Bitter Victory

Dedicated to the memory of Gavin Lambert (1924-2005).

Maybe the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.

– Bob Dylan

The imagination is a pretty precious source of protection.

– Nicholas Ray (1)

Deeds are men, and words women.

– Old Latin motto

It occurred to me about 4:00 PM Wednesday the 22nd, that I have been in a continuous blackout from sometime between 1957 or earlier until now. I misplaced my soul and I don’t know where I left it.

– Nicholas Ray, 1976 (2)


Call it impertinence, or heresy, then, but does Nicholas Ray have a style? If he does, I’ve never read an adequate account of it. Yeah, I know he’s the “poet of nightfall”, of alienation, of aloneness, of this, that and the other. But isn’t the whole “poet of …” bit just begging the question? And hey, don’t take my word for it. Josef von Sternberg, who knew a thing or two about style, once said to Gavin Lambert, a writer on Bigger than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956) and Amère Victoire (Bitter Victory, 1957), that “Your friend, Mr. Nicholas Ray”, who had replaced the master on his Macao (1952), “made a better job of imitating my style than he ever did of creating a style of his own” (3). And Ray was famously ambivalent and doubtful on the subject, too – he famously called auteurism “a gimmick” (4) – preferring instead the language of painting:

As to my own style or signature, I don’t know my own style, and I’d rather talk about the signature of a Minnelli, or of a Zinnemann, a Ford, a Buñuel, a Kazan, a Rossellini, a Jean-Luc Godard. (5)

Later, he characterises his “signature” as something deeply subjective, which only he can recognize, which he relates to his “peapod”, his peculiar word for a private reserve of intuition, experience, memory and emotion, which must be defended at all cost, circling the wagons once more and demanding we stay the hell out.

It’s strange that the poster boy and the fountainhead of a true and essentialist “cinema style” reduced his besotted critics to a kind of mystical obscurantism. Godard:

Bitter Victory is what it is. One does not find REALITY on the one hand – the conflict between Lieutenant Keith [sic] and Captain Brand– and FICTION on the other – the conflict between courage and cowardice, fear and lucidity, morality and liberty, or what have you. No. It is no longer a question of either Reality or Fiction, or of one transcending the other. It is a question of something quite different. What? The stars, and men who like to look at them and dream. (6)

It’s easy to make fun of Godard’s nearly pointless gongorisms – au delà des étoiles. He is the Marlon Brando of film criticism, drunk on the sound of his own oft-fraudulent mumbling, maddeningly coy, his pages filled with the rustling of oracular wind-bites, which finally fill the mind with meringue. But it is wrong to single out poor Godard; after all, this was the house style of Cahiers du Cinéma, the style of enthusiasm. If it wasn’t for this hyperbole, and James Dean of Indiana, of course, we wouldn’t even have cause to think of Nick Ray. And Bitter Victory would still be on the shelf.

In Jean-Pierre Coursodon’s seminal revisionist piece on Ray in his American Directors, he puts his finger trenchantly on the mark:

Seeing Ray’s films again today is sometimes a disappointing experience, but while one is certainly entitled to jump to the conclusion that they have not aged well, it might be more accurate to say that a certain critical – or rather uncritical – attitude towards them has not aged well. (7)

There was a blind and fatal rush to canonize Ray as an auteur with a personal style, and most critical writing on Ray followed the Cahiers’ pioneering goat-path and the ruts got deep fast.


It may, of course, be that the whole idea of “style” is an inadequate and outdated chimera. Linguistic or ideographic conceptions of cinema from D. W. Griffith’s Biograph to the camera-stylo to Christian Metz have persistently run into trouble. If film is a language, where is its Rosetta Stone? And, if it is still lost to the sands, how can we begin to even speak of style? After all, the cinema is not text, but image, alchemy and ritual. And money, of course.

In every film by an artist, there is a dead tissue and an organic, living part. The dead part – the bone – is what we call “the style” – those long-ago discoveries of “something that worked”, an original once-visionary solution now codified, refined, re-inflected slightly and celebrated by the artist as part of her bag of tricks. It is this dead zone that critics, theoreticians and cinephiles love, because it rewards our pathetic devotion and cultish sense of ritual. After all, as François Truffaut so beautifully shows in La Chambre Verte (The Green Room, 1978), to love cinema is to love the dead. And by validating our desire for the “author”, we validate ourselves, too.

But there is also a living edge – the marrow – to the same film, where a new discovery or revelation has been made. Even the frightened hack is sometimes forced by circumstance to make a discovery, or even by some lunging, subterranean desire to reveal him- or herself. The proportion of the ossified to the quick, in every film, is the measure of the artist’s poetic engagement. Artists are engaged to the extent that the situation has some sense of risk, some ludic component for them.

Take A Billionaire (1954), Punishment Room (1956), Fires on the Plain (1959), An Actor’s Revenge (1963), Money Talks (1963), Tokyo Olympiad (1965) and I am a Cat (1975). (8) Can we safely, on the evidence of the films, say that one man made them all? Here is an unquestionably great filmmaker and he can’t be bothered to have a characteristic style. Does Kon Ichikawa have more selves inside him than John Ford? How come the person who humbly submits his cinematic identity to the harness of the film (for example, Michael Curtiz, the ultimate test case for the metteur theory – if only his name had been Kertesz …) is scorned as a mere craftsman, while the protean, romantic artist (zzzzzzzzz…) who forces the stuff of life into her gilded frame, or blank page, each time without fail, gets all the heat and light?

Authorial “style” serves a mundane function, to the extent that he or she has a personal style, the canny artist willingly self-commodifies to press their advantage in the highly competitive film business. Revolutionary claims of discovery like those of Griffith and Abel “Polyvision” Gance soon turn into marketing tools. Film style is branding. F. W. Murnau’s tracks turn into UFA’s “flying camera”. Even in the USSR, manifestos flew as each film artist struggled for position and relevance in the brutal ideological economy of the state.

So I don’t want to undermine Ray’s status as a kind of pulp Michelangelo Antonioni – the “Cosmic Ray” – or the other somewhat fertile approaches – that of the “Rebel Ray” – the radical, political provocateur, or the persistently transgressive “Queer Ray”. All are real sides to the Ray “brand”. I just think that there is another Nick Ray that most often gets lost in the shuffle. And this side is most compelling for me, because it is the key to his elusive quality.

When questioned on this matter, Nicholas Ray rejected this rigid idea of the director; he insisted again and again that he had nothing to say, no method, no worldview to impart. The cinemanes smiled indulgently – another charming American primitive! – all the while shaving the cross they were going to nail him to: Auteurism.


The victim of a malodorous disease that renders him abhorrent to society and periodically degrades him and makes him helpless is also the master of a superhuman art which everyone has to respect and which the normal man finds he needs.

– Edmund Wilson (9)

In Bunny Wilson’s famous formula, Nick Ray was almost all wound and precious little bow. At least, this is what we learn, again and again, from the Gospel of Saint Nicholas, martyr according to Bernard of Eisenschitz.

The mythic version, told admirably by Eisenschitz in An American Journey, goes that Nicholas Ray, moderately successful but restless Hollywood director, ran off to Europe dreaming of his Byronic FREEDOM from that factory of dreams and sausages, but fell instead into the clutches of one of those psychotic little creatures with money drawn to those Venetian marshes at the edge of the movie business: the independent producer. This villain – this Iago – sensing an unusual weakness in Ray, set out to isolate and destroy him. According to the tale, substantially coloured by the account of the conflicted quasi-witness Gavin Lambert, this was the beginning of the end.

Like in La Nuit américaine (Day for Night, Truffaut, 1973), for Eisenschitz the movie-set world seems to imitate life: producer Graetz as the callous General; Curt Jürgens is the unfit ranking commander, sleeping with Graetz’s wife to safeguard his part and his vanity; and Richard Burton as the director’s true love, forced into an awkward secondary role from whence he must do the killing dirty work and carry the movie on his back. Ray seems to have become a hybrid of Jane (Ruth Roman)-Mekrane (Raymond Pellegrin) – witness, instigator and sacrificial victim of the central drama.

It’s telling how often those who write or speak about him make monotonous mention of Ray’s weakness, alcoholism and drug use, crippling introspection, instability and suicidal neurosis – the ever-popular tortured-artist effect. Eisenschitz’s hagiographic tone pruriently focuses on mortification and becomes needlessly defensive. It’s like reading the pathology report on a blithering madman, and then later finding out that he was successful and competent, even brilliant, in his field. Like Abe Lincoln said of Ulysses Grant, “I believe I’ll send all my generals a case of whatever he’s drinking.” There is nothing much to apologize for in Bitter Victory, or in the other eight or so masterpieces that Ray produced.

My premise is that Nicholas Ray is a Byzantine modernist, as much so as Robert Bresson or Roberto Rossellini. I am not a biographer, but I think that there is a way to see the films in a way that forces a reappraisal of both the biographical facts pushed into the service of a misleading conception of the “tortured artist” and, therefore, his suitably romantic worldview.

Coincidentally, in this same Bitter Victory chapter, let’s note that Bernard Eisenschitz also chronicles other less-sinister developments that were to have an equally profound effect on the life and art of Nicholas Ray. But we’ll put an ellipse on these for now …


Amère Victoire

The film in Ray’s head was based on a novel by René Hardy, Amère Victoire, which tells the Conradian story of British officers fighting each other in a private psychological duel during a pointless mission in the deserts of North Africa, where Hardy had been stationed late in the war. The novel, which won the Prix Deux Magots, is one of those bizarre exercises in relentless, narcissistic, piercing self-flagellation that French literature excels at – the psychological potlatch novel. The protagonist, an officer of the regular army named David Brand, whose every vanity, cowardice and weakness is put on clinical display, is haunted by failure veiled by a certain limited success. He has done his duty, despite a crucial moment of cowardice, and has become a pariah for doing it.

Imagine that Lee Harvey Oswald, a decorated West Point war hero, had stood trial twice for treason and conspiring to assassinate JFK. And both times been acquitted. Then imagine that he had written a novelistic confession about the events of 22 November 1963 and that it had won a minor, but prestigious, literary prize, which in time turned into a film directed by – let’s say, Jean Luc Godard. Don’t laugh … it really happened.

Now, the name René Hardy means almost nothing in most of this world, but in France it has earned a rare status, a mythic infamy. Hardy is the central figure in the greatest wartime disaster of the French Resistance. This event is variously known as L’Affaire Moulin after its famous martyr, L’Affaire Hardy after its Judas goat, or, more neutrally, L’Affaire Caluire, after the suburb in Lyon where it occurred.

Midway through Hôtel Terminus (Marcel Ophüls, 1988), a film which picks apart and explodes the myth of the heroic Resistance as well as the CIA-aided flight and recruitment of Klaus Barbie, the butcher of Lyon, there appears a haunting and haunting figure, flickering for mere seconds on old videotape. It is the author of Amère Victoire, an old man at death’s door. It’s an arresting image of the “structuring absence” of the whole story of the Resistance. You immediately wonder: what is his story?

Ophüls’ masterpiece delves in minute detail into Barbie’s “greatest hit” as a counter-Resistance operator in occupied France. In the space of a month in 1943, Barbie captured both the leader of the secret army, General Delestraint, and the entire top-tier leadership of the Resistance, both left and right, as well as the elusive man who had done the most to bring them all to the fatal table, De Gaulle’s special envoy, Jean Moulin. As the news of the arrests trickled through the panicked grapevine, it became immediately clear that either Barbie had so efficiently penetrated the Resistance networks at various points, or some faction or the other had decided to “clean house”, using the Gestapo as a lethal scourge. Neither of these of these options was politically palatable. There was not much market for the truth, either then or now. Barbie went on to consult for the CIA in counter-espionage against the Soviets, and he was packed off to Bolivia with a false identity, living undisturbed until his capture and deportation to France. Unsurprisingly, at his 1980s trial for crimes against humanity, the man who could definitely solve the mystery of what happened at Caluire was asked (at least in public) not one question about the events leading to the capture and identification of Moulin. (10)

The myth of the heroic Resistance required a “Single Bullet Theory” – a single betrayer who would bear the cross of suspicion. Hardy fitted the bill perfectly. Hardy was a right-wing military officer, a St Cyr graduate and a trusted member of Combat, the centre-right Resistance group which had the largest membership of any Resistance faction, and whose most famous member was Albert Camus. Hardy was the head of the railroad-sabotage section and had regular contacts with all the top leaders of the resistance, including Jean Moulin, who went by the name Max.

The case against Hardy consisted of four pieces of damning circumstantial evidence:

1. He was identified by his nom de guerre only, Didot, as a paid agent on captured documents from the Gestapo after the war.

2. He was en route to a meeting with General Delestraint, when Delestraint was arrested. Hardy did not make it to the meeting due to a strange circumstance.

3. He was one of two people attending the infamous meeting who was not directly invited or expected to attend. He was asked to tag along at the last minute by the organizer of the meeting.

4. At the meeting, Hardy, unlike his companions mysteriously unshackled, managed to escape. Supposedly, he was wounded as the Gestapo fired at him. The escape was described by witnesses as a miraculous success. However, he was captured a day later and handed back to the Gestapo. Then, just as remarkably, he managed to escape AGAIN, this time from the hospital where his wounds were being treated.

Hardy was tried twice. The first time he was clearly and cleanly acquitted. A few weeks after he had been set free, however, it came out that he had brazenly lied on the stand. The mysterious circumstance that had prevented his meeting the General had been his coincidental recognition and arrest by an ex-Resistance-man turned-Barbie-informant on the train on the way to the meeting. In the trial, Hardy had sworn that he had spotted the informant first and jumped off the train. But a witness turned up who revealed that Hardy had actually been in Gestapo custody for a tellingly brief time. It was an insolent lie.

Hardy’s story then necessarily changed: it was true that he had been picked up the Gestapo, but he had pretended to agree to work for them and was thus released. He explained that he immediately recognized that he was the main suspect in the betrayal of General Delestraint, and that he might not live out the quarantine period. (After an arrest, a resistant was supposed to report the arrest and agree to a period of isolation, where he was closely watched to ensure that no betrayals had occurred.) Suspected traitors were often quickly killed without any process whatsoever. And, in fact, during his stay at the hospital under the auspices of the Gestapo, Lucie Aubrac (11), the fanatical communist and fabulist whose husband had been also snared at Caluire, sent him a pot of jam stewed with cyanide. Hardy, very much fearing “gifts from friends”, had the Germans check the contents. For Lucie Aubrac, this was the proof: if Hardy had nothing to hide, why should he be suspicious of her?

