Nicholas Ray

b. Raymond Nicholas Kienzle

b. August 7, 1911, Galesville, Wisconsin, USA.
d. June 16, 1979, New York City, USA.

articles in Senses
web resources

That Nicholas Ray’s professional name was derived from an inversion of his first two surnames sounds fitting for a filmmaking career that proceeded backwards by conventional standards, beginning in relative conformity and ending in rebellious independence. Like Jacques Tati and Samuel Fuller, Ray did a lot of living before he ever got around to filmmaking-pursuing a life largely rooted in the radical dreams and activities of the Depression years, which we mainly know about thanks to Bernard Eisenschitz’s extensive and invaluable biography, one of the best-researched factual accounts we have of any director’s career. In a sense, the celebrations of alternative lifestyles (such as those of rodeo people in The Lusty Men [1952], Gypsies in Hot Blood [1956], and Eskimos in The Savage Innocents [1960]), and passionately symmetrical relationships (such as the evenly balanced romantic couples of In a Lonely Place [1950] and Johnny Guitar [1954] and the evenly matched male antagonists of Wind Across the Everglades [1958] and Bitter Victory [1957]), and a sense of tragedy underlining their loss or betrayal, can largely be traced back to his political and populist roots. A creature of both the ’30s and ’60s, he was ahead of his time during both decades.

After writing and producing radio programs in his teens, Ray was invited by Frank Lloyd Wright to join his newly created and utopian Taliesin Fellowship in 1931-an encounter that lasted only a few months but which yielded a respect for the horizontal line that was central to Ray’s subsequent affinity for CinemaScope. He also developed a feeling for architectural balance in both character construction and mise en scène that was fundamental to the almost mystical symmetries and equivalences between heterosexual couples as well as male antagonists in most of his major features. (Bisexual for much of his life, Ray was arguably a director who invested both kinds of pairings with similar erotic as well as romantic dynamics.)

Settling in New York in 1934, Ray became immersed in the left-wing Theatre of Action-which brought him in touch with Elia Kazan, as well as various federal theater programs. He also became a devotee of southern folk music, which led to close associations with Alan Lomax and such singers as Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Josh White and a weekly radio show for CBS in the early ’40s that developed into wartime work for the Voice of America under John Houseman.

They Live By Night

Houseman would later produce Ray’s first feature They Live By Night (1947) (and the subsequent On Dangerous Ground [1951]) after Ray taught himself filmmaking in 1944 by following the production of Kazan’s first feature, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, from beginning to end, at Kazan’s own invitation. He was thus in his mid-30s by the time he made They Live By Night-a film that would be released over two years later, in 1949, due to the shifting agendas of Howard Hughes, who bought RKO in 1948.

Thanks to Ray’s protracted work for Hughes between 1949 and 1953-doing patch-up and piecemeal work on Roseanna McCoy (Irving Reis, 1949), The Racket (John Cromwell, 1951), Macao (Josef von Sternberg, 1952), and Androcles and the Lion (Chester Erskine, 1952) as well as directing six other RKO features-he was effectively protected from being blacklisted in spite of his political radicalism. This enabled him-while seeking to become an independent producer of his own work and collaborating on a script with Philip Yordan, a celebrated front for blacklisted screenwriters-to make Johnny Guitar, arguably the only film of the period to speak about the blacklist (albeit covertly, within Western conventions). It was also his first color feature over which he had some creative control, and he took advantage of this opportunity to make it one of his most poetic works-and arguably the first of many with a stylized mise en scène that often seems on the verge of breaking into the choreography of a musical. (Though this freedom in playing with genre conventions characterizes most of his work, Johnny Guitar is arguably his only film to exhibit a similar freedom in relation to gender: positing two women as the strongest characters in a group consisting mainly of outlaws and the members of a lynch mob.)

Johnny Guitar

By showing how one could place one’s personal stamp on all the diverse studio house styles of the ’50s-a Trucolor Western at Republic in the case of Johnny Guitar, and also, among other things, a couple of cosmic romantic parables at Warners (Rebel Without a Cause [1955], Wind Across the Everglades), the same glimpses of suburban and small-town Middle American mediocrity that characterized 20th Century-Fox pictures like Good Morning, Miss Dove (Henry Koster, 1955) in Bigger Than Life (1956, which probably used portions of the same studio backlot), the cheaper settings of a Romany melodrama at Columbia (Hot Blood), and the glitzier trappings of a lush ’20s Chicago gangster movie at M-G-M with an even splashier sense of color (Party Girl [1958])-Ray was already fast becoming a role model to the soon-to-be directors of the New Wave who were celebrating his dynamic style, especially Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, and Truffaut. And a special feeling for teenagers (especially apparent in They Live By Night, Knock On Any Door [1949], Johnny Guitar, Run For Cover [1955], Rebel Without a Cause, and We Can’t Go Home Again [1976]) only enhanced his appeal.

