And the cinema is Nicholas Ray—at least according to Jean-Luc Godard, who bestowed this honor upon Ray in his review of the 1957 masterpiece Bitter Victory. Today is Ray’s 101st birthday—although the Lacrosse, Wisconsin native is essentially ageless: As the director of such films as They Live By Night, Knock on any Door, and, of course, Rebel Without a Cause, he’ll always be remembered as a harbinger of youth culture, a defender of the wayward souls lost in a world that refused to understand them. His sensitive yet bracingly honest depictions of contemporary America went grossly underrated for the bulk of his career, but today we recognize Nicholas Ray as one of the cinema’s greats who told classic stories of the misunderstood.
But as masterful a storyteller as he was, Ray wasn’t married to his scripts. In fact, like most classic Hollywood directors who were worth a damn, he frequently revamped and reconstructed the screenplays he was assigned to direct. His greatest film, 1952’s The Lusty Men, was virtually made on the fly; Rebel Without a Cause was similarly produced, as he said in 1970, “[It] was being written all through the shooting… I didn’t even follow my own camera placements.” Ray would go on to say in the same interview that “the relationship between improvisation and the script usually begins with the director’s dissatisfaction with the way the scene is coming alive.”
Indeed, Ray’s films have a distinct air of discovery in them, as if what’s unfolding on screen is the result of a director who’s unsure of what will happen next. You get the sense that he’s feeling out the scenarios much in the same way the audience is, with each scene exacting some sort of nuance or sense of subtext in a way that feels organic and realistic. Sometimes he simply observed the action; other times, he gripped it by the throat, as in the climactic scenes of films like Johnny Guitar and Bigger than Life. A Ray narrative is unpredictable, but it has distinct respect for the viewer, both for its intelligence and its desire for emotion, resulting in a sort of harmony wholly unique to his artistry. Watch as he details this approach quite plainly during scene in 1950’s In a Lonely Place, a movie I, like so many others, am rather obsessed with: