Second Time Around

Films by Nicholas Ray
Nicholas Ray was the tormented genius of excessive 1950s cinema. His finest work might have come not in his celebrated color melodramas -- Johnny Guitar, Bigger Than Life, above all Rebel Without a Cause -- but in his lower-key, black-and-white dramas of his 1949-52 stint at RKO and Columbia. There's a bitter maturity to the manic depressives played by Humphrey Bogart and Robert Ryan, respectively, in In a Lonely Place (1950) and On Dangerous Ground (1951), that's lacking in the adolescent heroes of Rebel, while Robert Mitchum's over-the-hill rodeo cowboy in The Lusty Men (1952) has a calm acceptance of his lot in life that represents the best of both Ray and that particular actor. The first pair of noirs, genre classics that they are, are primarily psychological studies: Bogart's screenwriter cracks under the strain of his fatal lack of trust in Place, while Ryan's cop, so obviously much sicker, gains a chance for redemption in Ground's second half that turns a pitch-black noir into a transcendent film blanc. Not a crime film, melodrama, or western, The Lusty Men, a work with no genre, has virtually dropped from the screening circuit. As such it may be the biggest surprise to new viewers: an edgy character study set in and around the rodeo circuit, largely improvised by cast, director, and sundry others working off of an unfinished script by Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?). Mitchum, like so many of Ray's heroes a lonely wanderer on the face of the Earth, insinuates himself into the lives of an unhappily married couple, the immature and boastful Arthur Kennedy and his long-suffering wife, Susan Hayward. The expected things do not occur and some unexpected things do in a film Jacques Rivette hailed in France as the "kind of cinema we value, in which everything is sacrificed to the expression, the effectiveness, the incisiveness of a look or a reaction." And many years later Wim Wenders stole Mitchum's homecoming scene from early in the picture for his Kings of the Road, and repeated the same scene in his Ray collaboration Lightning Over Water. Ray still lives for discerning viewers today -- to quote Wenders on that scene, "Without any pretense, without any sense of haste, every shot gradually becomes a sign in some sort of runic script, that you slowly see and hear."

-- Gregg Rickman

In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground play at the UC Theater in Berkeley on Wednesday, Dec. 3; The Lusty Men screens on Tuesday, Dec. 9, at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley as part of a Robert Mitchum tribute. See Reps Etc. for addresses and show times.

 
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