In his testimony, Hardy evoked the paranoiac spirit and tension that the Resistant had to endure:

I would like to recall the reasons for my silence upon my arrest at Chalon. I wanted, then, to carry out my investigation. I could expose myself to no one, given that the blow that struck General Delestraint had to have come from the top. I therefore chose silence. This war consisted of loneliness. We chose only our subordinates, but we were chosen by people whom we did not know […] (12)

The great fear of these men of the Resistance was that they would not meet the test, that they would betray others, betray themselves. Only the skilled torturers at the Hôtel Terminus knew for sure what each man’s threshold was. And Hardy was never tortured – except by his conscience, perhaps.

Hardy’s second trial in 1950, before a military tribunal, was more ambiguous than the first. He was found guilty, but by an insufficient margin of a single judge, which procedurally became an acquittal. The guillotine would wait. “This war consisted of loneliness.”

René Hardy

Ray could not have picked better source material for one of his movies. René Hardy was a Nick Ray character come to life. He was a liar, a man of action, an actor, but also a storyteller. Like Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) in In a Lonely Place (1950), he was acquitted in public but found guilty in private. And, like Ray himself, Hardy had a taste for working out his demons in his art. Amère Victoire is transparently a roman à clef of the Affaire Moulin, with Hardy loaning himself to the character of Major David Brand (Curt Jürgens), the cowardly but devious good soldier, and making Jean Moulin the romantic, suicidal Captain James Leith (Richard Burton).

Years later, Hardy wrote another screenplay for a forgotten film, Triple Cross (Terence Young, 1967), starring Christopher Plummer and based on the true story of Eddie Chapman, a safecracker and opportunist who went to work for the Nazis, training agents to infiltrate England, when all along he was working for British Intelligence so cleverly and secretly that the Germans blithely gave him the Iron Cross. The themes amount to an idée fixe, or the testament of a man who could not confess. Gavin Lambert reports that Hardy’s involvement in the scriptwriting was limited but persistent. Hardy wanted to make sure that nothing “violated the book” (Frank Owen’s The Eddie Chapman Story). And they discovered too late, to their chagrin, that Hardy had veto power over the script.


The completed Bitter Victory was badly received at Venice. Eric Rohmer wrote:

I must confess to being somewhat disconcerted myself, failing to experience before the screen the same sense of complaisance that enveloped me as I read the book. I was expecting a film which surprised and resisted me, but it doesn’t resist me quite as much as I would have thought. I was expecting a delirious film, but the delirium is not quite what I had anticipated. (13)

A radically different delirium; this was no Johnny Guitar (Ray, 1954)

Bitter Victory is Ray’s film demeublé, his desert Gertrud (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1964) or his The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962). It is a bizarrely spartan film. The desert war’s abstract nature is constantly emphasized – the military objective is a bunch of documents whose meaning and value is left obscure. The men attack and kill faceless dummies. The map is an architectural model of a blank De Chirico square with tiny figures placed randomly and dwarfed by the white shapes. When prompted, the men indicate their objectives, but with no particular articulation; they merely gesture toward the map and we never see what they are referring to. The heroism of the mission is satirized by one of the men (the first man to be killed), who drunkenly mimes an attack on an enemy position. The General plays with a toy aircraft. And, most grotesque, the repressed by-the-book British army major, Brand, is played by the German actor, Curt Jürgens. (The case of the Columbia DVD, by the way, indicates that a squadron of aircraft and a Sherman tank will play a role in this film, and that Richard Burton’s head is pasted on the body of an American lieutenant who is brandishing an exciting looking rifle. Sadly, neither of these sublime suggestions is in the film. If only it had been a Jerry Bruckheimer picture …)

Bitter Victory

But if the war seems abstract, the “love story” which provides the excuse for the central drama is no less stylized. Jane Brand (Ruth Roman) and Captain James “You called him Jimmy…?” Leith (Richard Burton) seem less like the usual emotionally fluid Hollywood lovers than stiff, uncomfortable characters playing lovers, and stumbling bitterly over each other’s cues. The encounter between Jane and Leith plays like a prose parody of the much loved train wreck between Vienna (Joan Crawford) and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Logan (Sterling Hayden) in Johnny Guitar, but this time in the presence of a jealous, dimly aware witness, Brand. Jürgens plays him like a dangerous, gigantic child. His eyes are always greedy, omnivorous and devouring. Nick used to say, inarguably: “Dialogue is in the left hand, the melody is in the eyes.” (14) How he must have loved that musique concrete version of “Chopsticks” coming out of Jürgens’ dead blue eyes.

During their second encounter (when Jane dares to ask Leith, “What if he [Brand] doesn’t come back […]?”), Leith tries to ward her off with a lecture about History and its futility.

JANE: You always seemed to prefer stones to people.

LEITH: You can learn things from stones.

What’s striking in this scene is Ray’s equanimity: Leith is as preoccupied and lost in his florid nihilism, as Brand is with being “seen” as a hero. Clearly struggling, Jane tries emotion: she lets him know that she loved him. But Ruth Roman is a stoned Joan Crawford. She is married to a monstrous weakling, but still loves a man who loves death and can’t wait to get back to it. For Leith, she is “life”, and for Brand she is “glory”. And we’ll see eventually that neither of them get the girl – the strange symbolic role of the woman put there to suggest a conventionally “legitimate” reason for the not-quite-homoerotic enmity of the two men. Yet Ray stubbornly contradicts this: neither of them seems really to care for her. Until the end, Jane Brand is merely the empty symbol of their impotence and cowardice. As Leith says to Jane, “All men are cowards, in some things”, which is Ray’s one-liner for Bitter Victory. In a humiliating masochistic surrender, Jane asks Leith for the “lines” she should say to her husband. And he gives them to her, sneering with contempt: “Tell him he’s a heer-o …”

The final shot of the “HQ” sequence shows Leith walking away towards the camera as Jane and Brand stand like dummies in a room full of dummies with painted hearts. Yikes!! Mirrors within mirrors. And the train is only starting to roll …

Just as we have begun to enjoy the cheap sets and airless interactions of the protagonists, 26 minutes in, Ray tosses his first grenade. Without warning, he plunges us into a pure cinema sequence (perhaps the most lyrical assault and murder sequence in history) that lasts a full twelve minutes.

The men wander through a Libyan town disguised like Arabs. Brand, separated from the others, is set upon by a whirlwind of street urchins. This poetic human whirlwind, which prefigures the fatal ghibli near end of the film, spins Brand around and around helplessly, and one of the kids, fleecing him, draws out a commando knife. The look of hurt and surprise on the boy’s face quickly turns to something else: terror. Brand grabs the knife back, but the moment has definitively unsettled him.

Bitter Victory

Ray focuses the sequence with a steadily increasing paranoia, born of a series of nested looks. Moving into position, Brand prepares to kill a German sentry. Another man, the lean faced Sergeant Barney (a pre-Hammer Christopher Lee), steals up behind him. The two men startle each other. Brand moves closer, while Barney watches him. The sentry passes unharmed a few times. Leith comes up with their sad-eyed Arab guide, Mekrane (Raymond Pellegrin), wondering about the delay. Leith moves next to Brand, who is staring in crazed panic, his knife trembling in his hand. A crowd of curious Arabs has gathered to watch. The sentry passes once again, and this time Leith steps out with a knife and kills the sentry. What happens next is uncanny: Leith cries out with a howl as if he himself has been stabbed. The Arabs, having seen too much, disperse, while Leith and Brand drag the dead man to hide him, perhaps in a sewer. Brand turns around to find the same urchin watching him.

Let’s briefly note Ray’s unflinching gaze on the dead and dying in this film. CinemaScope was the ultimate solution for snakes and funerals, but also a great gift to the dead body. Corpses are potent symbols of our death, much talked about in war films, but almost never really “seen”. Bitter Victory doesn’t lack for tableaux of bodies strewn like broken dolls, and Ray frames them in weird Dutch angles that emphasize the taboo aspect of our gaze. One strange and mysterious shot (perhaps the most mysterious of all) has an almost anonymous dead man (the only thing we know about him is his name) bisecting the length of the ’Scope frame, with his head touching the bottom of the frame, at an angle that keeps the mind from properly organizing the space around the “object”. He’s a corpse that refuses to be objectified.


To set up a film is to bind persons to each other and to objects by looks.

– Robert Bresson (15)

By the time we reach the moment of Brand’s spectacular “cowardice” before the sentry, we’re now aware, if only dimly, that LOOKING is one of the chief formal devices in Bitter Victory. But that’s putting the case mildly. The only other film I know that is structured so relentlessly in this way is that old avant-garde chestnut, Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939). But whereas in that film, Ford uses the act of looking very much in the Bressonian style to electrify his compositions, and bind his improvised community and spaces with unexpected tensions and meanings, Ray uses looking to create proscenic spaces. The looks delineate a complex, ever-changing “stage area” and force us to consider character actions as non-naturalistic – as performances. This is the opposite effect of Bresson’s style.

Later, when Brand orders Leith to stay with the wounded (he hopes that Leith will be lost in the desert and will not be able to rejoin them), Leith knows that Brand has put him in an impossible moral position. He acknowledges this when the near-psychopathic Private Wilkins (Nigel Green) offers to do the killing for him. Brimming with contempt, Leith sends him away and waits alone with the wounded and the dead. We are surely meant to take this on the surface as Leith’s “nobility of spirit” shining through. But we quickly recognize that the case is rather that Leith refuses to delegate the killing that must be done, but tellingly wants no witnesses. But then, as the hours grow longer and the prisoners writhe in the sun, Leith decides to “mercy kill” the German, Lt Kassel (Raoul Delfosse). The way Ray stages this, we feel that Leith’s abstract love for the dead and dead things is being outstripped by his growing terror at being physically surrounded by the dead and dying. Like the killing of Camus’ stranger, Leith’s action is a complex existential act.

While the last witness, the laconic Scottish Private Roberts (Andrew Crawford), looks on in horror, Lt Kassel holds up a photo of his family and Leith, perturbed, slaps it away. He doesn’t want to hear about anyone’s happiness before the war. Leith kneels, holds his head and shoots him point-blank, his face twisting in a now familiar “gestural” agony. As he looks back, he now sees Roberts looking at him with a kind of surprising acceptance. Leith is delivered from his hell. Roberts is seemingly resigned to his death. Hollowly praising him for his “bravery”, Leith points the gun at his head and this time the hammer comes down on an empty chamber. The wounded man breaks down, exposing his own laconic pose of indifference to death, itself as a mini-performance. Now that Roberts makes no effort to fool himself, Leith cannot bear to refill his weapon. He “heroically” picks up the wounded man and walks with him, even as Robert screams in pain and curses him in brogue as a coward for NOT killing him. And, as he carries him, he suddenly notices that there has been another witness in the proscenium of the dunes. Mekrane stands in the distance and then he slowly turns away as Leith walks towards him. And to make his own witness brutally clear, Mekrane says, “I have been watching you, my friend.”

Bitter Victory

Mekrane has him set down the body he’s carried. Roberts is dead. Leith’s “humane” act has accomplished what the inhumanity of the gun could not. Now that he’s back among the living, Leith does a strange thing. He looks deeply, almost longingly, into the eyes of the dead man, and then he says his famous line: “I kill the living and I save the dead.” Throughout the film, in the presence of others, Leith bizarrely maintains the charade of a moral and rhetorical superiority that he doesn’t genuinely feel – supposedly to goad and provoke Brand to kill him. It is a deeper irony that it’s Leith who cannot kill at the closest range – i.e., himself.

There follows a strangely poetic moment where an unseen airplane drones above Leith and Mekrane, and they scatter on the sand. I like to call this “the voice of the Lord” moment in the film, because it only happens twice, and each time the humans are taken out of their mundane concerns and respond with an identical primitive awe. The poetic effect surely comes from its acousmetric nature, the incommensurability of the abstract non-diegetic threat (it might as well be a Cecil B. DeMille voice thundering from the sky) and the reverent response. In this case, Leith and Mekrane, like Cain, absurdly try to hide Roberts’ body. Ray also uses the train as a kind of acousmetre at the end of They Live By Night (1947). (Sonic Bonus: Bitter Victory is also filled with fantastically bad ADR, and it is not unusual to feel a kind of nausea of the ear when we hear these disembodied voices cancelling the speaker’s expression.)

Next up, another proscenium is set up in some rocks, where Brand, pushing the exhausted men to the limit (they’ve already recognized that Brand feels a terrible urgency to get to the camels, and sarcastically suggest that he’s “training for the post-war Olympics”) (16), is openly defied by Pvt. Wilkins in front of the other men. Brand pulls out a weapon and Wilkins goes mad north-northwest, a rhetorical derangement that forces Brand to back off, particularly when he hears Wilkins taunt him with the all-too-relevant phrase, “Jane and Jimmy, Jimmy and Jane”, while making kissy noises. Earlier, we’ve seen that Wilkins is the witness to Leith’s odd intimacy with Brand’s wife. When one of the men asks, “Who’s Jane and Jimmy?”, Brand, reacting like he’s been shot, looks over his shoulder at the men. Pushed to the edge, he slaps Wilkins, who collapses. Brand is forced to agree to a rest to cover for his brittle response. The men disperse and the tension settles, but leaves a choral contempt in the looks of the men. Then alone again, he pulls Wilkins up and looks into his eyes, but can see nothing. After Brand is gone, Wilkins takes his bow, almost winking at the audience.


The commando arrives at Crown City, an eerie Berber ruin, only to discover that unknown persons have killed the men, taken the camels and provisions and wasted the water. Brand can no longer afford the illusion of control. Staying ahead of Leith seems like a foolish idea compared to the looming spectre of personal disaster and the failure of the mission. This sequence is mostly expositional in function, but Ray again lingers mysteriously over the dead, and then suddenly Mekrane and Leith rejoin the party. Leith, again tangibly identified with the dead, makes his first action closing the eyes of the dead man. More death: the proscenium of arched chambers suggests catacombs arranged in a circle. Here among the silent stones that he loves more than people, Leith accuses Brand, in front of the men, of leaving him to kill the wounded. Brand is genuinely disturbed at Leith’s callousness, and Leith points out a similarity between his “active” killings and Brand’s “passive-aggressive” abandoning him to the desert. Brand, somewhat astutely, accuses him of trying to shift the blame. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what Leith is doing. It is the men’s turn to be horrified at Leith’s action. Lt Barton (Sean Kelly), who functions as a neophyte child (he is a Neoptolemus figure) torn between these two demon fathers, asks Leith if there was no other option but to kill the wounded. Leith asks him what he would have done. And now having lectured Jane on the teaching power of the stones, Ray contradicts this “text” with the “image” of the stones themselves and, when Barton asks what they mean, Leith is suddenly baffled: “Too modern for me.” They cannot teach him anything.

Another karmic irony: after Leith’s insolent mocking of Brand’s dubious status as camel master to the 8th Army, everyone’s lives (and particularly Leith’s, as we shall see) suddenly depend on camels and the absence of them. And, at the end of the sequence, a single miraculous camel appears to mock them all, after being forgotten by the raiders.


