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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

The Rebellious Cinema of Nicholas Ray at The Aero Theatre

The American Cinematheque is presenting 10 films by one of the most innovative directors of the 1950s. Nicholas Ray’s most famous claim to fame, Rebel Without a Cause is reason enough to delve deeper into a career that was perceived as enigmatic of the times in which he lived. Six of the ten films in this series are not available on DVD, so this is a rare opportunity to experience Ray’s films on the big screen.

Nicholas Ray spent his early years under the tutelage of various anarchists of their times, including architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and young thespian Elia Kazan. Ray’s first film They Live by Night (1948) was produced by a young John Houseman, who a few years earlier caused a sensation producing another film by a first time director: Citizen Kane. So, it’s not surprising that his films should be filled with outcasts and misfits forced to deal with situations not of their own making.

Ray’s films usually center on shattered or broken men and the ideal women who love them, full of violence and contradiction inherent to the complex relationships of real people. Even the color (when in color) is completely saturated, creating a desperate and tortured quality to the visual itself. Ray’s films were created in a time when the American male was in the painful process of redefining himself and his place in the perceived perfect society of post WWII, literally translated in Rebel Without a Cause.

Ray’s unique and nearly instantaneous rapport with actors (his friendship with James Dean is legendary) came in handy in such films as In a Lonely Place with a seasoned and sometimes “persnickety” Humphrey Bogart. This early success helped solidify a high ranking within the Hollywood establishment with whom Ray often found himself at odds. Combative as his relationship with Hollywood may have been, he continued to create and push boundaries combining challenging themes with style and vision and exquisite casting (Johnny Guitar with Joan Crawford).

It was Ray’s use of the then revolutionary widescreen Cinemascope format on Rebel Without a Cause that helped shape the rest of his career. Films as strong and bold as Ray’s require the Wide, Wide Screen in order to fully appreciate their intended impact. Truly ahead of his time, Ray’s style and choice of subject matter was a foreshadowing of things yet to come in the rebellious cinema of the 70’s. Had he come along a bit later, he would certainly have been given the same regard as, say, a Sam Peckinpah.

Having quit Hollywood in the early 1960’s (or visa-versa), Nicholas Ray spent the rest of his creative years as a teacher, inspiring a new generation of filmmakers that included Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders. Nicholas Ray died in New York in 1979. I implore you to take advantage of this opportunity and catch at least one of the following scheduled screenings. The following descriptions have been abbreviated from American Cinematheque’s original listing.

Wednesday, January 3, at 7:30 PM. A double feature starting with Nicholas Ray’s directorial debut and personal favorite They Live by Night (1948). Think Romeo and Juliet with the mise en scene of film noir - NOT ON DVD. Next on the same bill is On Dangerous Ground (1952). A magnificent Bernard Herrmann score and Robert Ryan’s ferocious performance make this one of film noir’s most affecting statements about the big city. The contrast between city and country, brutality and tenderness is pure Nicholas Ray.

Thursday, January 4, at 7:30 PM. Another double feature! First up is Bigger Than Life (1956). A mild teacher (James Mason) becomes addicted to cortisone. The superb use of color and shot composition borders on the psychedelic. In addition, there’s standout work from co-stars Barbara Rush and Walter Matthau. A must for Ray fans -NOT ON DVD. Next is Party Girl (1958). An ultra-stylish homage to 1930’s gangster films with Cyd Charisse as a chorus girl and Robert Taylor as her lawyer boyfriend who try to sever ties to organized crime. The film belongs to Ray’s stunning use of color and the widescreen as well as Lee J. Cobb in a savage caricature of a Capone-like mobster - NOT ON DVD.

Friday, January 5, at 7:30 PM. This double lineup includes In a Lonely Place (1950), a brilliant and moody drama about a screenwriter (Humphrey Bogart) accused of murder, and the starlet (Gloria Grahame) afraid to trust him. On one level, a poisonous rejection of all things Hollywood, and on another, a love triangle of almost demonic intensity between the director and his two stars. Next on the same bill is Bitter Victory (1957). Richard Burton is a fatalistic captain at odds with an indecisive superior as they undertake a dangerous mission to steal secret documents from the Nazis. One of Nicholas Ray’s most underrated and beautiful masterworks is full of subtle touches that build to a tragic conclusion. Restored and uncut!

Saturday, January 6, at 7:30 PM. Here’s yet another great double feature starting with Johnny Guitar (1954). Joan Crawford is a saloon-owner waiting for the railroad to reach her town. Johnny (Sterling Hayden) is a fast-draw who has given up guns for a guitar! This is a color-coded, violent, and romantic tale with references to the right wing of 1950’s America. A superior supporting cast includes Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine, and John Carradine - NOT ON DVD. There will be an introduction by the film’s actor, John Lugar! Next on the same bill is True Story of Jesse James (1957). Although hamstrung by studio interference, there are still enough off-kilter touches, as well as the filmmaker’s trademark brilliant use of color to make it more than worthwhile viewing. Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter are Jesse and Frank James, with a great supporting cast that includes Agnes Moorehead, John Carradine, Alan Hale, Jr. and Hope Lange - NOT ON DVD.

Sunday, January 7, at 7:30 PM. The final double feature includes Rebel Without a Cause (1955). This is an awesome mythic saga of teen disobedience and alienation in 1950’s America. Ray’s use of color and Cinemascope rivals Hitchcock for striking frame compositions and bold symbolism. Next on the same bill is Knock on Any Door (1949). Its star, Humphrey Bogart produced this, Ray’s second picture, offering the kind of gutsy social realism both men favored in their storytelling. It’s remarkably candid and gritty for the time period, posing eternal questions about character versus environment, and the responsibility each bears for urban crime. Offering no easy answers, the film compares favorably with other socially conscious noirs of the 1950’s and is an intriguing foreshadow of Ray’s later work Rebel Without a Cause - NOT ON DVD.

All screenings are at the Max Palevsky Theatre at the Aero Theatre (1328 Montana Ave) in Santa Monica. Tickets available through

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