Nicholas Ray


1. That’s Not Red – That’s Blood!

This article reworks sections of a longer article which appeared under the title “Blood and Ice: Images of Nicholas Ray” in the British magazine PIX (2). The original focussed on The Savage Innocents (Nicholas Ray, 1960) and explored, initially implicitly, ultimately explicitly, the tension articulated by Godard when, challenged about the amount of blood in Pierrot Ie fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965) he responded: “That’s not blood, it’s red!” (3). Such use of red is very striking in The Savage Innocents, and previously in Party Girl (Nicholas Ray, 1958) where at one time it was a source of considerable critical controversy (4).

Towards the end of 1969 a couple of my students and I started working with Nick on what was initially a piece of “guerrilla cinema.” Quite early in our friendship I went downtown to meet him at a TV studio, where he was appearing on a chat show. (I seem to remember it was The Maggie Daly Show, and its eponymous hostess was the mother of Brigid Bazlen, Nick’s Salome from King of Kings [1961]) Explaining his commitment to making a film in Chicago, he described how, a day earlier, he’d had to pick his way through the blood and gore of a murdered young black leader, using his Bolex to document the scene of a crime.

Fred Hampton's apartment: traces of a murder

Early on 4 December 1969, fourteen Chicago cops, acting on the orders of State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, had stormed the apartment of the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton, killing both him and another Panther, Mark Clark. It wasn’t just that the Panthers had turned the provisions of the U.S. Constitution, particularly the Right to Bear Arms, against the system, facing down racist cops in several cities. They were also politically literate, with a sense of history and revolutionary change. And their welfare programme (free food and a health clinic) gave them support in the community. Thus they were perceived as such a threat that the U.S. Justice Department developed a program to destroy them. When the cops fled, other Panthers called in sympathetic photographers and filmmakers, prominent amongst them Mike Gray, whose collective, the Film Group, was already working on a direct cinema documentary about the Panthers. Gray invited Nick along. Gray was shooting black and white. Nick, colour.

Fred Hampton's apartment: traces of a murder

Nick gave me a few frames of the film he shot that morning. I still have them. For me, these motionless images have more impact, more life and thus more awareness of death, than the black and white moving images that document the crime scene in The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971) the film that ultimately emerged from the Film Group. It’s a fine radical documentary, but, without colour, much is lost. The frames Nick gave me display an artful composition that survives their softness of focus. In black and white, no longer does the red and white cover of the Lenin volume seem to reinscribe the bloody bed and sheets, the blood and sheets to mock the Lenin (5). Is it the aesthetic use of red in the Hampton footage that generates its impact, or is it the knowledge, from beyond the borders of the image, that the red we see is no dye or paint; it is an image of a murdered man’s blood?

In each medium, the images constitute a politically charged document. Initially the media accepted the cops’ story that the Panthers fired first, but forensic investigation revealed that, of at least eighty bullets recovered, only one could be shown to have been fired from any of the Panther guns.

2. Due Process of Law?

Justice and the law are recurring themes in Nick’s films. As early as They Live By Night (1949) there’s a suggestion that Bowie (Farley Granger) has been unjustly convicted. This sub-theme seems to derive from Nick’s adaptation rather than from Edward Anderson’s original novel Thieves Like Us (6). Inspired by a newspaper story, Bowie seems convinced at the start of the film that, once he can afford a lawyer, his conviction will be quashed. This had happened in the case of the young man in the newspaper story, released on the grounds that in his case there had been “no due process of law.” Bowie’s strategy – escaping from jail, then undertaking an armed robbery to finance his appeal – is clearly pretty unrealistic. Nevertheless the stories and legends surrounding the guitarist Leadbelly reveal some fairly unconventional ways of securing release from a prison farm, and Bowie’s hopes in They Live By Night may represent a distant echo of Leadbelly’s run-ins with the legal system. He’d secured one release, after some years in jail following a highly dubious murder conviction, by singing for the Governor of Texas. Subsequently, following another sentence, he asked the folk-song collector John Lomax to contact the Governor of Louisiana on his behalf. Leadbelly was released shortly after. Though this intervention may not have speeded the release up, it was much publicised, thus becoming a cause of controversy. A couple of years later. Nick and John Lomax’s son Alan became friends, a relationship maintained for the rest of Nick’s life. Both worked (not uncontroversially) with Leadbelly on the radio series Back Where I Come From (1940-1) for CBS (7).

Nick told me he’d planned initially for The Savage Innocents to end, like the novel on which it is based, with a trial scene: “I had written a third act which took place in the courtroom, but I fell in love with the Arctic so much that I just kept going” (8). The written scene seems now to have been lost. Nick, following Bergson (a major influence throughout his career) had conceived it in dialectical terms, with comedy emerging out of tragedy, tragedy out of comedy: “I showed it to Tony Quinn, who, on his first sight reading, was enthusiastic, thought it was wonderful. But the next day he came back (we were still in California) and said: ‘I’m sorry. If we do that, if that scene is in the film, I can’t make the film!’ I said ‘Why?’ He said: ‘I let my kid read it, and his image of me would change completely!’ What the fuck! What the fuck kind of reasoning is that for an artist?” (9).