Bitter Victory

The idea of military courage has taken a lot of hits so far in Bitter Victory and we have had ample time (more than an hour) to decide how we feel about these two characters, and yet Ray persists in keeping their identities in flux. In the proscenium of a desert well, Ray tosses in his second grenade. When Mekrane suggests that the well might be poisoned, the men suddenly balk nervously. Wilkins wants to drink the water, but Leith orders him off it. There is some talk of making the lone German prisoner, Colonel Lutze (Fred Matter), drink the water. Brand looks over the situation and remarks, “So suddenly nobody’s thirsty?”, to which Wilkins responds by offering him the bucket with the well water. Suddenly, Brand is in the snare of courage; he stares bug-eyed at the others, while Leith sadistically enjoys his torment. Brand takes a quick swallow, and then declares that the water is not poisoned. Leith, who is staring murderously at him, replies that it’s too soon to tell. The German says something sardonic to Brand in German. Ray has reversed the situation so far precisely, with Brand now adopting the “courageous” leadership role and Leith passively wishing and contriving for his death. When Brand asks if Leith would be happier “if the poison were burning out my guts”, Leith hits back with the idea that Brand drank the water to make himself a hero in front of the German. Here Brand makes a mysterious gesture, clutching at the talismanic orders in his pocket, as if to reassure himself which side he is on. But then Leith (in a pointed act of “cowardice”, and certainly of inadequate solidarity with the men) refuses to drink from the offered water, and walks off into the desert as the others drink their fill. Leith’s words to Jane come back to haunt him: “All men are cowards, in some things.”

Then we get a scene that seems on the surface so artless and Brechtian that it makes one cringe, but it may be the key scene of the movie. Leith and Brand, the döppelganger twins, wearing matching scarves, have a ludicrous “textual” conversation on the nature of courage and “killing at an approved distance”, and Leith sounds off at his most pompous about their tortured relationship:

You left me in the desert so there wouldn’t be any witnesses to the real Major Brand, didn’t you? Therefore my death becomes essential to you. I’m a kind of mirror of your own weakness. And it’s unbearable, isn’t it?

It doesn’t seem to occur to Leith that the mirror reflects both ways and that he too eliminated witnesses to his own shameful behaviour. Or, perhaps, he knows how to sharpen his own weakness into a weapon. The rhetoric seems particularly hollow, but it seems like these two frauds can only connect on this level of stage language.

Image is brought up hard against text, when suddenly a pair of mysterious riders who have been shadowing them like something out of a Monte Hellman Western turn up, and Wilkins, smiling maniacally, kills them with a spray from his gun. There is a strange effect here, which may not be intentional (i.e., some technical issue): Wilkins’ shooting in medium shot is slightly undercranked, and in the following long-shot riders fall off their horses like keystone cops, and then the horses, continuing onward without their riders, move into Andrei Tarkovski-style slow motion for a brief moment. The unusual rhythmic effect makes the violence doubly explosive and unexpected. Brand is excited. Leith sardonically mocks Brand again about his immoral comfort with killing at a distance. But then we soon see this speech turned on its head and its rhetoric exposed; we remember that Leith’s killing look unmistakably desires Brand’s death at a distance at the well, and Brand learns that he can, after all, kill someone at close range, to keep him from saying certain words.

This, then, is the plot mechanism of Bitter Victory, repeated in endless variations: all men would be cowards if they could not feel the gaze of another man drilling into their back. It is male courage constructed as a sinister version of the prisoner’s dilemma, each man ever watching for signs of weakness. Bitter Victory is the La Ronde (Max Ophüls, 1950) of this theme. It’s a roundelay.


Lutz Bacher, in his Max Ophüls and the Hollywood Studios, tells of a time when Ophüls was hospitalized and, of all people, Nicholas Ray came to visit him. Either John Houseman, the producer of Ray’s They Live By Night and Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), or Hanna Axmann, Ray’s off-and-on girlfriend and also an émigré friend of Ophüls, had thrown them together. For the rest of Ophüls’ life, according to Ray (which, of course, makes it immediately doubtful), they had a “warm friendship” (17). This is the only mention I can find of Ray’s acknowledging this all-important filmmaker.

Ray was quite open about his admiration for Elia Kazan, for Luis Buñuel, Sergei Eisenstein, Roberto Rossellini and a short list of the usual suspects. So, the fact that he doesn’t mention Ophüls I find suspicious. It’s easy enough to think of Nick Ray as sui generis, a freak of nature coming out of an exotic nowhere (that’s to say, Wisconsin) to reign as this Erik Satie figure of cinema. I certainly fell into this way of thinking for a long time. His apparent recklessness, his willingness to try anything and his shocking indifference to continuity editing had to imply a complete disregard for cinema history. This was absurd. Today, I can express this in the contradictory formula:

Nicholas Ray = Max Ophüls’ Pirandellian Cynicism +
Buñuel’s Iconoclasm, Sensuality and Violence.

The Buñuel influence has been noted, most often by Truffaut. It’s obvious in Party Girl (1958), which might be the most Buñuelian film ever made, and Bigger than Life (1956), which is a kind of El (1953) of the suburbs. Ray is forever searching, like Buñuel, for images whose keys are lost. And let’s say he succeeds at least once a film. (18)

But Ophüls is an impassable gulf: the costumes, the tracking shots, the stairways, the Habsburgs, Vienna. But wait! What is Ophüls’ master-plot? A woman falls for a man and gives herself (occasionally to the point of madness) to him; there is a delirious window of happiness, the “dreamy weeks” as the murdered Mildred (Martha Stewart) calls them in In a Lonely Place, then the world comes crashing in and the man, bound by an incomprehensible and violent moral code, deserts her in a betrayal of love’s ideal. Is it just a coincidence that Ray loves this “Liebelei” master-plot?

They Live By Night
In a Lonely Place
On Dangerous Ground (omitting the incongruous “happy” ending)
The Lusty Men

Bitter Victory

Early in Bitter Victory, Brand introduces the idea that “Careless Talk Costs Lives.” This was a commonplace of war propaganda, of course. And Jane responds: “So does careless silence.” It occurs to me that this set of ideas is central to Ophüls’ dramatic universe. Frivolity and callousness, and the world that lies between them, precipitate the disasters of superficiality in Ophüls’ films. Back at the time, Ophüls was often written off as an empty stylist, a muddleheaded, over-the-top, romantic sentimentalist. Not so much any more. But we still have to read maddening descriptions of the sentimentality in They Live By Night or On Dangerous Ground (1952) or The Lusty Men (1955), and the campy romantic excess of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Johnny Guitar or Party Girl. Now, one can object that there’s a lot of complicated subtle stuff that happens in Ophüls movies, and that’s really where the movies happen. But it’s on the microbial level that Ray most resembles Ophüls.

For instance, what happens at the end of They Live By Night, Ray’s first film, is as dense and sublime as almost anything in Ophüls. What looks like a tragic and sentimental fable of two crazy kids in love is really much darker and multivalent. The relationship is imploding in slow motion, as they tend to do in life. Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) is pregnant and considering an abortion: “You don’t see me knitting anything, do you?”, she says to Bowie (Farley Granger) with a voice like a gutting knife, and they are on the run again, but have struck an uneasy truce by not thinking of the future. Momentarily happy, in a car of course, she tells Bowie she wants to have the baby. Not-so-smart Bowie, on a kamikaze mission to avoid both domesticity and the criminal life (read Homosexual) that is his only true inheritance from Chickamaw (Jay C. Flippen) and T-Dub (Howard Da Silva), chases down his last futile dream. He goes back to the man who married them. He can’t help them, of course. The deed is done. That night, Bowie decides to abandon her – without saying goodbye. “I’m a black sheep”, he tells Mattie (Helen Craig), one of the “thieves … like us”, who has coincidentally struck a deal with the cops to exchange her husband for the capture of Bowie, and manipulates him, playing on the mental image of the sleeping Keechie to go back to the police ambush and leave her a note. Bowie writes the note. “She’d like that”, Mattie says. He goes back and gets killed, as the sound of a train passes. (19) The great love story on the road has ended. Or has it?

Keechie comes out and takes the note from his hand. The tracking shot hounds her as she reads the letter found crumpled in his hand, her back to us. The contents of the letter are calmly, touchingly reassuring: he promises to return, and tells her he expects she’ll be a good mother. Somewhere in the reading of the letter, Keechie, always smarter and more fatalistic, coldly realizes that he was abandoning her. She turns to face the camera. She mouths “I love you”, but she’s reading it from his letter, not saying it of her own volition. The film fades out on her blank face, with the back-light haloing her for a moment. And Bowie’s final rhetorical demand – that she have the baby – is left hanging like a jazz chord. And then we think of the song that is their song: “Your Red Wagon”:

They Live By Night

If you didn’t have love songs to fit my key,
baby baby don’t you sing your blues to me.
That’s your red wagon, that’s your red wagon,
so keep draggin’ your red wagon along.

The bitter irony at last belongs to Keechie alone.

Jean-Pierre Coursodon correctly points out the problem that Ray’s films are

steeped in the somewhat facile romanticism of failure, self-pity, and despair, a “weakness” that may also be their strength, and with which, at any rate, one has to come to terms in order to understand his cinema. (20)

Let’s come to terms with it, then. Contrary to the myth, Ray is never a romantic. It’s an understandable mistake, but people are wrong to identify him so strictly with the surface of his melodramas. Coursodon finds Ray literally hysterical with empathy:

[I]t is perhaps this very harmony of form and content that determine the ambivalence of our response, as though Ray’s intimacy with his characters somehow made him as pathetic as they are. (21)

This is a strange complaint. And we should ask what kind of artist shouldn’t be moved and respond to the thing she has brought to life. Why shouldn’t she be taken in, too? Isn’t that part of the fun?

Tag Gallagher:

Max Ophüls left home to become an actor, became a director instead, and staged 200 plays and a few operettas before making his first movie. From theater comes his notion of cinema as a spectacle, life as a circus, people walking all over the place (each bit player particularized), endless parades of arrivals and departures, constant theater within theater (a make-believe train in Letter, flashbacks in Lola, circuses framing Komedie, Signora, Lola, La Ronde, ringmasters also in Die verkaufte Braut, La tendre ennemie, Le Plaisir and all the butlers). From theater comes the spirit of commedia dell’arte – that a show is a show but so is life, let’s try something new. Thus in The Exile we find King Charles [Douglas Fairbanks Jr] and his men living backstage (or so their dwelling appears), as they await the King’s restoration. (22)

It’s not just the stage dressing. In life, as in the films of Ray and Ophüls, humans play the actor when they need to get something desperately from each other. For this reason, the flashback scene in Lola Montès (1955) between Lola (Martine Carol) and Franz Liszt (Will Quadflieg) always feels very Nick Ray to me. Lola is lying on the bed, pretending to be asleep. Liszt is fooling around with a score, restless. He has become bored with her, but cannot admit it. He tries to sneak away; she stops him: “Aren’t you going to say goodbye?” Now caught, he goes back to the bed, like a child. And then Lola does something kind: she tells him a lie, a kind of erotic memory of the future, of how sweet it will be when they meet again. It is a bossanova break-up scene, the “lie to me scene” in reverse. In Ophüls, they play-act the reunion as Lola secretly suffers his abandonment. In Johnny Guitar, it is the time apart, rather than the reunion that becomes the subject of fiction.

JOHNNY: Tell me something nice.

VIENNA: Sure. What do you want to hear?

JOHNNY: Lie to me. Tell me all these years you’ve waited …

VIENNA: All these years I’ve waited.

JOHNNY: Tell me you’d have died if I hadn’t come back.

VIENNA: I would have died if you hadn’t come back.

JOHNNY: Tell me you still love me like I love you.

VIENNA: I still love you like you love me.

JOHNNY: Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Looking at the cold dialogue on the page, there is no accounting for how these lines become the rich ambiguous exchange on-screen. If there is anyone who can’t see the wicked spirit of Max Ophüls in this scene, their eyes should be discretely gouged out. Je ne vous aime pas …

Underneath the surface of the melodrama, the Ophüls movies are dramas about undecided or shifting identity. “Spiel im Dasein” or “At Play with/in Existence” was Ophüls’ untranslatable motto and the title of his autobiography. That’s the super-Pirandellian element drawn from commedia dell’arte. “What’s interesting in the cinema”, writes Serge Daney somewhere, “is never the symbol itself but its fabrication, the symbol-becoming of the smallest object.” Ophüls makes whole movies about this becoming. In Lola Montès, Lola herself becomes her own symbol. In Madame De … (Max Ophüls, 1953) pre-filmically, the earrings represented the possession of General André De (Charles Boyer), but then they represent the foolishness of Comtesse Louise De (Danielle Darrieux), the General’s cold-heartedness, the desire of Baron Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica), and finally her desire, at last.

Tag Gallagher:

what distinguishes Ophüls’ movies from those of his voyeuristic colleagues is that point of view belongs chiefly to the characters. (23)

The General doesn’t mind that Madame might be having an affair – of course, he minds that it is public – but most of all he minds that it is happening in her head – a fantasy. (That fantasy, by the way, is the film Madame De …) He demands that his wife confront the “idea” of her love (“Napoleon was only wrong twice, at Waterloo and when he said that in love the only victory lies in flight. One must face the adversary”) and balance it against all he gives her – his patriarchal protections. He does not suppose her to be a fool. But she does a strange thing: she refuses to choose the real and decides to wither (or so it looks to the General) in a paralysis of romantic illusion. And thus to save her life, and force her back “into character”, the General provokes a duel with her idol, Donati. And she in turn pleads with Donati, but she’s really looking for confirmation of his love. She realizes that her dreams – what the now not-so-romantic Donati coldly calls “lies” – have doomed her, and that Donati has failed her, by leaving the dream for the “real” world. For his part, Donati feels implicated in her frivolity, in her storytelling. He is a man, after all.

Tag Gallagher: “In Letter from an Unknown Woman, the spectacle is the theater of one’s own life, acted, written, and directed by Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine).” (24)

We might overlook the fact that Madame’s narratizing (25) (what the real world might call romantic insanity) is her “action”; like Lisa, Lola, and Lucia, she controls the story, she is the author. Ophüls does not avoid showing us and critiquing the psychotic side of passion, but at the same time he is completely taken with his heroines as rebels against identity unto death. As a last resort, Madame consecrates the earrings to her saint. By this existential sacrifice, she seals her own death. And as she does not want (or can’t bear) to see the outcome of the duel, Ophüls obligingly does not show it to us. Our guided assumption that the General kills Donati is also Madame’s private fantasy. That is the peculiar charge of the Ophüls film: it is truly polyphonic. There is Madame’s film, but Ophüls is there too, commenting discretely on the action, like one of his servants.


Coursodon makes much of Ray’s total immersion in his subjects. There is not enough breathing space or authorial objectivity: “His style [in Johnny Guitar] is proof that he is completely in tune with his characters and emotions.” And with Rebel Without a Cause, “Ray opted for theatricality as an ideal outlet for his neurotic sensibility” (26).