In a Lonely Place

Yet the signs of Ray’s personal stamp weren’t merely stylistic but also occult gestures of a particular kind: alluding to the direct references to Ray’s personality, his first Hollywood apartment, and his recently busted-up marriage to Gloria Grahame in In a Lonely Place, American film critic Dave Kehr once noted in a capsule review that “The film’s subject is the attractiveness of instability, and Ray’s self-examination is both narcissistic and sharply critical, in fascinating combination.” (1) (The same sort of deadly romantic mix, which led some French enthusiasts to link him to Rimbaud, was noted more critically by Jean-Marie Straub when he once observed that Ray, in contrast to the relative clarity and lack of sentimentality in a Hawks or a Buñuel, “is always fascinated by violence, and so, at a certain moment, he slips on the side of the police.”) (2) Furthermore, a passionate desire to place his mark on the work can even be felt in Ray appearing in the final shot of Rebel Without a Cause, walking towards the planetarium-not the sort of detail needed by the plot, the theme, or the mise en scène, but something closer to a naked paw print perhaps, a gesture of possessiveness and exhibitionism that paradoxically thrives on an innate sense of privacy.

Indeed, by the time Ray burned most of his bridges in Hollywood while veering in the direction of cosmic international parables (including Bitter Victory and The Savage Innocents, two of his finest and most affecting films), he was arguably beginning to value gestures of a certain defiant and personal nature over practically anything else. This was certainly the sense I had of Ray when I met him a few times in the mid-’70s, in Cannes, Paris, and lower Manhattan, while he was still working on two separate versions of his radical independent feature with hippie and student collaborators, We Can’t Go Home Again (the second and better of which was sadly never completed), when the bravado style of the maverick became his principal calling card. It could be argued that the splintered effects of his most expensive and least expensive features, made a decade apart-55 Days in Peking (1963) and We Can’t Go Home Again-represent two different kinds of shambles, although both certainly have their expressive moments. (If I had to choose between them, I’d probably opt for the second, certainly the more original of the two.) Sterling Hayden’s tag line in Johnny Guitar, “I’m a stranger here myself,” eventually became Ray’s motto and perhaps even his alibi, making it appropriate that a sympathetic feature-length documentary about him in 1974 by David Helpern Jr. and James C. Gutman carried that title. (For a sharp and tender account of his last years by Susan Ray, the last of his many wives, see her essay “The Autobiography of Nicholas Ray” which serves as introduction to the collection of his writing and transcribed classes, I Was Interrupted, which she edited.)

Lightning Over Water

By that time, almost a decade had passed since he collapsed on the set of 55 Days at Peking, his last commercial effort, and subsequently was barred from returning (the remaining direction assigned to Andrew Marton and Guy Green), and the ravages of drugs and alcoholism had limited his capacities for sustained work. This eventually changed shortly before his death when he joined AA and successfully gave up drinking, shortly before he contracted brain cancer—a tragedy that limited his final effort, a collaboration with Wim Wenders that yielded two versions of the same film, Nick’s Movie and Lightning Over Water (both 1980), that were principally an act of witness to his dying, in which his creative participation, due to his physical condition, was only fitful. (The first version, edited by Peter Przygodda, is said to be the more accurate as an account of the shooting—although the second, recently released on DVD in France, contains an unforgettably ferocious monologue delivered by Ray in the hospital to a video camera.)

Yet the strength of his first dozen or so years as a filmmaker remains unshakable: 18 features, most of which could plausibly be called masterpieces of one kind or another. (At the very least, They Live By Night, In a Lonely Place, On Dangerous Ground, The Lusty Men, Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without a Cause, Bigger Than Life, Bitter Victory, Wind Across the Everglades, Party Girl, and The Savage Innocents-and potent stretches in most of the others, including even King of Kings [1961].) Robin Wood once noted that no one ever gives a bad performance in a Ray film, not even Anthony Quinn, and on balance the statement is far less hyperbolic than it sounds. It’s hard to think of another Western with as many vivid and singular characters as Johnny Guitar, or two wooden actors used more creatively and movingly than Robert Taylor and Cyd Charisse in Party Girl. Maybe that’s because even within a vision as fundamentally bleak and futile as Ray’s, a clear view of paradise is never entirely out of mind or even definitively out of reach. This is the utopian promise of the ’30s and the ’60s that his work keeps alive, and it remains a precious legacy.