Chicago June 1970, Federal Plaza: a demonstration in support of Panther leader Bobby Seale; Nick reloads his Bolex (middleground, right of white banner)

It had been the law that had brought Nick back to Chicago, and led to our meeting. He’d come to America to do a courtroom drama, and, researching up-to-date courtroom procedure, came out to observe the Chicago Conspiracy trial of 1969-70. Seven radical leaders were accused of a conspiracy to disrupt Mayor Richard J. Daley’s pride and joy, the Democratic National Convention of August 1968. By the time Nick arrived, the trial of the eighth defendant, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, had been severed from that of the others.

Nick was hooked immediately. This was the story that mattered: the system was indicting the leaders of all the main factions of the counter-culture. The defendants were happy to collaborate with Nick, hoping to put across to the public their point of view, presentation of which was often banned from the courtroom. Rick Angres, who’d many times been exposed to my eulogies of Nick’s work, told me he was in town, looking for money to finance the film, and crews to document what was happening around the trial… meetings, demos, be-ins.

Later, Nick explained his vision of the movie to me, and how he planned to use this material. Eventually I was to find myself writing proposals to possible investors describing it. Nick planned to re-enact key moments from the trial, hopefully with the defendants playing themselves. Though these would be based on extracts from the transcript, he’d also regularly employ the improvisational techniques he’d used in all his movies, in the theatre, and in his pioneering experiments at the St Elizabeth Hospital in Washington with Dr Les Farber (brother of Manny) in the practice of therapeutic psychodrama. Moreover, the trial would provide a visual and dramatic frame (shot in 35 mm) for images of the war in Vietnam, of anti-war demonstrations, for testimony banned from the court-room by the judge’s rulings, and even for the fantasies of the protagonists. These could be in 16 mm, or even 8 mm, and could be played onto the surfaces of the decor – the walls of the courtroom, the judge’s bench – in what would be the truly organic use of multiple-image split-screen effects that Nick had been dreaming of for years, each segment of the multiple-image commenting on the others. It would have been truly Brechtian cinema, locating the dramatic conflict and impersonal rituals of the judicial system historically, politically and psychologically (10).

For example, the jurors in the Conspiracy trial were sequestered, so that developments relevant to the trial were filtered out of the news they were exposed to. Thus, to ensure they were made aware of the murder of Hampton, who had participated uncontroversially in the proceedings early in the trial, the defence proposed an adjournment as an act of respect and mourning. In Nick’s conception of the film he was setting out to make, the footage from Hampton’s apartment could be played into the image at this point in the dramatic re-enactment of the trial, as might images reminding viewers of the moment of the sequestration of the jury, moments from a re-enactment of Hampton’s appearance, and perhaps images from the “reconstruction” of the “shoot-out” staged by Hanrahan’s cops with a local TV network.

Later on, when we’d shipped out to New York, Nick talked about a multi-media road show going round the campus circuit. This would use drawings, water colours, stock footage, scenes extracted from the transcript of the Trial. There would be dramatic re-enactments improvised under Nick’s direction by actors drawn from the audience itself. It wouldn’t have been a masterpiece of experimental cinema, but Nick had the talent to pull off an extraordinary piece of agitational theatre, in tune with the spirit of the times, and with his theatrical practice in the thirties. Unfortunately, a key component of this new scheme was that I should be its administrator. I felt then, and see even more clearly now, that I was not the right person to be the logistical mastermind of a successful guerrilla campaign.

3. I Remember, I Remember…

Rick Angres set up a meeting, and I went downtown that evening with two undergraduates who had become friends: David Turecamo and John Lower. Though Nick already wanted Mike Gray to supervise the shooting of the film, we were the first crew recruited to the project. God, I wish I could remember Nick’s closing line at this meeting: it was a show-stopper. After he got out of the car, we looked at each other, and one of us, probably David, said: “Wow!” Maybe his words were as mundane as “Let’s get out there and shoot some film…” but they sure sounded inspirational.

I do remember wandering around downtown Chicago looking for somewhere to cash a $100 check, made out to Nick, signed by his friend Gadge, Elia Kazan.

Also a Saturday morning at the Museum of Science and Industry, and Nick before his eye-patch, a Pied Piper with grey-white hair flowing behind him, leading a group of school-kids in their early teens from exhibit to exhibit, exciting their imaginations and their intellects.

Photos by David Turecamo. December 1969, relaxing after the Museum of Science and Industry.

I remember a day attending the Trial a few days later. By that time, as a result of the bad publicity resulting from the treatment of Bobby Seale, all the federal marshals on duty in the court building were black. Rumour had it they’d been flown in from all round the country, as there were so few black marshals in any one area. I listened to our own Anne Kerr, Labour M.P. for Rochester and Chatham, as she struck her blow for freedom, giving evidence about unprovoked police violence at the Convention, from which she’d suffered. Was I the only one to find her attitude to the court annoyingly smug? I could understand and support the behaviour of the defendants and their lawyers: their beliefs and liberty were at stake. But Mrs Kerr’s came across as patronising rather than defiant, the behaviour of one who knew she was immune from any comeback.

I remember lunch with the defendants at the Berghof, and Abbie Hoffman rejecting Nick’s defence of Kazan for naming names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, despite Nick’s argument they were only dead names (people who had already been named). For Abbie there were no two ways about it: it was wrong to co-operate with HUAC. He and his fellow Yippies had mocked the committee when called before it.