Born to be Bad (Ray, 1950), I suppose, is neo-realism. These ideas are very close to right. Often enough the auteur’s glacial formal mastery (one feels the white gloves on in Douglas Sirk and occasionally in Vincente Minnelli) is a defensive substitute for an honest engagement with the material. It smells like condescension, but contempt is not without it own creative tension, either. The fascinating thing about Ophüls is that Hollywood wasn’t just an exile phase; it actualized him. The factory mode brought out the best in him; his films become more profound and subversive. He learned from his alienation. And whether he would admit it or not, Ray did, too. What Coursodon finds shrill and operatic seems to me like Ray’s great virtue: his ability to fully enter into and navigate in his characters’ baroque (and not so baroque, as in Bitter Victory) territories. Coursodon nails exactly what makes Ray extraordinary: his radical, radical subjectivity. But the consequences of this stance baffle him. He can’t see why this would suit anyone.

The real possibility of a polyphonic film – the rare film where the director’s “voice” harmonizes with other elements (for example, appropriated footage and rhythms, as in Rose Hobart (Joseph Cornell, 1936), or the narrator-character’s own point of view, as in I am a Cat, or audience interactivity (for example, Raúl Ruiz’s idea and practice of shamanic cinema) – depends on a kind of generous “radical subjectivity” that both audiences and critics alike find odious and unsettling.


More meaningless formal clues: the mannequins with the painted hearts in Bitter Victory are a straight steal from Ophüls and their faces resemble the strange faceless red valets in Lola Montès.

Ophüls? Didn’t he use le travelling somewhere? The first shot after the “this boy and this girl” prelude in They Live By Night – the vertiginous media res helicopter shot (one of the first ever) of the criminals on the run in their car – is unaccountably exciting. It is charged with a specific feeling (motion as emotion) and an urgency to catch something real, and a fine taste for the æsthetics of motion, and no doubt takes on an Eisensteinian charge coming after the frightened faces of Keechie and Bowie. It’s like a blinding rebus that says “Love” + “On The Run”. This film, which starts by banging its drum so loudly and ends so subtly, presents the Ray thing in all its glory: yell the big ideas in people’s faces and then quietly break them down into contradictions. It hard not to think of this 30mph “tracking shot” as the ultimate homage to Ophüls – Ray saying, in effect, “Your people glide through doors, and mine bump and ride in cars. I have to move, man.”

The subjective gazes through the windshield in On Dangerous Ground are at once a Bazinian dolly-shot and a kind of obsessional tunnel-vision associated with the hunt – literally, a “tracking” shot. As Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is heading out to Siberia, we get a series of dissolves through the windshield, and then more as he and Brent (Ward Bond) head out to find the kid, Danny (Sumner Williams), and then the windshield spins in the crash, confusion and the symbolic death of the violent cop in him, which signals the entry into the private emotional world and a new role for him. And then, after Danny is killed, it’s tragically back to the windshield view. But even after the tacked-on “happy ending”, Ray is still consistent and gives us a panoramic panning vista of the winter world. We breathe again. Though Ray uses the same stylistic devices – the windshield shot or bumper shot – in several films, their “feel” changes. Their meaning is emotively determined. According to Ray: “I’d be a horse’s ass if I said I had to do things a certain way every time, because then I’d be sacrificing content to style, maybe impeding the progress of the scene.” (27)


Born to be Bad

I will raise my own objection to the Ophüls–Ray synergy. Exhibit A: Born to be Bad, which is, at least on the surface, perfect Ophülsian material, but seems profoundly misogynistic (28), at least from a conventional point of view. Nick supposedly agonized over the absurd story, and his friends told him to relax and do it as just another picture. But the sweat is on the screen.

Christabel Caine (Joan Fontaine) is a Lola Montès on the way up, and we get to watch her pinball between two controlling men like Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes) in Caught (Ophüls, 1949), but because (or despite) of her complete and charming ineptness at the practice of subterfuge, strangely enough she avoids her fate, getting caught, and even gets to flee with the man’s furs. Her commodity value, reflected in the value of the portrait, keeps going up. These ideas are all there, but Born to be Bad is a film in limbo. Ray seems, as James Harvey notes so brilliantly in Movie Love in the Fifties, abstractedly obsessed with the formal value and ever-changing meaning of Christabel’s duplicitous smiles. Her smile is her only shining weapon. And it’s hard to argue with Ray’s obsession; Fontaine’s is a mesmeric performance. However, Christabel is an actress-storyteller, and lying is her metier and her desperate “action”, and so every place she enters must become a proscenium. She, unlike Ophüls’ women, doesn’t have the refuge of illusion. Fontaine is a little too ghostly for this movie, so the ultimate effect of the film is rather weird. What’s unsettling about Christabel as a character is that she refuses to be penetrated or objectified – the mask is always on – she’s either a sociopath or a clever little worker in a patriarchal society. People keep saying to her, “I’ve got you figured out”, but they’re wrong. She won’t ever let on. Normally a fellow like Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan) could break her to him, but even he fails. She understands the deals she’s making, but refuses to honour the terms. Let’s call her a grandmother to Agnès Varda’s vagabond (Sandrine Bonnaire) in Sans Toit ni Loi (1985).

But why does this not coalesce into a film? I have no good answer. There may have been some fundamental dissonance between the Ray and Fontaine work styles. She doesn’t seem like a particularly “creative” actress and Nick tended to worry people with his indirections, his silent stares, his stage whispers into the furniture. But, of course, Ophüls can make her do anything, like have her impersonate a 12 year old. I think this is a perfect example of how Ray depended on the dialectical energy and engagement of his actors. That was the Pirandellian in him working.

Luigi Pirandello:

An actor’s interpretation must, in other words, spring palpitating and alive from the actor’s own conception of his part – a conception so intimately lived by him that it is soul of his soul, body of his body. The actor may repeat the lines precisely as they are written, but the very same words will express sentiments which the actor, and not the author, feels; and these sentiments will find their own peculiar manifestation in the actor’s tone of voice, temper of gesture, attitude of body. (29)

The cliché view (which comes from legions of bad imitators) of Pirandello is that he was a gimmicky, ludicrous, artificial writer. He was in search of a modern mode of expression that felt real. He wanted to actualize the theatre’s potential for the carnivalesque into a higher realism. John Cassavetes doesn’t exist without Pirandello. (30) But before Cassavetes there was Ray. And Ray always insisted that actors, amateur or professional, figure something – anything – out for themselves. He would then take that “something” and work his ass off to make a movie out of it.

And he was the same way with his crews, forcing them out of comfort zones into improvisational areas that technicians were unaccustomed to. Bitter Victory’s cinematographer, Michel Kelber, says,

it was hard working with Nick, because he often changed his mind, and sometimes made transitions difficult […] Nicholas would say ‘we’ll shoot here’ and I’d only have one arc. We’d roll anyway and got astonishing results, because I’d have no other lights on hand and it had to be done quickly. (31)

Bitter Victory’s Libyan location shooting wrapped on 22 March 1957. Four days later, Max Ophüls died in Hamburg.

His work has been described as baroque, but that suggests a kind of glorious extraversion, a passionate abandon. He was the most introspective of directors, a watchmaker bent on making the smallest watch in the world, and then with a sudden flash of perversity, putting it up on a Cathedral. His technique was fabulous, his visual imagination opulent, but his basic ideas volatile, ephemeral, secret, microscopic. (32)

That is the great, wise Sir Peter Ustinov’s eulogy to Ophüls. Sounds like Ray to me.


I hate symbolic art in which the presentation loses all spontaneous movement in order to become a machine, an allegory – a vain and misconceived effort because the very fact of giving an allegorical sense to a presentation clearly shows that we have to do with a fable which by itself has no truth either fantastic or direct; it was made for the demonstration of some moral truth.

– Pirandello (33)

The Usual Gang of Pirandellians: Shakespeare, Miguel Cervantes, Buñuel, Charles Chaplin, Jean Renoir, Ophüls, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Ray, Varda, Godard, Jacques Rivette, Cassavetes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodóvar – and Orson Welles, of course. To this company I want to add Nick Ray. Better late than never.

If I had to sum up Nicholas Ray in one word, it would be performance. The idea of imposture runs like a constant thread through all his movies and his life. Shattered or dangerous identities (often synonymous) have to be propped up with a mortar of truth and lies, and the witnesses to this drama are in turn forced to adopt roles to hang on to their own equally tenuous sense of identity. They do not want to fall into the abyss with Ray’s protagonists. Ray’s version of alienation only looks like the agony of romanticism – Jim Stark forever howling, “You’re tearing me apart!!” Characters are forced and expected to “act” as discrete, consistent, honourable individuals and begging the people (their audience) around them to let them off the hook, but they are met with fear and incomprehension.

The Romantic worldview depends on a perfect Byronic egotism. The modern problem is that not everyone is Lord Byron, but we are expected to “act” as if we were. That’s what the pretentious European posters everywhere in Bigger than Life signal. “Let’s face it, we’re dull”, says Ed Avery (James Mason) ominously to his baffled wife (Barbara Rush). And when Lord Byron arrives along with the cortisone? It’s not exactly pretty. What makes Ray’s characters alienated is not that they are cliché romantic “loners” or “outsiders”, it’s that they refuse to be one thing, to stay “in character”. Ray’s famous motto, “I’m a stranger here myself”, should be taken to mean, “I always contradict myself.” Ray’s movies demand a new word, “enstrangement”, to describe their characters shifting relation to identity – a V-Effekt of the soul.

What makes Ray’s characters fatally attractive and frightening to those around them is their “instability” – a dual nature is at their core – and Ray is always scrupulously balancing one side of that nature against the other. And he never resolves the tension, because such things are never resolved, except by death.

Bowie moves ambivalently between his identity as an abused criminal son (to Chickamaw and T-Dub, homosexual overtones absolutely intended) and a heteronormative existence as a lover and potential father.

Christabel fluxes to avoid being subsumed into either bad boy Nick Bradley or rich moron Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott).

Rodeo-wreck Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) wants his home back, so he enters the dream of domesticity of Louise Merritt (Susan Hayward), but he also toxically needs to be able to feel like a man, too. Mitchum-McCloud is a macho symbol who doesn’t feel like he’s a real man. Both man and woman are mesmerized by Jeff McCloud’s intoxicating masculinity. Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy) wants to be him, or what he used to be, and she wants to fuck him. The wannabe man goads the hollow one into a definitive proof of masculinity. And when McCloud goes to his death, the chastened couple is “restored”. But to what?

Vienna is both MAN and WIFE to herself, and Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) is performing maleness. Johnny ‘Guitar’ Logan is playing the pretty girl. It’s the first all-lesbian Western.

Ed Avery is split between the grandiose pedagogue and the child murderer. It’s a sympathetic portrait of bipolar disorder, as well as a chilling sociological study of most of the teachers I’ve ever met.

The self is split between domestic ‘Mr Howard’ and violent Jesse James (Robert Wagner). The action of Bob Ford (John Carradine) decides for Jesse. His last line is, “And if you don’t think I expect someone to try to put a bullet in me, you’re wrong.” Ford proves him wrong by shooting him a second later. Or is it suicide by sampler? Those are the kind of things you have to think about in a Nick Ray movie.

“Tweenagers” are automatically liminal people, monsters really. The dual nature in this case is CHILD and ADULT. Adults fill their heads with nihilism and leave children to figure out how to become like them. Hurt and confused, the children (James Dean and Natalie Wood) are forced to play-act a family in a ruined home, and because they are inept and self-involved parents themselves, lose their “son” (Sal Mineo) to police bullets.

An indescribably beautiful love story between two crippled people (Cyd Charisse and Robert Taylor) who suffer from the same moral disease, which compels them to do terrible things for money. She is a dancing whore and he is a mob lawyer.


How, with Ray, Violence becomes Rhetoric and Words become Weaponised.

Everything is nauseating to one who casts off his nature to do things that are out of character.

– Neoptolemus (34)

The parallels between René Hardy’s novel and Philoctetes are too numerous to be coincidental. He’s riffing on the basic story. Sophocles’ Philoctetes is a meditative play about piety, character and lying. Philoctetes is the legendary Greek Archer, the steward of Herakles’ bow. Years before, accidentally straying from a path, he was bitten by a sacred viper guarding a temple, leaving a horrifying, stinking wound which can’t be cured by human arts. The wound and the bow are divine “gifts”, but Philoctetes in his pain and madness has forgotten this. He has lost touch with his soul, clinging madly to the bow (on which he depends for food and protection) and to his wrath against the men who abandoned him. Sophocles shows us a man in the grip of a spiritual paralysis. He can neither act according to his powers nor kill himself. His life is without purpose – and the spectacle is terrible.

But Philoctetes has a strange eloquence even at his most extreme, and he is the only character in the play who has the poetic voice. But those around him only see the bow, hear the caterwauls and smell the stench. Philoctetes’ howls so unnerved his companions that they shanghaied him on a deserted island. Odysseus, whose shifting character is consistent only in its duplicity and who uses his wits and words to accomplish his aims, has now been sent to retrieve the man he left behind ten years before. To do this, Odysseus creates a false story and recruits Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus (his name means something like “new-to-war”), to trick Philoctetes with it into boarding his ship, under the pretence of returning to Greece. Neoptolemus is ambivalent about doing these evil things that violate his nature as he understands it. Odysseus is surprisingly sympathetic and offers the philosophical example of his life:

When I was young, I held my tongue back
and let my hand do my work.
Now, as you’re tested by life – as men live it –
you will see as I have that everywhere
it is our words that win, and not our deeds.

Odysseus is the original Johnny Guitar, a man who disturbs the societal notions of what makes a man by using the woman’s tools, words, as his deeds. This is the main paradox of Philoctetes. Sophocles’ last play is about the weaponisation of the word. In it, military men, warriors ostensibly on the same side, fight each other with the word. The dualities Word/Gun and Word/Fist are everywhere in Ray. It’s one of those eternal themes. What is interesting is how Ray twists them.

In the opening sequence of On Dangerous Ground, Ray shows us a bit of psychosexual poetry we’ve never seen in movies. In a loving ritual, the women arm the men. But Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), who lives alone, always has his gun on. He is a brutal, self-loathing cop with a whoopass addiction. He’s psychotically good at his work and he’s starting to freak his partners out. In a particularly Eisensteinian sequence of shots, he goes after one hood with a finger pointed like a gun, stepping ominously close, muttering, “Why do you make me do it!!”, and unleashing a torrent of odd clawing motions, in an anguish that seems bizarre and, yes, expressively unmanly. Not your average stage combat. His boss (Ed Begley Sr) warns him to watch himself, while hilariously and convincingly devouring a meal and rhapsodizing on the peas. Wilson then proceeds to put a guy in the hospital. And that chase and pummelling is unusually hand-held, with weird slap-echoes on the voices, like a twilight zone episode of Cops directed by James Ellroy.