Nicholas Ray


They Live By Night (1947)

A Woman’s Secret (1949)

Knock on Any Door (1949)

Born to be Bad (1950)

In a Lonely Place (1950)

On Dangerous Ground (1951)

Flying Leathernecks (1951)

The Lusty Men (1952)

Johnny Guitar (1954)

High Green Wall (1954) (short film for TV)

Rebel Without a Cause

Run for Cover (1955)

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Hot Blood (1956)

Bigger Than Life (1956)

The True Story of Jesse James (1957)

Bitter Victory (1957)

Wind Across the Everglades (1958)

Party Girl (1958)

The Savage Innocents (1960)

King of Kings (1961)

55 Days at Peking (1963)

Lightning Over Water

The Janitor (1974) (short film, episode in Wet Dreams)

We Can’t Go Home Again (1976)

Marco (1978) (short film)

Lightning Over Water (1980) (codirected and cowritten with Wim Wenders); earlier version entitled Nick’s Movie (1980)

Film about Ray:

I’m a Stranger Here Myself (1974 doco) Dir: David Helpern Jr.

Select Bibliography

Andrew, Geoff, The Films of Nicholas Ray, London: Charles Letts & Co., 1991.

Eisenschitz, Bernard, Roman Américain: Les Vies de Nicholas Ray, Paris: Christian Bourgois Editeur, 1990.

Eisenschitz, Bernard, Nicholas Ray; An American Journey (English translation of preceding, translated by Tom Milne), London: Faber & Faber, 1993.

Godard, Jean-Luc, Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard, Paris: Pierre Belfond, 1968.

Godard, Jean-Luc, Godard on Godard, edited by Jean Narboni (English translation of preceding, translated and annotated by Tom Milne), London: Secker & Warburg, 1972.

Nicholas Ray: le lyrisme (collection of essays), Etudes Cinématographiques 8-9, 2e trimester, 1961.

Perkins, V.F., “The Cinema of Nicholas Ray,” Movie no. 9, May 1963.

Ray, Nicholas, I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, edited and introduced by Susan Ray, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1993.

Ray, Nicholas, The Savage Innocents (screenplay) in Values in Conflict, edited by Richard A. Maynard, New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1974, pp. 119-160.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan, “Circle of Pain: The Cinema of Nicholas Ray,” in Movies as Politics (collection), Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 1997.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan, “Looking for Nicholas Ray,” American Film, vol. vii, no. 3, December 1981.

Thomson, David, “In a Lonely Place,” Sight and Sound, vol. 48, no. 4, Autumn 1979.

Articles in Senses of Cinema

Finding the Father: A Psychoanalytic Study of Rebel Without a Cause by Chris Wood

Shadows on the Horizon: In a Lonely Place by Fiona A. Villella

Nicholas Ray, a Sentimental Bloke by Rose Capp (on They Live By Night)

Web Resources

Compiled by Michelle Carey

The Films of Nicholas Ray
Basic though informative page exploring various stylistic and narrative elements of On Dangerous Ground, Johnny Guitar, Born to be Bad and In a Lonely Place.

And God Created Nicholas Ray
Appreciative essay by Marino Guido.

Heart of Darkness
George Turner looks at the Burnett Guffey’s cinematography in In a Lonely Place.

The History of Cinema: Nicholas Ray
Great Italian-language overview by Piero Scaruffi.

Ray of Hopelessness
Brief piece by Richard von Busack for the Metroactive site.

I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies
Information on this book published by the University of California Press.

In a Lonely Place
Basic page with production notes, cast details, poster and other information.

In a Lonely Place
Article featured in Film Monthly. Features some fantastic stills.

Slant Magazine: In a Lonely Place
Review by Ed Gonzalez.

In a Lonely Place
Review by Brian W. Fairbanks.

Honey, I Have Neighbors!: Power, Paranoia and Police Surveillance in In a Lonely Place
Essay by Matthew Henry.

Johnny Guitar
Review by Brian W. Fairbanks.

Rebel Without a Cause
Review by Tim Dirks.

Rebel Without a Cause
Review by Ben Stephens.

Editing in Rebel Without a Cause
Basic analysis as part of Yoel Meranda’s website.

Rebel Without a Cause as Autobiographical Validation
A touching personal response by Nate McKeen to this film.

Nick’s Film – Lampi sull’acqua
Italian-language outline of this film codirected by Wim Wenders.

Click here to search for Nicholas Ray DVDs, videos and books at


  1. Chicago Reader, http://onfilm.chireader.com/MovieCaps/I/IN/04456_IN_A_LONELY_PLACE.html
  2. Wedge: An Aesthetic Inquiry (New York), number 1, summer 1982, p. 26.

About The Author

Jonathan Rosenbaum is the film critic for the Chicago Reader, and is the author of numerous books, most recently Movie Wars: How Hollywood And The Media Conspire To Limit What Films We Can See (A Cappella, 2001). His aim is to include all, provoke all, and encourage all to enter into the critical discourse on the state of cinema.

Related Posts