Then a demo on a snowy Christmas Eve, where, as far as I could tell, there seemed to be more police cars, lined up on a side street, than demonstrators. But I’m not sure about the numbers, because by now we’d been joined by a hot-shit documentary crew straight from Woodstock. They’d been brought in to get the production moving by Nick’s new sources of finance, Michael Butler of Hair, Hugh Hefner of Playboy, and the Grove Press. The idea that these three apparent pillars of the counterculture should be thus involved appealed to Nick. The new crew refused to stop the car so we could grab the image, one I know Nick would have loved: “Oh no! Nick told us to meet him at the Conspiracy Office!” After we’d hung around there for hours. Nick turned up wondering where we’d been, and how we’d missed the demo. As darkness fell, and the snow-storm had become like something out of The Savage Innocents, the hot-shit documentarists left me without wheels and set out west to the Butler Estate, me with an Eclair, a Nagra and three Bell & Howell 70Ds to get back north, out of the city and up to Evanston. Filming was still dependent on the equipment I was able to check out of the film department at Northwestern, where I worked. Most taxis didn’t want a long trip out of the city in this weather, and I was only able to find one around about the time I was scheduled to leave Evanston for a traditional Lithuanian Christmas Eve at my in-laws. Fortunately it suited my taxi driver to run me back to Chicago, 4900N, after waiting outside my apartment building whilst I dropped the equipment off, showered and changed. At some stage, I realised I’d forgotten a Bell & Howell, which I’d set down in an underground car park downtown, but I managed to locate it and pick it up after Christmas.

I also remember our first, only, trip out to the Butler Estate. Almost as soon as I walked into the “cottage” in which Nick was staying I saw a photo of a young man in polo togs (Michael Butler, I was told) shaking hands with our own beloved Mrs Mountbatten-Windsor, with Phil the Greek hovering in the background like the proverbial spare unmentionable at the nuptials! From that moment it was clear to me that this lot would not be financing the kind of film Nick was planning, but I kept my thoughts to myself. A couple of weeks later, Michael Butler pulled out (Butler Aviation’s contracts with the federal government had come under threat) and, as a result, the film’s financial set-up collapsed.

Bernard Eisenschitz tells a rather different story in his account of this film that never found a producer. Though his is a sympathetic chronicle of Nick’s life, this section is dominated by the testimony of the Michael Butlerites, who focus on the role Nick’s addictions, his ambition to stretch his resources beyond breaking point, his desire for artistic control, had in the collapse of the production set-up they were constructing. Obviously these things mattered. Mike Gray’s sense of a director who had not emancipated his thinking from reliance on a Hollywood infrastructure, and who often acted as if this were in place, is sound (11). I sometimes felt this myself, aware as I was that all we’d started with were meagre underground resources, and that at no stage had we been able to do without equipment I was able to borrow when it was not being used by Northwestern students for course projects and exercises.

Nevertheless, as I write images come to mind of the Museum of Science and Industry, or of an improvisation Nick did with my students out on the lake-fill at Northwestern. Speed-induced or not, Nick’s energy, focus and ability to draw from people behaviour they did not know was in them were sometimes extraordinary. Susan Ray, commenting on the extent to which Nick was fully aware of what was going on during the shooting of Lightning Over Water/Nick’s Film (Nicholas Ray & Wim Wenders, 1980) says: “it was not clear to me how much he understood what was going down, how much he was controlling. I would say that he probably understood a lot more than Wim gave him credit for, and was controlling a lot more than Wim thought. I’m talking about a level of consciousness that very few get to: to be able to control without being seen, with nobody knowing that you’re doing it. I suspect that’s where he was at, because he covered a lot of ground during the last four years of his life” (12).

Nick with James Dean, directing without being seen as directing.

4. Behind the Theatre (13)

I know Nick’s ability to control without appearing to wasn’t something that came to him only at the end of his life. It was something we talked about. Nick told me how he had manoeuvred Dean into discovering for himself a particular aspect of the decor of the police station near the opening of Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Nick had noticed this already, and envisaged how it could relate to the playing of the scene. Dean’s discovery led him to suggest himself that he should play the scene in exactly the way Nick had envisaged (14).

It’s also one of the qualities I noticed in the improvisation with my students: they were all involved, even those filming the action, and did not notice what was going on, and how their behaviour was being constructed. I stood back from the action, and, apart from Nick, was the only one who had an overview. The lake-fill was a fairly recent addition to the Northwestern campus, reclaimed from Lake Michigan for new buildings, but not yet a construction site. Nick told the students to pick a partner with whom they could put down roots. All communication should be in a language that was not the first language of the person speaking: it could be a foreign language, a made-up language, or a sign language. One young aesthete, an ascetic but likeable graduate student, behaved in ways no-one had ever dreamt he was capable of: first he demonstrated a propensity for active heterosexual courtship (active, not aggressive, the beautiful young junior whom he’d selected as a partner was equally committed) then for violence when his improvised “love-nest” was threatened by an intruder. The student cast in the latter role had stayed alone at the start of the improvisation, and been aiming desultory kicks at the puddles. Nick’s control only became explicit when he stopped the improvisation before it got out of hand. Our young aesthete emerged suddenly from its world as if puzzled and confused by behaviour he could hardly credit. He offered excuses about protecting his partner, fearing “she might get hurt,” haltingly, as if he was not convincing himself, let alone the rest of us. This was exactly the behaviour I’ve observed from people who, having done something inexplicable as a result of a post-hypnotic suggestion, try to explain what motivated their actions. Analysing what happened, Nick laughed as he said he’d disrupted the “love-nest” when it looked as if the young man was about to go a bit further than just “put down roots”! He also said he’d spotted in the behaviour of the solitary student a frustration akin to the violence of the gang in Rebel Without a Cause.