On Dangerous Ground

The French critics, under the influence of a toxic brew of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Surrealism, Levi-Strauss and a rather embarrassing machismo, were ethnographically obsessed with the American film savages and their violence. Naturally that put Nicholas Ray at the head of the class, because nearly all of his movies could be counted on for moments of mesmeric violence. But what did the violence mean …?

Here’s Michel Mourlet, the black sheep of the happy auteurist family:

A notch higher, Nicholas Ray offers an image of violence which is fuller, more sensual, more real, but alas, unbridled: Not in the immense pressure turning into a mass of water when it is released, but a permanent flood, a swamp, James Mason forever on the edge of tears. A critic wrote some years ago that in a Ray film ‘violence burns freely, a kind of aura surrounding the hero’s actions; it is a violence that declaims rather than kills’. What this critic did not appreciate was that in what he had intended as praise he had hit on a method of a mise en scène whose fuse is blown by constant overloading. Any genuine intensity becomes impossible; passion is unraveled into endless bits and pieces. (36)

Ray, in this case unfavourably compared to Raoul Walsh, again fails the hysteria test. But the unnamed critic is right: Ray’s violence never settles anything. It only has the power to speak what characters can’t say. Violence talks for the Billy Buddhists in Ray’s movies. This isn’t some abstract authorial moral position. It’s not for Ray to approve or disapprove of Dix Steele’s violence. His job is to watch him closely, and use the camera as a microphone in a place where we can try to hear what these people are trying to say with their fists and guns. And the rhetorical nature of the violence serves another purpose: it shines a light at the real WMDs – words.

Once Wilson gets out to Siberia, he starts running into witnesses that can’t be handled with his preferred methods. Wilson’s first interrogation, of a child, is fraught with emotional violence, a brutal re-victimization of a traumatized innocent. Olive Carey, instinctively protecting her kids from Wilson, stonewalls him. Then comes news of the killer on the loose, the car crash and his encounter with his doppelganger, the father (Ward Bond) of the murdered girl, who will stop at nothing to revenge. And Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), the killer’s blind sister, because she can’t SEE what a “monster” he is, immediately responds to him, mistakenly, as a human being. But it is the unexpected gift of not being seen that allows Wilson to step out of the role of violent cop, and now he begins a subtle verbal seduction of Mary that we thought was beyond him. He is still only interested in getting his man and he means to trick her into telling him where he is. And she in turn goes after him with words that we know strike deep into Wilson’s split self: “How is it – to be a cop?” Mary uses her vulnerability as a blunt object against Wilson’s Achilles heel: “You can’t trust anyone. I have to trust everyone.” Wilson desperately needs someone to trust. He tries to be human, but with his germinal humanity comes the possibility of failure and humiliation. And this one time Jim Wilson won’t get his man.

In Party Girl, we first see Tommy (Robert Taylor) delivering a powerful and emotional plea to the jury, culminating in the judicious use of a prop, a watch, and an exaggerated limp as a legitimizing device for the sympathetic but false narrative he weaves for them. His client is acquitted. Then, after he meets party girl Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse), the moving story of his crippling is used as a powerful seduction move. She falls in love with him because of it. And then, at the end of the film, the story is told again, watch included, to delay the wrath of his boss, the murderous Capone figure, Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb), and this final performance saves their lives. This story illustrates Ray’s key idea of the imagination as weapon. In Ray’s movies and life, a creative act of narratising from a character is as powerful a weapon as a gun or fist. The imagination is also a “precious source of protection”, as he refers to it in his artistic testament, In a Peapod.

When Nick and Gavin Lambert were out scouting locations in Libya, Lambert took him to a Roman Amphitheatre by the sea. The place and the moment seemed to explode in Ray’s imagination.

“Do you realize the Romans built in CinemaScope?” Nick said as we looked down from the highest tier. Then he took my arm and hurried me down to the arena, where he began to visualize a production of Oedipus Rex, masked and robed figures performing in front of the circle of archways, with the sea as backdrop. Flinging out his arms, he declaimed the last line of Yeats’s translation: “Call no man happy until he is dead …” I never saw him happier. (37)

The beautiful ironic understatement of the last line is pure Lambert. We could almost accuse the novelist in him of making it all up. But the moment feels true and it has an uncanny echo of another story Ray once told. One night, as a young man at college, he was invited out to a fancy theatrical party by the head of the drama department, and afterward the much older man took him out parking by Lake Michigan. To fend off the inevitable seduction attempt, but also to thank the man for showing interest in him, Ray began to spin some story about Indians from a hundred years before coming off the lake: “What I said came out of what was supplied me from the environment, the air and stuff around me. The water helped me stretch my imagination.” In the case of the Lambert example, the trick worked: Ray successfully performed “happiness” for Lambert. But in the earlier example, Ray says what failed “to impress him was my action, but I couldn’t catch him up to change his action.” (38)

These anecdotes are very revealing of Ray’s conflicting creative impulses: the tremendous need for affection and approval, his ability to channel the genius loci in situations into the stuff of drama, and his actor’s consciousness of human behaviour.

This leads me to question how much of the “weakness”/lameness that makes up the bulk of the Nick Ray chronicles was itself a seductive performance. He was encouraging people to write him off, to put them at ease. No one worries much about a cripple. Perhaps he learned he could better watch, learn and control events from the safe position of object of pity.


Mikhail Bakhtin talks about the essence of the commedia dell’arte in his Rabelais book:

In fact, carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators. Footlights would destroy a carnival, as the absence of footlights would destroy a theatrical performance. Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all people. While carnival lasts, there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its own laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. (39)

This is the best description of the feeling of a Ray picture.

In Bitter Victory, as in the other Ray films, we have this unsettling feeling that the customary boundaries between the artificial and the real are of no importance. And this, of course, brings us back to Godard’s cryptic original insight about the men who like to look at the stars and dream. It was important for Godard to discover a film he respected that allowed him an autonomous space to think and daydream inside it. And only by means of the carnival time can one feel free enough to do so. Godard said of Rossellini that, in pushing realism as far as it could go, he rediscovered theatre. Ray makes the opposite transit, abolishing the footlights and pushing theatre into the carnival time until it becomes neither life nor fiction. Ray had wanted to do the Jesse James story in the Lola Montès mode, a series of highly artificial tableaux of the creation of the myth. It may be a shame that he didn’t succeed in doing this, because the carnivalesque element in his other films would have become apparent. But it’s better for him as an artist that his work retains this essential ambiguity.


Bitter Victory

It is a hot afternoon in the Libyan desert. Leith lays on the sand resting. Mekrane watches him. Brand, behind them, turns around and notices a scorpion crawling over his boot. He shakes it away, but doesn’t kill it. As Brand watches in fascinated horror, the scorpion crawls towards Leith’s exposed leg. Mekrane notices Brand’s intense interest and he may (the editing leaves this ambiguous) also see the scorpion. In any case, Mekrane waits and watches. Brand sees the scorpion crawl up Leith’s pant leg, and Brand then reacts painfully as if he himself has been bitten. Ray then cuts to Leith clutching his leg in agony. Brand comes up and offers him a drink from a canteen, and Leith refuses, handing him a knife to cut the bite open. Brand, squeamish as usual, can’t do it. Leith stabs his own leg and Mekrane sucks the poison out. One of the men says, referring to Mekrane, “Blimey, a gent with guts …”

As the men stand around not knowing what to do, Mekrane steals away and kills the camel. Brand runs up to him, his gun drawn. Brand has an endearing habit of drawing his gun whenever he feels particularly powerless. Mekrane asks, “You want to kill me, too?” This is a private language between the two men, and Brand gets the message and backs off. Mekrane guts the camel for its bladder and makes Leith drink the urine – the unintended revenge of the camel master.

Bitter Victory

Twenty minutes before the end of the film, Ray throws his final grenade. And this one is the most interesting of all. Brand is sleeping and Mekrane steals up on him, knife drawn and wakes him. Mekrane wants, and this is one of the signature strangenesses of the film, to avenge Leith’s death, in his presence, while he still lives. Mekrane tells Brand that he is going to kill him. He raises his dagger and Brand suddenly, and unexpectedly, blocks it. Mekrane says, “I know you saw the …” and, with a tender and violent gestural move that could only come from Nick Ray, Brand covers Mekrane’s mouth to keep him from saying the words he cannot bear to hear. As the two struggle over the knife, they go over the top of the frame, as Ray tracks right, revealing first Leith’s boot then Leith, asleep and blithe to the struggle over his poison-filled body.

Mekrane is thrown to the ground, as Brand comes up, gun in hand and he fires blindly. Mekrane doubles in agony and writhes as Brand hesitates. As the other men react, getting up, the stunned Brand empties his pistol into Mekrane. He looks around not quite understanding what he’s done. All the unbearable tension that Leith’s presence has built up in him over the course of the film drains out of him. Wilkins stares approvingly at the mayhem. Brand sees the men staring at him and he explains that Mekrane tried to kill him. Barton and Sergeant Barney look up from the dead Mekrane, and their expression says: “You’re a murderer, Brand.” Then Ray frames Brand naked and large in the shot, with Leith suddenly looking very small. And then plaintively, Brand says to himself: “Is it that easy to kill?” Leith and Brand look hauntedly at each other and the scene fades to black.

From this moment on, the hateful Brand is strangely and joltingly a figure of genuine pathos. He now has a dignity and authority he’s never had. Paradoxically, the killing has made him essentially a lonely man and now, with good reason, the men fear him. The next shot finds Brand separated from the men, looking forlorn. Barton reports on Leith’s worsening condition. Gangrene has set in. Brand orders him to leave some water and a pistol. Barton is stunned: “So he can shoot himself when the water runs out?” Brand pulls out his orders and reads: “You must not be captured by the enemy.” Here Brand’s habitual unconscious gesture of touching his pocket is finally paid off. And then he coldly tells Barton a lie: “If it endangers your mission, you’re not obliged to save the wounded.” Barton has now taken the place and role of Brand in the earlier conversation at Crown City. “That’s not war, Sir”, Barton says. “Isn’t it?”, asks Brand, now confidently inhabiting Leith’s role. The killing of Mekrane, in this strange movie, has become an epiphany for Brand about himself, the nature of authority and war. This scene recalls the briefing with the General at the beginning of the film, where he sends the military’s classic mixed message: “I need not remind you that you’ll be entirely responsible for the lives of 30 men …” There’s a pause and then the General says, as if to himself, “… all expendable.”

Bitter Victory

Just as Brand is about to abandon Leith definitively to his fate, they have a final exchange. Leith makes a “speech”, a last attempt to goad Brand into killing him; he conjures a vision of Brand the returning hero – the stuffed dummy with a medal on his chest – and all the witnesses dead. And then his final rhetorical attack: “You’re not a man, Brand – you’re an empty uniform starched by authority so it can stand up by itself.” Brand looks at him and strangely agrees: “But I am standing.” Leith gives him a grudging respect. It is an odd reconciliation, which doubles the scene where Leith prepares to kill Roberts. Leith gives him his dog-tag to give to Mrs Brand. And Leith tells him to tell her that she was right and he was wrong and ask her forgiveness: “Don’t try to save me.” Brand starts to walk off and then with sudden violence the ghibli hits them. Leith trips Brand and curls his body around him to shelter him from the wind, crying out: “I always contradict myself!!”

The storm ends. Brand digs himself out of the sand. Leith is dead and he looks peaceful, almost glamorous, at last. Brand looks up to find the German, Lutze, staring at him. The other men come up. “The ghibli must have killed him”, says Sgt. Barney, pre-emptively. Brand remains staring at the dead man for a long time. Suddenly there is noise on the horizon. A British column has been spotted. The men all run for the crest of the dunes, forgetting the documents. Even Brand joins them in cheering their deliverance. Lutze, taking a hidden grenade from his pocket, pulls the pin and drops it in the documents, which catch fire, as Ray cuts triumphantly between the placid Leith and Lutze watching the documents burn. Bitter Victory #1. Brand, running back, manages to save a few of the documents from the fire. And he looks at Leith once more.


Back at the base, Jane Brand waits anxiously for news of the survivors. She hears that the column’s returned. Brand gets out of the Jeep and she gives him a tepid welcome. She looks for Leith as the men file past her. But Leith isn’t with them. Jane and Brand have a private moment. We remember Leith’s advice: “Tell him he’s a hero …” She tries half-heartedly to say something. Jane’s failure to take Leith’s sneering advice at the end of the film is a dangerous and existential act. Can the new Brand stand to be humiliated before his men any further? Jane tries it Leith’s way: she tells him, unconvincingly, that she’s proud of him. She tries to remember her lines, but she’s not really feeling them. She stops. Brand looks around checking for male gazes, then takes her deeper into a private realm in the gymnasium. He checks again, before making a confession: “The men think I killed him.”

Even now, Brand only cares about their opinion, not hers. Ray ruthlessly exposes the misogyny of the male worldview: cowardice and brutality in the presence (the private, erotic one) of Woman is of no consequence. Like Ophüls’ servants or retainers, the woman is the expected silent witness of a thousand petty defeats, failures, meannesses. To survive, she pretends to forgive them all, even absurdly, never to see them. The same acts, in the “public” sight of men, are unbearable.

JANE: Did you …?

BRAND: I wanted to save him but it was too late.

Bitter Victory

She doesn’t believe him. Jane closes her eyes; she can’t pretend any longer. She walks away from him. She hits the dummy, who turns and offers a consoling arm. She holds the arm longingly, wipes her tears against it. Jane: “Anything else?” Brand hesitates, then produces the orders – “the book of rules” – that he must sleep with from now on, and then Leith’s dog-tag. One lie reminds him of another. He tells his final lie: “His last words were … ‘Tell her that I love her.’” Is this an act of kindness from Brand? Does he hope to spare his wife some pain? Perhaps. And then Brand kills the idea, by adding self-servingly: “Those would have been my last words, too.”

Patterson interrupts, booming: “Where is the hero of Benghazi?” He gathers the men together in a final proscenium, and gives a meaningless speech in praise of Brand and the success of the mission, a mission that all of them know has been a pointless disaster. He awards Brand the DSO. Jane gives a final look at the dummy and walks away, as Wilkins watches her go. Brand turns his head to watch her, too, which causes the whole group to notice. Patterson dismisses the men. Brand is left alone with Wilkins. The two survivor–murderers look at each other. Wilkins smiles at him, ironic, and nods.

On the surface, Bitter Victory looks like any of the great harvest of cynical late 1950s films about war – The Bridge over the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957), Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957), Men in War (Anthony Mann, 1957), The Quiet American (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1957) Die Brucke (Bernhard Wicki, 1959), Attack! (Robert Aldrich, 1956) and Kanal (Andrej Wajda, 1957) – but good luck stopping the Marine recruiters with his one. This is the kind of war film that tells us definitively that courage is a sham, but also that killing people is good for self-knowledge. The ground is constantly shifting under us. Contradiction controls the rhythm and structure of the film. Images and text squabble and cancel each other out. The film seems to exist in images that baffle us, that have no clear “symbolic” value – a dream without a key. If (Herman, not Jean-Pierre) had made a war film, it would probably look a lot like Bitter Victory.

