BOOK REVIEW / Poker player without a cause: Nicholas Ray: An American Journey - Bernard Eisenschitz trs Tom Milne: Faber, pounds 20

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TOWARDS the end of his life, Nicholas Ray - director of Rebel Without a Cause and spiritual father to the American cinema's new wave - taught film-making in New York State. Although the course was practical rather than theoretical (Ray and his students actually made films together), he did insist on some background reading. Top of the list was Albert Camus's Myth of Sisyphus.

In his discreet biography Bernard Eisenschitz makes less than might be expected of this stipulation. Unlike so many commentators on Ray, Eisenschitz is not out to set his hero up as a doomed visionary forever rolling the rock of his inspiration up the recalcitrant hill of box-office philistinism. Eisenschitz is level-headed enough to see that at least some of Ray's problems were to do with Ray himself. As one of his poker-playing buddies had it: 'He's talented . . . but he's a loser.'

Aside from Godard's infamously hyperbolic 'the cinema is Nicholas Ray', probably the most often quoted line about Ray comes from his camp western, Johnny Guitar: 'I'm a stranger here myself.' Critics use it to characterise Ray's relationship with the money-boys in the studios. Eisenschitz's book suggests that the line is more generally applicable than that. Inarticulate, agitated, dogmatic, confused, depressive, alcoholic, a compulsive gambler, possibly homosexual, Ray didn't fit. Like the blighted lovers at the centre of most of his movies, he was never happy in this world.

It's probable that Ray, who considered even the camera's rectangular frame an imposition, would have found any world repressive. Moreover, as Eisenschitz points out, he produced his best work under the restrictions of the studio system. His greatest film, On Dangerous Ground, had a happy ending added at the behest of the front office. So much the better. In a lesser movie the final uniting of the couple would be a conventional moment of romantic uplift. Here it is doubtful and tentative, at once both celebratory and critical of the lovers' desire to make the world go away.

A one-time actor himself, Ray could get a performer into character more quickly than any other director. One thinks of Humphrey Bogart straightening a grapefruit knife in A Lonely Place; of James Dean, fragile and anguished, inelegantly picking up a whisky glass with his index and middle fingers in Rebel Without a Cause. On the set of Wind Across the Everglades, Ray gave Christopher Plummer next to no prompting. Plummer, thinking Ray hated him, panicked; the result was the urgent diffidence required and, incidentally, Plummer's finest performance.

During the late Fifties, when he was championed by Truffaut and Godard, Ray's reputation as a profligate grew. According to one camera operator, he once wasted several hours failing to get a shot of some tracks in the snow - a shot that could have been done in the studio. He never liked to plan too far ahead and would frequently start a film with only 20 pages of script; when you have an enormous cast, as Ray did on King of Kings, such an approach isn't so much relaxed as lax.

Ray ended up exiled from Hollywood. He appeared in a couple of movies for his acolytes in the French and German new waves, but the results were only so much semi-autobiographical vapouring. Reduced to penury (according to Dennis Hopper, he had been running up a monthly phone bill of dollars 30,000), he turned to lecturing.

Film direction, he told his students, is a 'hunt for the truth'. The truth about Ray (that he made three or four great movies and a lot of clunkers) has been obscured by a glut of adolescent encomiums. Praise, however, is valuable only when scarce. Because he is not afraid of criticising his hero, Bernard Eisenschitz has written the most valuable book yet on Nicholas Ray.