Controlling without being seen to control. Photos by Chris Reguis. Nick may be overacting the part of the interested listener, but when you cut me out you have a picture recognised by cineastes throughout the world: the anguished romantic reflecting on his journey, holding us with his glittering eye. Controlling without being seen to control. Photos by Chris Reguis. Nick may be overacting the part of the interested listener, but when you cut me out you have a picture recognised by cineastes throughout the world: the anguished romantic reflecting on his journey, holding us with his glittering eye.

Photo by Charles Levi. I structured the image to speak about Nick, rather than giving him space to reveal himself. He's by a moviola, reading Zap Comix, eye-patch and magnifying-glass to the fore, and one of his beloved Disques Bleus in his mouth. He felt that the beat of the moviola engine was an important determinant in the cutting rhythm of Hollywood films, whilst, when he first went to Hollywood, he used to hang out with film editors discussing the visuals of forties comic strips.

I know that at least once I experienced Nick’s control without realising what he was doing, and how much revelation he was generating. I needed some stills of myself to use with a publisher’s bio. Chris Reguis, wife of Ronnie Rothman, the editor who was working with us in New York, came round to take them for me. Nick happened to be around, and turned the photo session into a kind of improvisation. I thought I was projecting a very cool image, nursing Nick’s Bolex. It was only years later I came to realise the extent to which the pompous aura of the young man pontificating in these images had been generated by Nick’s intervention in and structuring of the situation. When, the following year in Binghamton, I staged a picture of Nick, every detail of my control over the image was explicit. What you see is what I put there, cutting off the space for the generation of something extra, the revelation of something unpredictable.

All this leads me to wonder how much the character of Wim Wenders in Lightning Over Water, which many of Nick’s friends have found so unsympathetic (15), is one of Nick’s last creations. Just what would Nick have created out of the Conspiracy defendants? Early in our relationship he told me how an improvisation had revealed Tom Hayden’s ambition and interest in power. Ellen Ray, the producer who had brought Nick back to the States (they were not related), remembered a revealing moment: “Tom Hayden got up on a ladder and played Judge Hoffman.” According to Abbie Hoffman, mindful of Hayden’s subsequent evolution into a California politician with a radical (trophy?) wife (Jane Fonda) this moment “turned out to be very true… Life imitated art” (16).

Peter Wollen recently puzzled over the fact that it was Nick’s work that “had the biggest impact on Godard… I always saw Hitchcock as much more of an experimental film-maker than Ray” (17). Clearly there is an affinity on an emotional level. Some of the most powerful moments in the work of both articulate a despair in which love, wooing or reconciliation reveal a painful inability to give words to feelings. Thus relationships in Le petit soldat (Jean-Luc Godard, 1961) and Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965) echo those in Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954) and Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray, 1956). Less subjectively, Godard’s thinking and practice have their roots in Bazin’s photographic realism – location shooting and improvisation. He was fascinated by those revealing but apparently unconscious moments of behaviour whose documentation is made possible by the indexical dimension of the cinematic sign, which derives from photography: “Photography is truth, and the cinema is truth 24 times a second” (18). Godard’s art in the sixties developed alongside the work of Jean Rouch, and the development of the light-weight equipment which made cinema verité possible. Wollen seems as dismissive of the indexical dimension of the cinematographic sign as Bazin was obsessed by it to the exclusion of all else. There is, further, a Pirandellian potential effectively built into the work of those fiction filmmakers who privilege the indexical dimension of the cinematographic image, or those (like Renoir, the master for Bazin, or Nick Ray) whose work with actors generates a performance incorporating the signs and symptoms of the actor’s psychological being rather than an impersonation, the imitation of an action (19). Godard repeatedly explores whether the documentary (indexical) dimension of cinema gives it a special status amongst the discourses of fiction (20). His is a cinema which hesitates between fiction and documentary, and explores their interaction. Hitchcock’s works its magic from a different creative space (21).

5. To Finish the Film

After the three pillars of the counter-culture pulled out, we went on filming. I managed to find a new investor, Tom Russell, which made things easier for a time.

Somewhere along the line there was a trip to O’Hare Airport in John’s jalopy, John driving, me nervously incompetent as ever on the Nagra (if I ever write an autobiography, I’ll call it Memoirs of the World’s Worst Sound Recordist), David filming with the Eclair, and Nick ostensibly interviewing Timothy Leary, who’d come in to give evidence at the Trial, but doing most of the talking himself!

Controlling without being seen to control. Photo by Chris Reguis. One of the few camera instructions he gave us was to look out for hand gestures.