The conclusion, and in retrospect the body, of the film anticipates The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The same interplay of Word/Gun and Truth/Myth, Shadow/Persona control both stories. There is one crucial difference between Brand and Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), however. Brand doesn’t wait 30 years to confess his hollowness. He puts the medal and the glory where it belongs. Brand is thus one of the heroic Pirandellian narratizers: he creates himself in the desert. He fails all the empty tests of courage. Only the fiction he brings back transforms him from coward to hero. But he is a lucid madman. He knows that the dummy, which Jane has identified with Leith, gets the medal. Bitter Victory #2.


I’m beginning to believe my own write up.

– Ray (40)

Lindsay Anderson and Gavin Lambert

Lindsay Anderson wrote a famous article that demanded that the critic Stand Up! and, when Gavin Lambert stood up, Lindsay was surprised to find his best friend in all the world headed to Hollywood in the arms of Nick Ray – that same satyr who had so boggled the French. After a quick lecture on the all-importance of the closet in Hollywood, Ray installed Lambert as a lover and collaborator. Lambert, the much-loved editor of Sight and Sound, had founded Sequence with Anderson and Penelope Houston at college, and, though he was not by nature a flashy personality, he was a very good critic, smart, undogmatic and sane, and he tended to balance out the 800 pound gorillas at the magazine. But no more. This mutual seduction quite literally upended Lambert’s life, and introduced him to his chief subject and muse: the sickened Xanadu of Los Angeles de Porciúncula (A savage place, as holy and enchanted/As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted/By woman wailing for her demon-lover!), and the charming people and ghosts who lived and died there.

Two things drew them together: Lambert had made a beautiful, poetic film with Walter Lassally in Morocco called Another Sky (1954). It’s in the Bowlesian mode, about a proper Englishwoman who goes off the map literally, erotically and psychologically. Ray had seen the film and liked it. And, most important, Lambert had been an early and perceptive British champion of Ray’s, and Ray needed to be taken seriously by serious people. At last, it was starting to happen.

Like a disappointed lover, grumbling in bad faith, Godard later said that:

Ray worries about himself too much. He asks himself too many questions, and in the end he’s his own worst enemy. He needs someone who can sense when his ideas are good and when they are bad. (41)

But if you’re really MONSIEUR CINEMA, why do you need ideas? Ideas are for the John Hustons of the world. But Godard was right about one thing: where on earth did this self-consciousness come from? Why didn’t Ray have the strength of character to survive the controlling adulation, the careless turns of phrase and the ambivalence of his “friends” in the cinephile world? What kind of an “author” was he, anyway?

On the set of Rebel, after shooting one of the intimate exchanges between John ‘Plato’ Crawford (Sal Mineo) and Jim Stark, Nick turned to James Dean and said sarcastically: “You know, I think they’re going to like it in Paris.” (42) It’s a complex moment. Ray is both mocking the idea and secretly affirming it at the same time. This is the unholy result of irresponsible criticism and artistic corruption: the snake eating its tail. And it happens on a regular basis, because critics and artists, both by nature sensitive types, are vulnerable to each other. There are occasions when you see critics develop worrisome neurotic personal “relationships” with favourite filmmakers, to the detriment of both. I won’t mention any names, but you know who they are. The knife cuts both ways, but in these cases neither side is showing enough respect for the other. And it’s probably true that auteurism, as it has evolved, or failed to evolve, encourages this dysfunction.

Hearing enough influential people repeat that I had a signature of my own I became unhealthily self-conscious for a while, and not really investigative.

– Ray (43)

The ghost of Freud haunts anyone who tries to write on film. Film criticism mostly proceeds as dream analysis or a kind of backwoods theology: we guess at the “symbols” presented by the film; we chase at the consciousness “behind” the film, the author, etc. But we’re just talking about ourselves, our desires, our will to power. In at least three films by Ray, there is a set of crossed swords, in Dix’s living room in In a Lonely Place, in the dining-room set in Rebel and on the sign leading to the lethal gymnasium in Bitter Victory. Furthermore, there is also a set of crossed swords behind the General in a crucial late scene in Madame De …. More strangely still, the crossed swords themselves resemble the much remarked upon Xs in Hawks. It’s entirely possible to see these as symbols of something, or an element of mise en scène, but I prefer to look at them as a kind of cosmic inside joke that directors are perpetrating on those of us who love this ritual. Critics have to take that possibility seriously.

However worrisome the Samuel Bronston-produced films were to the French, you have to admire Ray’s infallible instinct. The studios were collapsing. And, though we can definitely imagine Ray making mainstream movies in the ’70s, it’s impossible to see him adapting himself comfortably to the cultural wasteland that was ’60s filmmaking. He (or Lew Wasserman) put his finger in the air and saw that super-productions were the future. What he didn’t realize is that you can’t improvise your way through a super-production. It’ll kill you. But that didn’t stop Ray from trying to make a movie with a “cast of thousands” – that monstrous, killingly expensive thing, ponderously premeditated, but, from the inside out, “in the moment”. Subjectivity worked against him on these big traffic-cop movies. It was a personal and professional disaster for Ray, and he never fully recovered from it.

The most amazing thing about the Nick Ray story is that he was no exiled prince like Orson or John Cassavetes. The old school ’30s radical always had a knack for sniffing out the power and working it. He counted two of the most powerful men in Hollywood as intimate friends and protectors: Lew Wasserman and Howard Hughes – no mean feat as he was even romancing Edie Wasserman at the same time. (It’s now apparent that Ray was a sexual opportunist of frightening sang-froid. If Jürgens hadn’t beat him to it, he would have been the one sleeping with Graetz’s wife. He had a disturbing Marilyn Monroe-like tendency to use sex to neutralize and manipulate people, and compulsively, too. Was he sexually abused?) And Wasserman had only just begun to rule Hollywood in the ’60s. Even so, part of his romantic legend is that Ray walked away from all that to live “as a pretentious hobo” (his own words) in perpetual exile, grifting off others. But it’s not as if he had no other options. He could have turned, like Rossellini did, to television. I think Ray would have worked triumphantly on TV. You can easily imagine him directing and subverting The Rifleman or Rawhide. But that wouldn’t have impressed the Cahiers boys. And it wouldn’t have squared with his ambition and his pathological need for bigger budgets. Ray once asked Buñuel how he managed to make his films so consistently good over his long career, and Buñuel told him that low budgets of around $200,000 were his secret. Ray’s vanity was shocked. He said that he’d be laughed out of Hollywood if he made films that cheaply.

Crashing hard after 55 Days in Peking (1963), Ray moved to some island in the North Sea, and laboured on a brilliant scheme to cash in on his invention of the credit card (44) and the scripts to a number of O Brother, Where Art Thous, including, tellingly, one with V. F. Perkins, the author of the standard thematic auteurist analysis of Ray.


A damningly late admission (it was 1964) from the cowboy who started the fight, François Truffaut:

In short, we liked assembly-line cinema, pure manufactured cinema, where the director was an operative for the four weeks of shooting, where the film was edited by someone else, even if it was the work of a big director. This is what Ophüls said in Cahiers 54, but we didn’t reckon how vital it was for the American cinema, to work in these conditions. Because very few people deserve to be free in the cinema: freedom implies being in control of too many elements, and it’s rare for people to have the talent for all the stages, and the different moments in the making of a film. (45)

But nobody in Paris remembered to call Nick Ray to tell him this.


Lang for his part, evolves, ages, changes: his permanence exists only at the level of his mise-en-scene.

– Fereydoun Hoveyda, Sunspots (46)

This jewel gets the full neon treatment. I treasure the insolence of this line above all, because this is the reductio ad absurdum of auteurist fundamentalism, the naked face of a Platonist auteurism, the eidos of the auteur somewhere in outer space, but understood perfectly and rightly by the auteurist critic on earth, while the film objects (cut, mangled and constrained by ignorant men) are the imperfect sub-lunar manifestation of that perfect form. If something doesn’t fit the Form of the Author, blame the producer; if that doesn’t work, re-imagine the film the author would have made if shit hadn’t gotten in his way. Welcome to the gulag archipelago of the critic. Here’s your copy of Welles’ 58-page Touch of Evil (1958) memo. (47)

Eisenschitz writes about Ray’s resistance to this kind of pigeonholing:

Ray […] had difficulty understanding an approach which attempted to trace a filmmaker’s impulses as one might a painter’s (the comparison recurs frequently in Rohmer’s reviews) with sympathetic understanding and a feeling for hidden kinships between films of which the filmmaker is sometimes unaware. (48)

Ah, the saving grace of Platonist auteurism: the crypto-intentional fallacy. Hidden how, exactly? It’s not the freaking Kabala. Those kinships are either in the films and can be discussed, or they’re in outer space with the Form of the Author. Can we see that there might be some critical megalomania involved in this way of thinking? Ray understood the “approach” perfectly well; he just intuitively rejected it as psychologically dangerous, and probably also because he actually knew how movies get made, even though at the same time the attention flattered him tremendously.


Vérités et Mensonges

Any honest critical appraisal of Vérités et Mensonges (F For Fake, Orson Welles, 1974) needs to deal with the fact that the film is a cosmic joke on the idea of the author, on auteurism itself. Where is the wizard Welles? Is he in François Reichenbach’s footage, in the words or movements of Elmyr or Cliff Irving? Is he in that silhouette on screen? In the classic sonority of the performer’s mellifluous voice? In the edit? In Oja Kodar’s texts? In her naked body? In Hughes’ talking box? The auteurist suddenly plays the pantheist: “B-but he is … everywhere!!” But Welles has made it impossible to play that game, because he isn’t “in” any element, but a kind of a peek-a-boo ghost in the machine. And The Other Side of the Wind (Welles, 1971-present) continues the same playful authorial subversion. A film made with cameras held by other people, in different textures, different voices, a reckless film of beautiful accidents – the ultimate polyphonic film. But there is no magic 58-page memo for this one. Maybe some clever forger should fake one. The film waits for its ghostly author. (49)

For a filmmaker who studiously avoided repeating himself and sought always to remain a few steps ahead of his audience’s expectations, thereby rejecting any obvious ways of commodifying his status as an auteur, Welles arguably found a way in F for Fake to contextualize large portions of his career while undermining many cherished beliefs about authorship and the means by which “experts,” “God’s own gift to the fakers,” validate such notions.

– Jonathan Rosenbaum (50)

And don’t get me started on Stardust Memories (Woody Allen, 1980). I distinctly remember Pauline Kael berating Allen for his misanthropy and sour ingratitude to his “public” – i.e., people like her. Critical “love” is passive-aggressive, because of its inevitably conditional nature. As a consequence, like Morrissey, critics are hated for loving: “We like your earlier, funnier films.” The only way Stardust Memories could get better is if Woody paid an actress to read Kael’s review onscreen and edit that into the beginning of the film.

Another example is Cassavetes getting the nod from Jonas Mekas as to his “authenticity” and as an act of defiance re-performing Shadows. Fleeing from that near-miss, he runs into the bow-tied clutches of Ray Carney. Or, in Nick’s own case, we have the multi-screen polyphonic collectivity of We Can’t Go Home Again (1976). These films all have one thing in common: they are all “disasters” of auteurism, but the same impulse is behind them: “Fuck you, buddy!” (51)

There is someone posing here as us.

– Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) in Opening Night (Cassavetes, 1977)

After all, as Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941) shows (the original parable about the dangers of artistic self-consciousness and as deadly serious as F for Fake), the notion of a “personal film” is fraught with anxiety for both author and audience. Is it the “authentic self” that is making the film, or just a persona, a mask? Sturges, the man who brought the Fancy Pants Author to Hollywood, subversively equates the two knocks on the head: the one that makes Sullivan amnesic and the Disney Cartoon that supposedly returns him to “sanity” (i.e., Hollywood). Forget Grigori Kozintsev, Welles or Terry Gilliam. By inverting the narrative’s hierarchical relation of Reality and Hollywood, Sturges made the most profound version of Don Quijote ever – and Veronica Lake, no question, the greatest Sancho Panza in history. “… a little sex” never hurts Cervantes.

Auteurism as a loose idea is dangerously seductive – and convenient, particularly if one is not too scrupulous about its use. It allows a critic to pour their ideological position into the “empty” vessel of the work, by the simple act of masquerading as the author. And, more suspicious still, the raptures over the awesome power of the director are a thinly disguised power fantasy/projection from the critic, the classic 98-pound weakling. Auteurism (as a kind of primitive structuralism) is primarily a defence mechanism by which we vainly seek to defuse the fetish power of the art object, by obsessing over the nature of its power over us. There’s obviously some problems in that approach, but it at least accounts for the strange power of Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) over auteurists. Scottie (James Stewart) is a classic auteurist figure, who, presented with two obviously different women (confusingly played by Kim Novak), believes that they are the same, and of course winds up destroying the object, while at the same cruelly rejecting the director’s surrogate, Madge (Barbara Bel Geddes), hiding in plain sight.

It’s not just that auteurism is necessarily historicised. We can’t really talk about Tony Scott and John Ford in the same way because the modes of production have changed. Scott has both more (technical and financial) and less (creative, casting and genre) options than Ford did. Every historical period gets the “author” it deserves. A figure like Peter Jackson makes films that are so technically complex and corporate (I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense; what he achieved in the making of The Lord of the Rings (2001-3) is historically comparable to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)) that we would do better if we called him an artistic CEO than a director. If we say the director is the “controlling authority” of the film and that’s that, that just feels wrong. It’s too monolithic. There is a good argument for seeing auteurism as a yang-driven model of criticism that generates and perpetuates (at the expense of other modes) yang filmmaking: penetrating, scientific, consistent, logocentric, masculine, etc.

What is needed now is a yin model: open, mysterious, fluid, social, feminine, etc. The “author word” gets in the way of this; it mystificates (and masculinises) the director’s job. And it’s defensive. In order for “auteurism” to fully function as a critical tool and not, as André Bazin correctly warned, a snobbish neo-romantic cult of personalities, it has to acknowledge, even revel, in dualism. The director is most often less a Jehovah-like creator or monarch of a film than an incredibly sensitive filter, who is also a provoker and nurturer of creative processes. And if one thinks that makes the director too passive, too outside the loop, consider this:

The approach to this thorny problem that makes the most sense to me is what I will call Aristotelian “Jurism”, in which the “JURIST”, the artistic judge who supplants the auteur in this scheme, is not a cause of the film at all. She stands outside of the causes (money, Panavision, screenplay, actors, hired directors, lighting, producer, chance, necessity, etc.) and her detachment is required to balance the powerful forces unleashed by the art process. The making of 99% of films is inherently dialectical. (52) In life, a jurist is both free and under compulsion. It is her responsibility to determine the truth or falsity of events presented to her, all the while following the “script” of the law, and the thing she must synthesize is not really visible to anybody in the courtroom “set” – i.e., “Justice”. The film jurist counters the specialized tunnel-vision and agendas of the assembled professionals with her resolute equanimity. And vice versa. A bad director-writer-producer, etc., resembles a bad judge in that he either ruthlessly sticks to the killing letter of the law, or he takes the bribe of one side or another, including that of his own professional image. The artist’s equivalent to justice is “life”. The art must have life, autonomy. Where does this life come from? From the alchemical balance in the elements.

