters (especially Matt/James Cagney and Helga/Viveca Lindfors) – on the values of sweetness, tenderness, mutual help, generosity and forgiveness. This is, in Hollywood, the blessed era of the auteur film, during which traditional genres provide shelter for directors’ explorations and their most intimate themes. Ray builds this film on a father/son relationship that he has often depicted. The adult uses his experience, plus what he has left of energy and trust in life, to attempt to save an adolescent from perdition. Ill at ease in his skin and in the world, the young man Davey is the victim simultaneously of bad luck, society, and his own flawed character. He is a tragic character and, on this level, he deserves the filmmaker’s respect. There is no sentimentality in this tender, elegiac film – to which Ray, a pessimist despite himself, cannot stop himself giving an extremely dark ending (as in Knock On Any Door, where the same actor, John Derek, ends up in the electric chair). Parallel to his tragically interrupted relationship with this youngster, Cagney’s middle-aged character finds, after a long itinerary of unhappiness and disappointment, a path to serenity and love. This doubled, contradictory line of force exerts continuous pressure on the narrative. This is characteristic, in the quality of emotion it produces, of the universe of Nicholas Ray.

In the case of Wind Across the Everglades (released 1958, shot 1957 and early ‘58), Lourcelles rallies to the defence of a true film maudit by Ray – a film so swamped in trouble and dissent during its production (the director’s alcohol and drug fixes included) that some claim he can hardly be considered its auteur at all. For Lourcelles, as for Rivette in the face of Howard Hawks’ maligned Monkey Business (1952), the evidence is simply there, on the screen – at least for those with eyes to really see and grasp it. He even goes so far as to add, in the informational/bibliographic note that follows his appreciation: “In conclusion, we can wonder whether the numerous difficulties (psychological and meteorological) of the shooting did not – to a certain extent – contribute to the core meaning of the film by accentuating its hallucinatory character”.

Ecological before its time, Wind Across the Everglades is an allegorical journey through a dangerous, little known zone, the Florida swamps, as well as a journey into the very heart of two antagonistic characters – a zone no less fertile in terms of dangers and surprises. This is a film where we never know what we will find along the way or at the end of the road, a true adventure film of reverie and poetry – a poetry that some prefer to label madness. At the end of the journey is a strange fraternity, a friendship between the guardian who protects nature and the poacher who destroys it without realising. What these two men have in common is that they are both marginals living at the edge of organised society – the society that sells and buys feather plumes for hats, which is the party truly responsible for the massacre in Ray’s view. For without that there would be no killers or dealers of birds. Beyond everything else, the film is a homage to the visible world, which is not given once and for all but must be defended at every moment against violence, destruction and stupidity, as well as its own fragility. The feeling for nature, that in past centuries was thought to be immutable, brusquely altered in the 20th century with the discovery that nature, like civilisation, can become, in turn, mortal. Completely misunderstood at the time of its release, Wind Across the Everglades is unquestionably one of Ray’s most original films, and certainly one that only he could have made.

For Lourcelles, Party Girl (1958) marks the effective end point of Ray’s career as a great filmmaker – just as The Gypsy and the Gentleman (1958) is said to mark the “final sparks” for Losey, despite the fact that he made 21 subsequent features! Everything beyond that point is passed over in silence – the most effective critical weapon in this Dictionnaire. Note, once more, the fineness of Lourcelles’ aesthetic eye as he picks out details of colour, production design and mise en scne – never simply for their own sake as pure form, but in the service of a story and its characters.

By adding to a gangster film the dimension it, by nature, lacks – love linked to tenderness and moral admiration – Ray attempts to do with the crime genre, in an analogous way, what he had already ingeniously and successfully done with the Western in Johnny Guitar. Enriching the genre with a lost dimension, considering its traditional elements as the framework for a moral adventure, he reveals, as a result, the deepest nature of the genre in question. The cruelty and monstrous barbarity that are the essential foundations of the crime-gangster genre have never been so well designated and laid bare as in this tender, sentimental tale. To be clear, this method that at once distances us from the genre and draws us closer to the characters does not issue from some desiccated experimentalist tempted by abstraction. On the contrary, it comes from a poet who is sensitive to the vulnerability of people, and to the splendour of appearances. The lyrical use of CinemaScope and of a range of purple-blue shades remains justly famous. It would also seem that, in portraying two adult characters who triumphantly overcome the failures of their adolescent and early adult years, Ray found, for the space of this single film, a sort of path toward serenity. The 17th feature film in Ray’s brief career, Party Girl can rightly be considered as the artist’s final testament, to which his subsequent works add nothing essential.

Translation & commentary © Adrian Martin, July/October 2021. This is the expanded and revised version of a text included in the Zomer Film College 2021 program booklet (Cinea: Antwerp, August 2021, edited by Bart Versteirt).

About the Author

Adrian Martin

About the Author

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin is an Australian-born film and arts critic living in Malgrat, Spain. He is the author of nine books since 1994, and thousands of articles and reviews since 1978. His website of writings is all posts by Adrian Martin →