And one evening going with a third student, Marti Schuman, a brilliant editor according to David Turecamo, to shoot a rally in a church. Fortunately there were no speeches, little sound for me to record, apart from some presence, so I picked out the revealing compositions for Marti, who ran the camera. Nick had instructed us to look for the revealing gesture, probably a hand gesture, but I think, on the whole, we kept our distance, worked more in tableaux. After a discussion of the morality of doing so, we briefly and with some embarrassment followed a naked kid freaking out on LSD as he pranced around the church from group to group, a pioneer streaker. Other camera teams, more experienced and professional, encouraged us to stop, leave the kid to enjoy his trip in peace, and not document an action the kid might find himself regretting in the morning. We stopped.

Subsequently, Marti told me she’d asked Nick what he would have done. He said he would have gone on filming. I guess this now reads for me as a sign of what drew him to Wim Wenders and made Lightning Over Water/Nick’s Film possible. It’s a film I’ve never seen. The last time I saw Nick was a week after his sixty-seventh birthday, when he was teaching his second summer workshop at NYU. I could hardly believe how old and ill he looked. How gaunt and frail. But because he was there, I could handle it. Seeing him that ill on screen, more ill and closer to dying, present yet absent, is something I’ve never tried to handle. There’s something merciless about the relentless succession of images which constitutes a motion picture, particularly when they are clearly and explicitly showing death at work. I still want to remember Nick as he was in the Museum of Science and Industry. Or on the Northwestern lakefill with my students (22).

Nick had been touched when I told him that Doc Films (23) at the University of Chicago had just run a season of his films, but we’d met up too late for him to attend or introduce any of the screenings. When, next quarter, he heard Fritz Lang was coming, he asked me to find out if Doc Films would like him to make the introduction. When I’d fixed this up, he asked me to write his speech. I’m afraid I produced a pretty turgid, academic text, which I apologetically handed to him. He read it, said it was fine, just what he needed. When he introduced Lang, he spoke briefly, was uncharacteristically fluent and relaxed (24), discarded all my words, but seized on the key point of my text, the similarity of the situation of the “star-crossed lovers” in You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, 1937) and those in They Live By Night. Apparently, at the dinner afterwards the Doc Film people tried to get the two directors to talk about Gloria Grahame, Nick’s second wife, who, by then, had been his daughter-in-law for some years (25). They, however, exchanged reminiscences of Harry Cohn, whom they remembered with a respect that belied his reputation as one of the most detested men in Hollywood. This was the first time I remember meeting Susan Schwartz, and the last time I saw Nick with Marti (26).

After the trial was over, the defendants (and their lawyers) spent a few days in jail, then were released, pending the hearing of their appeals. They split from Chicago, and shortly after Nick dropped out of sight.

It was cameraman Gordon Quinn, one of the founders of Kartemquin Films, another pioneering group of Chicago documentarists, who told me Nick was back in town. We were at a reception in a hotel downtown for two French filmmakers (director René Allio and actress Françoise Brion) who were visiting Northwestern with a season of French films. Françoise and I went up to Nick’s room to see him. Some years earlier, when he was based in Paris, he’d auditioned her for a part in a film he was setting up. Could it have been Bitter Victory? Because she was clearly interested in films, Nick told her about Cahiers du cinéma. She went on to marry the editor, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and act with him in Robbe-Grillet’s L’Immortelle (1962).

I asked Nick what his plans were; “Finish the film,” he replied. Immediately, I was back on board. David had organised a season of Nick’s films at the Northwestern Film Society, and he again came back to Chicago, stayed with us in Evanston, and introduced a screening of Party Girl. Though we had only 16mm projection equipment, films had become so popular on campus that, at the start of the year, Film Soc. had been able to buy anamorphic lenses for our projectors, and a ‘Scope screen that could be set up when needed.

The next day Nick did his improvisation workshop with my students. I guess it was during this visit I pressured him to put in a call to Gavin Lambert. Nick had given me several scripts to read, and I’d loved Mister, Mister (27). He said the script needed work. Maybe Nick was inviting me to offer to take the job on, but I couldn’t see what needed to be done. Maybe if I’d spotted something, talked about it, then rewritten, it would have changed my life! And Nick’s filmography. Nick had told me about working with Gavin Lambert in the past, he was reasonably well established in Hollywood, and was likely to do a good job, but exactly why I thought he might be willing to act as script-doctor I can’t remember. Eventually Nick put in the call. There was a halting, desultory conversation, and he never mentioned the script. I guess he was embarrassed he couldn’t offer to pay, and reckoned he still owed Gavin Lambert for a similar favour in the past. I thought I’d instigated a business call involving two friends, not that I was eavesdropping on a conversation between former lovers.

The academic year largely petered out after the killings at Kent State. We had a student strike and an occupation, which many faculty supported, though some claimed they were too scared to go on campus! Then the students voted to return, but this was to classes whose contents had been radically revised to incorporate their concerns about the war, racism, and so on. My classes talked about Costa-Gavras’ Z (1968) which was running downtown, though I suspect that my initial prejudice, that they had as much, or more, to learn from Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat (1953) was accurate. A uniform grade for all students in all courses taken in the term was agreed upon, replacing the traditional ranking system, which ran from A (4 points) through D (1 point) to F. The students wanted this grade to be signified by the letter Z, but dropped the demand when the administration argued this was not possible as Z had already been assigned a meaning in the computer programme! Shape of things to come!