This idea first occurred to me, of course, while thinking about Ford’s fondness for that peculiar human, Judge Priest (Charles Winninger), who is Ford’s Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) figure. I think that the reasons for the identification should be both obvious and profound.

For the cine-jurist, it is her ACTIVE HOLISTIC CONCEPTION that matters most. She, above all of her collaborator-opponents, sees and understands the FINAL CAUSE of the art object. What is she seeing exactly? Not just merely the mirage of the finished film (which remains a shadowy and elusive, ever-changing quasi-reality), but also its effect, beauty and its utility. If she is doing these things, whether her jurism is tyrannical (Erich von Stroheim) or benevolent (Mike Leigh), she deserves to be called its maker because she decides what its purpose is, what it is good for. This is the point of Marcel Duchamp’s serious joke of signing the urinal. In the reverse process of natural creation, the poet finds it “good” before she “makes” it. And, of course, the metaphor of jurism allows for a jurist to be reversed by another jurist on appeal (for instance, by the producer who takes the film away and recuts it according to his own vision of “justice”), and who in turn can be reversed by the ultimate juries of the audience and history.

And what’s useful about this theory is that it’s inclusive – it works for non-directors like Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer, Rin-Tin-Tin, Colonel Tom Parker, Shirley Temple, Karl Valentin and Rod Serling. I do realize that saying “cine-juge” will never sound as cool as saying “auteur”, but you can always go buy a pack of Gitanes to compensate.

I’m not an authorial jihadist. I don’t have any problem with “authority”, the word or what it represents. Just kidding, of course. My objection to “authorship” is made on a phenomenological basis. In some extraordinary cases, and Bresson and Stan Brakhage speed to mind, the author-tag stops being childishly metaphoric; it is the right word for what a director achieves. But it’s cleaner to use the more precise language of performance to describe the director’s work.


My intention was to rescue Nick Ray from village idiocy, mostly by actually listening with sympathy to what he said about his work. Of all the great filmmakers – with the exception of Welles – Ray is the least honestly reducible to an authorial mission statement. And, for me, the issue reduces itself to an abstract discussion on the nature of identity. Insofar as he is a performer, Ray is more unlike himself than he is like himself:

I have no vision of the perfectly ordered world. I don’t have the presumption of a social builder or a social critic. I can sometimes say that I have reflected to the best of my ability a part of the life and times in which I’ve lived from my own prejudiced/at times distorted, and kept in distortion, point of view; but as an actor, and not always the principal actor in this little world, I cannot very well be the interpreter of my own interpretation. (53)

Is Ray’s humility a pose from a self-admitted actor? It very well could be. But false modesty flows in a torrent. His tortured circumlocutions and qualifications suggest otherwise. In a 1964 roundtable discussion (54), the men who first loved Nick Ray take time to discuss his paradoxical evanescence in person. These men, all strong personalities, many of them filmmakers and “authors” themselves, kick over his humility as if they can’t really square it with the films.

In Ray’s films, there is always the sense that the film doesn’t quite end. The films start in media res, and they end in media res. And that the characters continue, in the Pirandellian sense, off-screen to face something troubling, yet not precisely known. The events of the film have only lovingly explored and exposed the contradictions in human action, never resolved them. This is perhaps Ray’s best trick in an arsenal of good ones. That’s why attempts to make Ray into a thesis filmmaker, Stanley Kramer’s hipster twin, are doomed to look foolish. Is Bigger than Life an anti-drug picture? Is it really opposed to homely suburban conformity? But domesticity seems to be the goal in The Lusty Men and restlessness is the evil there. An anti-megalomania picture? Is Rebel about rebellious juvenile delinquents or about bad parenting?

Bitter Victory

In Bitter Victory, Ray investigates the absurdity of COURAGE as a social virtue. So he must dismiss all courage as fraudulent, right? But Ray is utterly “macho” on the issue of artistic courage. He can’t take a categorical position, because he admires the courage of the actor and of the artist: “We survive on what we reveal of ourselves.” This is why Brand is his hero. He has revealed himself, while Leith remains trapped in his poses. Taken as a collectivity, the films of Nick Ray resemble the Essais of Montaigne, the portrait of a man through conflicting meditative views of the world, and inversely the portrait of the world as the autobiography of a man who is constantly perplexed and amazed at his own nature. Woe to the man who tries to use the Essais as a set of life maxims. He’s headed for the bughouse. Ray’s films aren’t complex moral tales, they are moral universes, and each one is distinct from the other.

The most maddening problem (and I hope that this accounts for these chaotic ruminations) with any futile attempt to find a grand unified theory to explain away Nicholas Ray is one of influence. The Mystery of Nick Ray must be answered: how can one possibly account for Ray’s being a crucial touchstone for such lurchingly divergent filmmakers as Godard, Truffaut and Eric Rohmer? They each see something fundamentally different in Ray. Because Truffaut was obsessed with the thing he most lacked, love, Truffaut loves Ray’s “emotional fluidity” and, for lack of a better word, his Eisensteinism, Ray’s uncanny ability to inflect a shot with a precise emotion. Meanwhile, Godard loves Ray’s manipulations of text and image, his essayism, and his artful mixing of Bazinian observation of the world (witness the sand kicking up and swirling in the light, or the beautiful gouges of the vehicles in the sand in Bitter Victory) and theatre. And Rohmer is on record as admiring his improvisational style, but looks to him also for his narrative tension of identity. Rohmer’s characters are presented with a simple question, a dilemma that in the variation of its presentation offers a key to who they are and how they wrestle with it, and consequently the films build up a fantastic tension leading to a kind of orgasmic epiphany for the protagonist – a small death that defuses for the moment the knot of contradiction in the character’s life.

The auteur preference expressed in the politique rests on the magical idea that mise en scène is invariable, and that it somehow represents the “authentic” voice of the filmmaker, however subtle or showy. Thus the monastic Bazinian creed of the auteurist: “Le style est l’evidence.” They loved the clarity, the transparency and intellectual punch of the style that they loved. But this condemns cinema to a perpetually naïve mode. Hoveyda again:

A film-maker’s thought appears through his mise en scene. Mise en scene is nothing but the technique which each auteur invents to express himself and establish the specificity of his work. (55)

This is the first law of auteurism: there shall be no unreliable narrators in the Cinema. But even in the simplest literature, is it not a commonplace to interpose narrators between the author and the reader? Why should we not believe that this happens in film more often than we suspect? What if I said that mise en scène is nothing but the technique the filmmaker uses to invent himself as a character in a fictional world? Mise en scène as Mask? The means of interface with that world? Wouldn’t that be equally true?

Nicholas Ray:

My personal approach is first to hunt for the truth of the scene, and then to try to make the camera ACT FOR ME, to put the camera in the position of an actor as soon as I can. (56)

To deal honestly with Ray (and a few other directors) requires another word entirely: comédien. It’s a question of mise en scène archetypes. The auteurs dramatize their worldview. That worldview may be complex, but it definitely belongs to the authors and it travels with them in their kit wherever they go. The comédiens, more like shamans, dramatize and respond to the world of their characters in a specific setting. Furthermore, we may consider the auteur personality as a type of psychotic who believes that their thoughts and actions control the world. The comédiens have a milder case of the same psychosis, where they believe they are in control of their own responses to the world before them. And also the auteurs believe that they are a singularity and that idea compels them to consistently express that unity of self. The comédiens believe that they are oceanic: “I will not be one person. I will be many people …”, so runs Welles’ iconic line from The Dreamers (Welles, unfinished, 1980s).

I stress that this is a critical tool, not some kind of absolute taxonomy. I call them archetypes because all the great directors occupy some masterplace on the continuum and may tend within the same film toward one side or the other, or both at once. The archetype of auteur is also connected in my mind to the “bone” part of the work, while the comédien works in the “marrow”. And no worries, please: this basic distinction between authors and performers is not anything new. It is the old grudge match between Lev Tolstoy and Shakespeare. Tolstoy was the absolute master of “nanny criticism” and the Bard really got under his hood. Let me use George Orwell’s hilarious summary of the Count’s polemic:

Tolstoy’s main contention is that Shakespeare is a trivial, shallow writer, with no coherent philosophy, no thoughts or ideas worth bothering about, no interest in social or religious problems, no grasp of character or probability, and, in so far as he could be said to have a definable attitude at all, with a cynical, immoral, worldly outlook on life. He accuses him of patching his plays together without caring twopence for credibility, of dealing in fantastic fables and impossible situations, of making all his characters talk in an artificial flowery language completely unlike that of real life. He also accuses him of thrusting anything and everything into his plays – soliloquies, scraps of ballads, discussions, vulgar jokes and so forth – without stopping to think whether they had anything to do with the plot, and also of taking for granted the immoral power politics and unjust social distinctions of the times he lived in. Briefly, he accuses himself of being a hasty, slovenly writer, a man of doubtful morals, and, above all, of not being a thinker. (57)

Those who tend toward “performance” risk their intelligibility. They also, as we see from Tolstoy, risk insult. We do not, as a class, trust actors. They unsettle us because they do not respect the heterodoxy of identity. They always go too far. Cassavetes was accused of “improvising, letting his actors yell”. Ray was “on the edge of tears, his mise-en-scene hysterical”. Ophüls was a decorator, a baroque formalist who sacrificed everything to the movements of his camera. Welles was a hopeless and bombastic show-off. Their mutual crime: excess, lack of control.

In the beginning there was no director, there was just a group of actors and then there was the First Actor, who was a primus inter pares figure. The truth was negotiated among them. That worked for fifteen hundred years or so. Then came capital and there had to be a boss: the director. We look to the boss to explain. Is it only affectation, when directors are confronted with the “meaning” of their decisions or patterns, that they claim ignorance or, worse, deny that any such relationship exists? Maybe these questions are meaningless. Perhaps making films is really about solving “technical problems” under constraints of time and space – of “making the day”. Or is it a more intuitive process, duplicating what the actor does, extensively preparing, the better to unleash an improvised performance “in the moment …”.

A camera move, a dynamic arrangement of actors or a shot is an “act”, and I don’t mean this in the pseudo-ethical way Godard or Daney mean it. (58) It’s a performance, and we might better look at it as beautiful and true, or shrill and false. Beautiful images and mise en scène have rigour and logic. To properly judge the director’s performance, we should be able to answer questions like these: a framing “choice” in response to what? A track in response to what? Who is the chief actor of the stylistic move in this particular moment?

This leads us to the third element in mise en scène: the dialectical relation between the metteur (I mean, the director qua stylist) and the audience. Where does the power lie? A supposed control freak and manipulator like Hitchcock is paradoxically the most slavishly attentive to his audience. His mise en scène is in good part determined by the desire (for visual and narrative pleasure) of his audience, which he must constantly inflame and sublimate, resist, and finally submit to. The metteur is engaged in a performance for and of the audience’s desire. This performance is very dangerous. He is our stand-in and, if he misjudges our desires, we will make him pay. Alexander Mackendrick calls this hybrid being that the director impersonates the “Invisible Imaginary Ubiquitous Winged Witness”, and this creature is the hidden spirit of mise en scène, the symbol of the union of our desire with that of the metteur’s. (59)

The director, if she is the “author” of anything, is the “author” of an imaginary film, the final cause of the film object, which is destroyed in her performance of it. This explains the phenomenon of film directors who claim to refuse to look at their work. When the film is done, it is abandoned. They can only see how far from the mark they fell. As well, there are those who compulsively re-edit their films; another edit is yet another reprieve, another performance of the film.

Authors who came to Hollywood didn’t get the performative level of dramatic storytelling, which is still reflected in the traditional way stories are sold essentially as mini-performances – pitches. The primitive human element in the transmission of stories is not lost in the cinema. F. Scott Fitzgerald has a beautiful scene in The Last Tycoon, where the Thalberg figure, Monroe Stahr, is teaching his author-under-contract how to do it. Stahr holds him spellbound with the cheapest melodrama, something about a woman and a pair of black gloves. The author breathlessly asks him what happens next, and Stahr smiles and says: “I don’t know … I was just making pictures.” (60)


In Der Amerikanische Freund (The American Friend, Wim Wenders, 1977), Ray plays the painter Derwatt, a man who has “forged” his own death, so that his paintings may fetch higher prices. Meanwhile, he continues to paint his pictures and lets Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) sell them in Europe. “Don’t be too busy for a dead painter”, Ripley tells him.

Lightning over Water

Lightning over Water (Nicholas Ray and Wim Wenders, 1980) gives us a final “performance” of weakness, a final narratization of the ultimate weakness: death. Wenders utters a line about being concerned that he is attracted to his (Ray’s) weakness, that he’s exploiting it. I hereby wager 1 million recycled deutschmarks that the line is Ray’s. The plot of the film is the story of an actor (Ray) controlling the director (Wenders) through the brilliant use of his weakness. Wenders’ benign sadism, the sadism of all directors who have to get the shot, is his performance. Lightning over Water is a film about the power and attraction of weakness. That’s what the “cut – don’t cut” scene is about, a final confirmation that in Nick Ray’s life and work (the relation is beyond metaphorical) the wound is the bow.

What makes Ray the paradigmatic poet of the cinema is that his films are not reducible to their confused dialectical ideology. By having “nothing” to say, by rigorously stilling or cancelling his own voice, the performer-poet allows the world to speak, and the things it says are stranger and more wondrous than anything an “author” could produce.

So, very much in spite of the false starts I have suggested earlier, I don’t think there is an essential Nicholas Ray. The whole idea is wrong. But I think his idea of the director remains very powerful: the director as “authentic” performer. He strove hard each time to become the right director for each of his films and, because there are no redos, no retakes for him, his films have unusual energy – and unusual flaws. “Don’t fuck with a natural”, he warned his students about dealing with actors, but it reads better now as a kind of personal complaint.

So, it remains a tragedy of sorts that his fluid identities were consumed into Leith-like self-conscious posturing and resistance rather than work – but understandable and human. His first critics put him into a kind of central-casting purgatory. Growing morbidly self-conscious, Ray could no longer put on the mask that fit the film. He had to become “the cinema” – whatever the fuck that was – or “Nicholas Ray”, the institutional poet of nightfall. And he never much liked that faker.

LEITH: I contradict myself, I always contradict myself.


