WHO is he?

American writer and filmmaker who directed over twenty feature films between the late forties and the late seventies. Nicholas Ray was considered a maker of low-budget B-movies and critical attention was not given to his works within America. It was the French critical establishment, spearheaded by a group of young critics who would go on to form the French New Wave, which elevated Ray to the status of an important author.

WHAT are his films about?

Themes

At a time when Eisenhower’s America was wittingly or otherwise promulgating the virtues of a respectable, secure and conservative middle class life, Ray’s cinema portrayed people rejecting these very values. These characters are classic misfits – sociopaths, criminals, juvenile delinquents, psychotics – who come across as forces disruptive to the smooth functioning of the model society. Ray has special affinity for the youth, whose hot-bloodedness and spontaneity grace almost all his films.

Style

Ray started out as a studio director, making films for the RKO Pictures, and ended his career as a notoriously independent experimental filmmaker. His work with Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox are noted for their use of the widescreen - marked by horizontal compositions and character blocking – and complex, surrealistic colour palettes reminiscent of those of Douglas Sirk. Ray was especially adept at indoor scenes, in which the image of a staircase – typically accompanying a conflict - makes a frequent appearance.

WHY is he of interest?

Although a major portion of those who champion Ray’s cinema laud his early studio works for their personality and vigour, recent years have seen a resurgence of interest for his later, experimental work, especially the avant-garde feature film We Can’t Go Home Again (1973), which was restored in 2011. Ray is now near unanimously regarded among the most distinctive cinematic authors of studio era Hollywood.

WHERE to discover him?

Johnny Guitar (1954) is a revisionist Western in which generic gender roles are reversed in a startling critique of the masculinity and male insecurity. Consequently, we have the eponymous ‘hero’ (Sterling Hayden) hired as a musician in a bar owned by the feisty Vienna (Joan Crawford) who has a showdown with another woman at the end of the film. Ray’s film is one of the earliest self-conscious mainstream films to upend traditional notions regarding gender and sexuality.

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