They Live By Night: Bowie (Farley Granger) and Keechie (Cathy O'Donnell). Connie said this was the story of her and Nick.

When the quarter had staggered to its end I went to New York, and joined Nick, who had established his base at the house on Sullivan Street of Connie Bessie, one of his loves from the ’40s (28).

From our time in New York, I remember an evening in the Village at Bob Dylan’s (across the yard from Connie’s house), with Nick trying to interest him in supporting the project. We may even have taken a projector and shown some film.

And a Saturday with a team from New Line, then a new distribution company, now an independent production company, and a player in Hollywood. They’d just had a bonanza distributing Sympathy for the Devil (Jean-Luc Godard, 1968): $500,000 from campuses alone, mainly for 16mm screenings. This was a lot of money back then, enough to persuade them to buy and distribute Godard’s own cut, One Plus One, and to make plans to go into production. One of Bob Shay’s sidekicks (a lawyer? an accountant?) seemed more interested in making aggressive and unsolicited passes at Nick’s teenage girl-friend, Susan, than in discussing the potential of the project (29).

I also remember an evening with Susan’s parents, who had come into New York for the weekend. How dumb I am sometimes! We were in an excellent restaurant, halfway through dinner, before I realised that Nick, in control again, but fearing he might appear too old to play the role himself (he was older than Susan’s father) had cast me as Susan’s boy-friend, the reason why she wasn’t planning to go home that summer! I’d been given no preparation, no rehearsal, no lines, and, having no knowledge of the part I was playing, was pretty wooden and unconvincing in the role. Subsequently, when Nick did meet up with Susan’s parents, he always called her father “Sir” (30).

Then we were thrown out of the cutting room. It was on the top floor of the building, self-contained but connected to the apartment of its owner, a man called Jerry Siegel. One evening, as he came in from walking his dog, the lift arrived at ground level and a man stepped out carrying Jerry’s inter-lock projector with one hand, and another choice piece of equipment with the other. Someone had failed to padlock the top-floor lift door, and the thief had snuck in without us hearing. Fortunately, when challenged he put the equipment down and disappeared, and there was no violence (31). But Jerry went ballistic. We took our time tidying up the cutting-room, in the forlorn hope Jerry might relent. I still have an image of Ronnie sweeping up in slow motion. I didn’t know anyone could move so slowly!

I’m not sure when Nick gave up all hope of making the film. After Labor Day Connie returned home with her daughter, whose bedroom my wife Gaila and I had been using. Nick found us somewhere to camp out for a few days, and after I had completed my interview we split for Chicago. We circled O’Hare in a wild thunderstorm, then arrived home to find our apartment had been burgled. A record-player had gone, my aged (possibly antique) typewriter, and a welcome-home present Gaila’s parents had left for us the previous evening, when we’d been expected home.

We spent the following Christmas in England, my first trip home for over four years, and Gaila’s first meeting with my mother. Nick contacted Marie Meerson at the Cinémathèque, and we took a quick trip to Paris for a couple of screenings she set up for us at short notice: In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950), I think, and a pretty complete print of Bitter Victory. Previously, I’d only seen the British release version of the latter, which had suffered from censorship cuts, and which the distributors, in their wisdom, had decided should be put out without its beautiful final sequence. We crashed in the apartment of a future Oscar-winner Nick had introduced me to, Richard Dembo.

In the spring. Nick passed through Evanston, on the way to or from Taos, Dennis Hopper, and The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper, 1971). Then there was the call from Binghamton, Larry Gottheim probably, asking how to contact him. I suggested calling Connie. Then I got a job back in London. I re-recorded and slightly edited our interview, cutting out Nick’s hostile references to George Stevens Jr. Nick thought the American Film Institute might be of help to him at Binghamton. I went out there before we left for London, to ask a few follow-up questions, and watched him shoot a sequence with the students for what became We Can’t Go Home Again (screened at Cannes in 1973, but not in a definitive version).

A last thing I remember: somewhere, sometime, in Chicago, or New York, or Binghamton, it doesn’t really matter, Nick asked what I thought was next on the human agenda. Looking around me, blinded by the apparent idealism of the kids and the Movement, though aware that, by changing the draft law, Nixon was likely to kill student and middle-class protest by kindness, I responded: “Change. Progress.” “I reckon the next thing’s a religious revival,” Nick replied. I just didn’t see it!

Nick’s Unrealised Projects (mentioned in this essay):

Mister, Mister (script only).
Breathing Together (1969-70).
Too Late the Phalarope (Nick was given an existing script; he did not seem particularly interested, but did at least one screen test).
New York After Midnight (sketches, notes, drafts and footage shot to document the locations).


