FILM STUDIES: The Nick Ray I hardly knew

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The Independent Culture
Take my word for this one, even if you've never heard of it. Go to the video store and rent They Live By Night. Just put it on and revel in the opening, with the faces of the young lovers thrust up into the lens, so close you feel you could smell their hair and their skin. If you or they had time. Then there are words on the screen about this boy and girl being "never properly introduced to the world", before they're jerked out of their intimacy and their night by some threat of the world's intrusion, and the title - They Live By Night - leaping across the screen, diagonally. Next minute, there's a panicky helicopter shot of an old car tearing up a dust road. It skids off, into a field, and one of the outlaws in the car is the young man from the couple.

This is the first movie by Nicholas Ray, shot in 1947. The leads are Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell, and it's one of the great debuts in American film. I looked at it again for this column, and I was struck by the lyrical desperation of the story, the tenderness of the lovers that protects them briefly against their own ignorance, and the constant innovation of the camera's placement - as if, even at as late an age as 36, Ray could not conceal the excitement of getting a picture at last. Still, what amazed me was the artistic organisation, the lethal logic of it all. For it's a film in which words and phrases in the dialogue recur, and in which camera angles come back as a motif. Yet long before his end, Nicholas Ray was famous as a wreck. The man I knew in the 1970s could hardly eat a plate of scrambled eggs to save his life.

Nick Ray was nearly 68 when he died (in 1979), and there had been 16 years at the end in which he made no conventional picture. In the middle, from 1947 to 1963, he made 20. They're not all good, but some are sensational, and if you run the titles together, there's nearly a poem on the stricken actions of his doomed heroes: They Live By Night - In a Lonely Place - On Dangerous Ground - The Lusty Men - Rebel Without a Cause - Bigger Than Life - Bitter Victory. Even then, I've left out his most celebrated picture, Johnny Guitar, which hovers between dire romantic solemnity and a merciful ironic mockery - so that now it is reckoned to be a camp masterpiece.

Nick never knew what "camp" meant. He took himself gravely, and his early admirers - in France and Britain - were intense about saying he was cinema - dismiss Ray and you eliminated yourself. There was a story about how Ray once heard a writer complain after a screening that "it was all in the script". Ray thought that heresy. If that was true, why make the film, a form that depended upon the faces cast, the light, the colour, the compositions, the angles, the cutting, the sound, the music?

And so, in They Live By Night, there is the tension between love scenes as still and deep as moonlit pools and action so fast and dangerous you flinch. There is the claustrophobia of the framing, caressing sometimes, but then oppressive. There is the theme tune, "I Know Where I'm Going", when these kids have no idea what is going to happen from one instant to the next. And there are the heartbreaking performances from Granger and O'Donnell - faces that have to be seen. It's not rare to feel that a male director loved his actress, but you feel Ray loves the guy, too. John Houseman, the producer of They Live By Night, thought there was a latent homosexual in Ray. Even now, some say he was having an affair with James Dean during Rebel. But he was f---ing Natalie Wood, too.

Ray was unguardedly open to everything, a disaster waiting to happen. Though he made hit films in his time, he was too passionate to be a professional. He went through wives like a restless gambler. He married Gloria Grahame once. They divorced. Then later she married his son by an earlier marriage. That sort of melodrama attended him all his life. He drank. He took drugs. He boasted, then lost his nerve. He had big dreams, yet he could hardly describe a project (he was a notoriously hesitant talker).

He made two epics - King of Kings and 55 Days at Peking; far from his best, but big pay days. Then he came apart. He had plans. He shot an experimental movie, We Can't Go Home Again, and taught at the state university of New York in the early 1970s. His very dying was turned into a film by Wim Wenders - Lightning Over Water (1980), not the most tasteful of works yet something Ray insisted on doing. In his last years, his body was attacked by cancers. He was resilient, brave - and once I spent an hour trying to get him to eat enough scrambled eggs to take a journey. He is the classic example of the film-maker who destroys himself. And he had genius. You can see it in They Live By Night.

Why this column? Well, RKO owned They Live By Night, and Howard Hughes owned RKO and didn't know what to do with the film. So it was delayed in America and premiered here, in London, 50 years ago this spring.