  1. Nicholas Ray, I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, Susan Ray (Ed.) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 28. I Was Interrupted is an irritating, whiny title that misrepresents Ray’s path. I’ll suggest an alternate title: “I Was Re-possessed”.
  2. Ray, p. 28.
  3. Gavin Lambert, Mainly About Lindsay Anderson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), p. 223.
  4. Ray, p. 25.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Jean-Luc Godard, “Beyond the Stars”, in Jim Hillier (Ed.), Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, The New Wave (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 118. He must have read René Hardy’s Amère Victoire. Godard is using the correct military ranks from the novel, but not the movie. The “Keith/Leith” is a typo.
  7. Jean-Pierre Coursodon with Pierre Sauvage, American Directors, Vol. II (New York: McGraw Hill, 1983), p. 306. Though I violently disagree with almost all of Coursodon’s conclusions about Nicholas Ray, I still think his piece contains the best stuff written on Ray yet. Coursodon is a legendary machine; I don’t know how he can write so amusingly and perceptively on so many directors.
  8. Okuman choja (A Billionaire, 1954), Shokei no heya (Punishment Room, 1956), Nobi (Fires on the Plain, 1959), Yukinojo henge (An Actor’s Revenge, 1963), Dokonjo monogatari – zeni no odori (Money Talks, 1963), Tokyo orimpikku (Tokyo Olympiad, 1965) and Wahahai wa neko de aru (I Am a Cat, 1975).
  9. Edmund Wilson, The Wound and The Bow (Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1941), p. 294.
  10. Of course, I, like everyone else, have an elaborate theory about what happened to poor Jean Moulin. But it would take twenty pages of tedious arcana and some diagrams to explain.
  11. For a laugh, check out Lucie Aubrac (Claude Berri, 1997), a musical without songs that takes two icy, bloodthirsty fanatics and likely Comintern agents and gives them the full Claude Lelouch treatment. Even Communists fall in love, eh? One of the Robespierrian stars of the épuration, Monsieur Aubrac, is, not coincidentally, one of the alternate suspects in the betrayal of Jean Moulin.
  12. René Hardy quote accessed at http://beaucoudray.free.fr/hardy.htm.
  13. Rohmer quoted in Bernard Eisenschitz, An American Journey, translated by Tom Milne (London: Faber & Faber, 1993), p. 308.
  14. Nicholas Ray quoted by Jim Jarmusch, accessed at http://vgn.ifilm.com/db/static_text/0,1699,683,00.html.
  15. Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography (New York: Urizen Books, 1977), p. 12.
  16. Though tossed off rather quickly, this is a pretty good joke, actually. The oxymoronic “Post-war Olympics” as a spectacle of peace and harmony among nations combined with the absurd idea that Brand might have an athlete’s pretensions cracks me up. I wonder who came up with it? Ray supposedly had a wicked sense of humour.
  17. Lutz Bacher, Max Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996), p. 257.
  18. Off the top of my head, a non-exhaustive list of Buñuelian moments in Ray:
    1. Vienna’s dress catching fire in Johnny Guitar.
    2. The waterfall in Johnny Guitar.
    3. Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb) shooting Jean Harlow in Party Girl.
    4. The moment when Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse) is brought out in Party Girl, her face wrapped in bandages.
    5. Rico inexplicably throwing acid on his own face in Party Girl.
    6. The radio melting in the burning car in They Live By Night.
    7. The ‘End of the Universe’ sequence in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
    8. The siren howl of Jim Stark (James Dean) mixing with the real off-screen siren, also in Rebel.
    9. The travelling long-shot that comes on a car, a scream, the car pulling away and a man falling stabbed in On Dangerous Ground (1952).
    10. Avery (James Mason) swallowing the barium onscreen while we see it go down on the X-ray in Bigger than Life.
    11. Inuk (Anthony Quinn) putting the hands of First Trooper (Peter O’Toole) in the entrails in The Savage Innocents (1959).
    12. Dixon (Bogart) inspiring Det. Sgt. Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) to strangle his wife in In a Lonely Place.
    13. Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), who is blind, looking at herself in a mirror in On Dangerous Ground.

  19. Though They Live by Night goes to some trouble to Walker Evansise its settings in a kind of Hollywood neorealism, Ray’s 1930s (his personal decade) gets as stylized as Ophüls’ Habsburg Austria in Knock on any Door (1949) and Party Girl.
  20. Coursodon with Sauvage, p. 307.
  21. Op. cit, p. 309.
  22. Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Lola Montès (1955), Komedie om geld (1936), La Signora di tutti (1934), La Ronde (1950), Die Verkaufte Braut (1932), La tendre ennemie (1936), Le Plaisir (1952) and The Exile (1947). Tag Gallagher, “Max Ophüls: A New Art but Who Notices?” accessed at http://sensesofcinema.com/contents/02/22/ophuls.html.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. This is, of course, one of those terrifying pseudo-words that makes one sound clever without ever having to establish its meaning. In this case, at least, I’m using it to mean a story told in a fiction that is also a dramatic action to achieve an objective.
  26. Coursodon with Sauvage, p. 309.
  27. Ray, p. 84.
  28. I can never decide with Ophüls, as with Ray. He is either the most sublimely misogynist male artist in history, or the most feminist. Ray’s misogyny is closer to the surface, more feral, but perhaps also a defensive pose. Gavin Lambert is certain that he was essentially, deeply misogynist. But having been raised in a household of strong pioneer women, he also knows a certain type of woman very well. This is what he says about it: “Ask me about Of Human Bondage [John Cromwell, 1934]. I was Leslie Howard [Philip Carey]. A scroungy waitress was Bette Davis [Mildred Rogers]. The character of Maugham’s fascinated me. The scuttlebutt was that the clubfoot was a literary substitute for his homosexuality. I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a homosexual or not; homosexual was not in my vocabulary. Did I love and revere men more than women? I think I did.” And then also: “Film is a woman that you can’t turn off and on, except film is a woman, except one day she’s gone.” Somebody get this guy to a shrink, please.
  29. Pirandello, “Eleanora Duse”, in Century Magazine, June 1924.
  30. Cassavetes was doing “Willy Loman” versions of Enrico IV over and over again since Husbands, and everybody kept dementedly calling his two metaphorical ideas – madness and ivresse – realism or naturalism. Cassavetes wore himself out protesting too much with all his Holden Caulfield rantings about “phonies”. Despairing of people understanding what he was doing, he fell back to the old play-film thing. So Opening Night (1977) is the key to the films. What did that get him? But then, as a side-effect, he finally discovered the poetry of illusion: Love Streams (1984) is almost on the doorstep of Orson Welles. And then he’s dead. Long live the king of the phonies!!
  31. Eisenschitz, p. 302.
  32. Peter Ustinov in Sight and Sound, Vol. 27, No. 1. Summer 1957, p. 50.
  33. Luigi Pirandello, in Toby Cole (Ed.), Playwrights on Playwriting: From Ibsen to Ionesco (New York: Hill and Wang, 1960), p. 206.
  34. Sophocles, Philoctetes, translated by Gregory McNamee, 1986. Accessed at http://www.bralyn.net/etext/literature/sophocles/phlok10.txt.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Michel Mourlet, “In Defense of Violence”, in Jim Hillier (Ed.), Cahiers du Cinéma, 1960-1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Re-evaluating Hollywood (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), pp 133-4. Mourlet must have really been baffled when the axiomatic Chuck Heston met the weepy Nick Ray on 55 Days at Peking (1963). Maybe this explains Ray’s never finishing another movie. He met the axiom and was found lacking. What lies in store, I wonder, for Michael Moore after Bowling for Columbine (2002)?
  37. Lambert, p. 142.
  38. Ray, pp. 27-8.
  39. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, translated by Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 7.
  40. Eisenschitz, p. 312.
  41. Jean-Luc Godard quoted in Cahiers du Cinéma, 1960-1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Re-evaluating Hollywood, p. 178. Roundtable with Claude Chabrol, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Jean-Luc Godard, Pierre Kast, Luc Moullet, Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut: “Questions about American Cinema: A Discussion” (December 1963-January 1964).
  42. Ray quoted in Lawrence Frascella and Al Weisel, Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p.175.
  43. Ray, p. 30.
  44. This is a complete fiction, but the idea pleases me somehow. It should be true.
  45. François Truffaut quoted in Cahiers du Cinéma, 1960-1968, pp. 176-7. Roundtable with Claude Chabrol, et al.
  46. Fereydoun Hoveyda, “Sunspots”, in Cahiers du Cinéma, 1960-1968, p. 140. Again, I like this essay (and Hoveyda’s other writing) very much, but I’ve highlighted it to show une certaine tendance.
  47. What’s with the “58-page-memo” meme? If Welles had written a 15-page memo, would the Touch of Evil “restoration” have been 75 percent worse? I immediately think of the scene in The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962) where Sen. John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory) looks at the ketchup bottle and decides that there are 57 communists in the state department. As for Welles, I will mention his most famous experiment in radical subjectivity: Touch of Evil. I think it remains oddly unremarked, and it may remain so, that the film is another reworking of Othello, but told in complete sympathy with Iago – i.e., Quinlan (Welles) – with Heston playing the Moor in brownface. Thus transformed by the method of radical subjectivity, it becomes the tragedy of Iago, while still using Shakespeare’s main popcorn device – the planting and revelation of evidence – but making it a spiritual issue. (I note that there is an article, which I have not read, by a Shakespearean scholar, Scott Newstok, which might discuss these ideas in detail. See Touch of Shakespeare: Welles Unmoors Othello in Shakespeare Bulletin.) The same radical subjectivity principle is at work I think in Chimes at Midnight (1965), where Welles reorients the universe around Falstaff.
  48. Eisenschitz, p. 312.
  49. The older he gets, the more Wellesian Godard seems. It’s not just the superficial things, the jokes, the cigars, the persona, but the spirit of the movies themselves. An experiment, watch F for Fake in the morning. Then, in honour of Welles, break for lunch, or in honour of Godard, garden for an hour. Then watch Nôtre Musique (2004).
  50. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “F for Fake Essay”, Criterion Collection DVD. Accessed here: http://www.criterionco.com/asp/release.asp?id=288&eid=412&section=essay&page=6.
  51. And why should we be on different sides? The gospel of specialization? Is Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2004) an example of video-clerk writer’s block or, more charitably, the world’s most expensive essay film on the æsthetics of action pictures? Critics whine about their irrelevance in the digital dark ages, but what are they doing about it? DVD commentary tracks aren’t enough. The medium is the message and Final Cut Express is the Bic pen of the future. The ideal solution that would benefit Cinema on the whole is that critics should follow Godard and make more films – make films as Criticism, even as crude as those little films that the other Tony Scott is so chagrined to make at The New York Times, but integrating text, sound and image, and that filmmakers, following the example of Truffaut, Wenders, Chris Marker and Tarantino, should themselves “write” about cinema that interests them, in the model of John Boorman’s Projections project.
  52. I’m being unduly conservative on the percentage. Even “Lonesome Stan” Brahkage is engaged in a dialectic with his materials, light and the world, Sam Bush his optical printer guy, the psychological properties of colour and the æsthetics of motion. Though he has essentialised and miniaturized the process, he still faces the exact same obstacles that Rob Cohen faces on set – but without “craft services”.
  53. Ray, p. 26.
  54. See roundtable with Claude Chabrol, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Jean-Luc Godard, Pierre Kast, Luc Moullet, Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut: “Questions about American Cinema: A Discussion” (December 1963-January 1964), Cahiers du Cinéma, 1960-1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Re-evaluating Hollywood.
  55. Hoveyda, p. 142.
  56. Ray, p. 83. Ex-child actor and comédien Sidney Lumet agrees: “The camera becomes another leading actor. There are two basic philosophies – and traps – that I think directors fall into: one of well-just-let-me-lay-back-and-just-show-what’s-going-on, just-let-me-record-it, or the converse, the shooting-through-the-crotch, and gimme-that-eyeball-in-the-front school. They are both fallacious because the camera – like everything else in a piece – has to relate to what’s going on dramatically. You have to cast your camera the way you cast an actor.” Lumet quoted in Peter Bogdanovich (Ed.), Who the Devil Made It …? (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), p. 802.
  57. George Orwell, “Tolstoy and Shakespeare”, in My Country Right or Left 1940-1943: Vol. 2 of The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters of George Orwell (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1968), pp. 127-8.
  58. Another infamous example of auteurist fundamentalism is Serge Daney’s “tracking shot in Kapo” riff in his noble autobiographical rant. (http://sensesofcinema.com/contents/04/30/kapo_daney.html) This is the modern summit of autistic Nanny Criticism. Here’s a fun trick! Stare droolingly at something – anything – long enough and it turns into the whole universe. Voila!! If I have it right, the man is bitching about a tracking shot completely decontextualised, both in isolation from the rest of the film, and by the fact that his embroidery on it is based on a Rivette account of the shot in a film that Daney HASN’T ACTUALLY SEEN. He uses this method to agree that the director is morally contemptible, and to illustrate his Tolstoyan “these kids just don’t understand” thesis of the moral essence of film style. Daney: “Pontecorvo neither trembles nor does he feel fear: the concentration camps revolt him purely on an ideological level. This is why he can make his presence felt in the scene with an extra pretty tracking shot.” I have no doubt that if Pontecorvo (who actually fought in the communist resistance instead of deconstructing TV shows and hanging out at the discotheque) had been captured during the war, he would have actually been in the concentration camp, not staging it. And it’s likely that knowing Pontecorvo’s films, Kapo (1959), which, thanks to Serge, I haven’t seen either, uses the death camp as a too facile metaphor for life in a capitalist society. While this may be outrageous and humanistically insipid, it doesn’t strike me as any less so than other communist agitprop. I sentence Pontecorvo to five years in a Claude Lanzmann re-education camp for the crime of trying to represent the Shoah for one’s own purposes. PS: I suddenly realize that in my polemical wrath I am stereotyping Daney as a disco monkey without having met him, but I quickly assure myself that my supreme authority as a critic allows me to drop bunker-busters of sublime moral judgement.
  59. Of course, one can object that this idea of mise en scène only appeals to the hoariest commercial cinema, but this is nonsense. Filmmakers (like ex-Funboy Three member Michael Haneke) who are engaged in the deconstruction or rejection of visual and narrative pleasure (let’s call it alterna-pleasure) are even more controlled by the audience’s desire than Hitchcock ever was. They’ve made that the whole subject. Alexander Mackendrick, On Filmmaking: An Introduction to the Craft of Filmmaking (New York: Faber and Faber, 2004), pp. 197-9.
  60. Francis Scott Fitzgerald, The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western, Matthew Bruccoli (Ed.) (New York: Scribner, New York, 1994), p. 32.

About The Author

Carloss Chamberlin is a Delaware corporation, flying a Liberian flag, with assets in Switzerland and The Cayman Islands.

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