  1. Breathing Together was Nick’s working title for this film about the Conspiracy he was never able to make.
  2. No. 3, Spring 2001.
  3. Jean-Louis Comolli, Michel Delahaye, Jean-André Fieschi and Gérard Guégan, “Let’s Talk About Pierrot: A New Interview with Jean-Luc Godard,” Cahiers du cinéma no.171, October 1965.
  4. See Sight & Sound v. 29, no. 4, Autumn 1960, “The Critical Question” by Penelope Houston and “The French Line” by Richard Roud. (The key blood-in-the-water post-suicide sequence, focus of the controversy, is missing from several prints of Party Girl distributed in the U.K., including that transmitted by the B.B.C. in 1999.)
  5. I can’t contribute to the argument about whether The Murder of Fred Hampton uses any of Nick’s material, as it’s more than two decades since I saw it. Clearly, different cameras documenting the same event, to provide evidence for the media and the law courts, are likely to focus on the same material.
  6. Robert Altman’s 1974 film of that name followed the novel much more closely. But so did the version of his script that Nick showed me. This dated from before Charles Schnee was assigned to the project. Schnee was a writer about whose work Nick said very little but implied a great deal, none of it good!
  7. For a clear and well researched account of the story, see Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell: The Life and Legend of Leadbelly, Secker & Warburg, London, 1993. There is also an episode of March of Time in London, in the National Film Archive, on this subject. (March of Time, Year 1, No.2 [1935]; released in the UK in 1936 as Year 2, No. 2.) This, plus the story in the New York Herald Tribune (January 3 1935) on which it is based, did much to propagate the legend of Leadbelly.
  8. During an extended interview recorded in New York during the summer of 1970, hereinafter referred to as Interview. This was taped mainly in Connie Bessie’s house in Greenwich Village; sometimes in Alan Lomax’s apartment uptown; sometimes above the Palace Theater, Times Square, in the office of producer Michael Myerberg. The latter was trying to interest Nick in directing an adaptation of Alan Paton’s novel Too Late the Phalarope. (Yes, Bernard, there was a script; I read it; all I can remember is that I resented the globalising aspirations of Hollywood dialogue, in which a character spoken of as being the finest scrum-half since Danie Craven was on the verge of becoming “an All South African” rather than a “Springbok.”) Interviewing took place in between assembling and editing newsreel footage of the demonstrations in Chicago protesting the war in Vietnam and at the Convention, attempts to raise funds for the production, and researching the atmosphere of the Times Square area. This led to the first of the fragments and outlines that constitute New York after Midnight. A couple of years later, the area was used for location shooting in Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971) (cp. p. 424 of Bernard Eisenschitz’s Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, Faber & Faber, London, 1993 [Tom Milne’s translation of Roman Americain: les vies de Nicholas Ray, Christian Bourgois, Paris, 1990]).
  9. Despite this untypical outburst, Nick enjoyed working with Anthony Quinn, whom he rated a good, helpful guy (Interview).
  10. Nick’s thinking about how, precisely, the multiple images would have been married depended on his reading of the financial prospects of the production. With plenty of money, an optical printer could be employed; otherwise, exposed film of the trial reconstruction could be rewound in the camera, and then re-exposed after appropriate masks had been fixed, and the footage of the other images projected to occupy their space in the frame. He suspected video would develop into a medium which would make more easy the work he dreamed of. How he would have revelled in the possibilities it now offers!
  11. See “Chicago,” Chapter 36 of Eisenschitz, 1993.
  12. Eisenschitz, 1993, pp. 481-2.
  13. “Behind the theatre, there is real life, and behind real life, the theatre,’ Jean-Luc Godard, in an interview in Cahiers du cinéma no. 138, during which he talks about fiction, documentary, Renoir’s The Golden Coach (Jean Renoir, 1953), and Pirandello.
  14. Interview.
  15. See Gavin Lambert, Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, Faber & Faber, London, 2000, pp. 262-3.
  16. See Eisenschitz, 1993, p. 413, where he quotes both Ellen Ray and Abbie Hoffman.
  17. “An Alphabet of Cinema,” New Left Review, no. 12 (second series), Nov/Dec 2001.
  18. Le petit soldat. It is an idea which has deep roots in the French tradition. As early as 1921, for example, Jean Epstein wrote: “Cinema is true” (Bonjour Cinema, Editions de la sirène, Paris). The complexity of Godard’s art even this early in his career is reflected by the fact that the words are spoken during a sequence much of whose impact derives from its editing, by a character who is a still photographer.
  19. Wollen himself has included the symptom as a dimension of Peirce’s notion of the indexical sign. See Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, Secker & Warburg, London, 1971.

    The website of the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute offers a compelling example of the power of the symptom when incorporated into an actor’s performance:

    Genuine and feigned emotion. The most famous instance of supposed acting in ancient Greece was that of the actor Polus performing in the Electra of Sophocles, at Athens. The plot requires Electra to carry an urn supposed to contain the ashes of Orestes and lament and bewail the fate she believed had overtaken him. Accordingly, Polus, clad in the mourning garb of Electra took from the tomb the ashes and urn of his own son (who had recently died), embraced them as if they were those of Orestes, and rendered not the appearance or imitation of sorrow but genuine grief and unfeigned lamentation. Rather than mere acting, this was in fact real grief being expressed.

    Pirandello himself, despite the apparent prejudice in the Anglo-Saxon world that his drama is highly, artificially, theatrical, reveals a clear understanding of this indexical dimension to the actor’s performance:

    All that the author has expressed must become an organic part of the actor, and produce in the actor’s being a new life sufficiently forceful to make the character a real person on the stage. 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.

    See Luigi Pirandello, “Eleanora Duse,” Century Magazine, June 1924.

  20. Remember, for example, this exchange in Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967):

    Corinne (Mireille Dare) to Emily Brontë (Blandine Jeanson): “We’re not in a novel, we’re in life. A film is life.”

