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Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director, By Patrick McGilligan

Lights, camera...where's all the action?

'The cinema is Nicholas Ray," wrote Jean-Luc Godard, who knows a thing or two about such things.

Revered in Europe more than in his native America for his auteur tendencies, Ray was nevertheless a major force in Hollywood in the Fifties, directing such classics as In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause.

If Ray's films favoured a downbeat style, his private life was closer to an old-fashioned melodrama. He was a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, a close friend of Woody Guthrie and the lover of Joan Crawford, Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe. He had sexual relationships with men, though he denied being bisexual, and was married four times. His second marriage, to the actress Gloria Grahame, ended when he found her in bed with his teenage son. He was also the subject of an investigation by the House of Un-American Activities Committee, because of his early involvement in left-wing theatre and folk scenes.

Ray provides pretty juicy material, then, so you have to wonder how Patrick McGilligan manages to render such a lurid life so very dreary. Could it be that the uproar which greeted his last biography, a near-hatchet job on Clint Eastwood, prompted him to play it safe this time around?

Whatever the reason, McGilligan delves into the minutiae of Ray's fledgling career in theatre and radio, but offers comparatively scant detail on his childhood. Ray's Hollywood ascent is related on a protracted, film-by-film basis, and yet McGilligan allocates just a handful of pages to the personal demons that, long before he reached his professional peak, led him to sabotage his relationships and immerse himself in drink and gambling.

McGilligan is certainly fastidious. It's unlikely that you'll find a more detailed account of Ray's professional life, or the broader practice of filmmaking in Fifties Hollywood, with all its depressing concessions to the whims of studio moguls, spoilt stars and the perceived morality of the era. Even so, the author's dedication to cataloguing every script conference, studio summit and location scout could send even Monsieur Godard into a coma.

There are some amusing facts buried in the long-winded narrative, such as that James Dean sought advice from Ray about how to get rid of a nasty bout of crabs. But McGilligan is otherwise curiously tight-lipped on the nature of Dean's relationship with Ray. It has long been suggested that they had an affair, but the author doesn't even address the rumour.

For all his hard graft, McGilligan never quite gets under Ray's skin. Reflections on his personal attributes are vague, and often conflicting. We are told that Ray is a loner, though he is forever hosting parties and all-night gambling sessions with friends; he struggles to relate to women, although two of his ex-wives remained his greatest confidantes; he was inarticulate and prone to long silences, yet hugely charismatic. The one thing we can be sure of is that, despite the book's subtitle, Ray was far from a failure.