    Then, after her husband Roland (Jean Yanne) has set Emily Brontë on fire: “We don’t have the right to burn someone. Not even a philosopher.”

    He replies: “Can’t you see they’re only imaginary characters?”

    She: “Then why is she crying?”

    “No idea.”

    “And us? We’re not much more ourselves!”

  21. Nick once delivered a tirade against Hitchcock’s art (Interview). He saw it as without life, any space to breathe. He was impassioned, but never in my presence did he indulge in the screaming and yelling described by Stuart Byron, a Michael Butlerite cited in Eisenschitz, 1993.
  22. Gavin Lambert conjures up comparable images of Nick that bring tears to my eyes. He also seems to share John Houseman’s response to Wenders’ film, which he quotes: “Repulsive.” (Lambert, 2000.) But reworking this material, and reading Kazan whilst doing so, has made me wonder whether I don’t owe it to the memory of my friend now, at last, to see the film. Kazan records his change of mind on doing so: “I’d first thought what Wenders was doing was one step this side of grave-robbing… when I finally saw the film, I thought the decision to continue was justified. I admired him. With all its brandishing of Nick’s physical deterioration, the film came over to me as a tribute to a friend, and beyond that, to a human being’s dogged determination to die as himself.” Elia Kazan, A Life, André Deutsch, London, 1988, p. 792.I remembered Marti and myself in Chicago when watching Wenders’ documentary on Ozu, one of my favourite directors. As Yuharu Atsuta, Ozu’s cameraman, tells Wenders that Ozu was “a good man,” he melts into tears, and repeatedly begs Wenders to turn the camera off. Eventually, Wenders complies. It’s a very moving moment, despite the fact that one’s loyalty is split between Wenders and Atsuta.
  23. Doc Films: the Documentary Film Group, the University of Chicago’s film society. Back when it was founded, the notion of documentary was associated with that of filmic art; by the late sixties, we had, thanks to Cahiers, Movie, Sarris in The Village Voice, come to look for art in Hollywood, and the society’s programming had come to reflect this shift.
  24. When we were discussing Party Girl (Interview) I asked him whether he thought in pictures or in words. He told me he thought in pictures. That was why he spoke so slowly and hesitantly: when he was thinking, his mind was flooded with images, and he needed time to find words to describe them (Interview). He was fluent, however, when he had a set-piece to deliver. Perhaps his visual memory allowed him to memorise a text, then summarise it?
  25. Cp Eisenschitz, 1993, pp. 422-3. Though Lang was still hoping to set up another film in Germany, his eyesight was clearly so bad that this seemed like a forlorn hope.
  26. Susan stayed with Nick for the rest of his life, becoming his fourth wife. In I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1993 (edited and introduced by Susan Ray) she has done a magnificent job of organising and presenting his teaching and ideas. This is often very moving for those lucky enough to have worked with Nick, or watched him at work.
  27. As I remember the script now, the main part might have been written for Tommy Lee Jones!
  28. Connie once referred to They Live by Night as her and Nick’s story, though Nick had already been married and divorced before their relationship. They parted when Nick went to Hollywood with Kazan for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Elia Kazan, 1945). He once confessed to me that his art was his passion, and he’d sacrifice anything for it. Connie went to London for the Office of War Information, which had brought them together (both were working under John Houseman). You can read about her further adventures in London in Mervyn Jones’ biography of the former leader of the British Labour Party, Michael Foot (Gollancz, London, 1994) where she appears under her maiden name, Connie Ernst. She was a considerate and generous hostess. We weren’t close, but, appropriating words Nick used when talking to me about Bogie: “I miss her. I miss her style.”
  29. Susan has no memory of this. She thinks I’ve confused it with an incident involving Marti and Michael Butler. But I never met Michael Butler, and what I remember was a summer Saturday afternoon in New York, not a cold day in Chicago. I may have made it a bigger deal than it really was, but I do remember that, at the time, Susan was annoyed.
  30. Susan says Nick didn’t meet her parents till towards the end. But my memory of her telling me this dates from when he was sick, and the last time I saw him.
  31. I heard that Nick and a cameraman, shooting out of the window of an office, were a few months later held up at gun-point, and their equipment stolen. Nick was probably after more material for New York after Midnight. One Saturday that summer he had me scrambling around on the roof and the fire-escapes of the Palace Theater building, documenting the action on Times Square down below. The entr’acte after the last tourists, trippers and theatre-goers had left the Square was as vivid a moment of theatre as any I have experienced. After the last stragglers had left the stage, there was a brief, almost imperceptible moment of stillness and silence. Then the prostitutes started to move in, at first one by one, each establishing her territory. When the customers started to arrive the Square was bustling again. The pimps remained off-stage, hovering in the wings, I guess. Suddenly there was an African-American woman of remarkable grace and beauty, strutting her stuff like the Queen of Sheba before Solomon. She was swept away in a car with a couple of white guys, New Jersey plates, before I’d had time to reload the camera and grab the shot. Story of my life!

About The Author

James Leahy is a film historian and screenwriter, and has worked with Nick Ray, Ken McMullen (he co-wrote 1871, an official selection at Cannes in 1990) and Med Hondo. His writings on cinema have appeared in The Guardian, Sight & Sound, Cahiers du cinéma in English, Vertigo and PIX.

Related Posts