Going home... Nick Ray revisited

By James Leahy

lightning-over-water-nicholas-ray-4.jpgLightning Over Water, 1980

Reflections on an N.F.T. retrospective

This time round, I went to see Lightning Over Water, Wim Wenders’s film about Nick’s final days. Previously I’d avoided it, feeling I wanted to preserve my memories of Nick, not replace them with images of a man who was weak, sick, dying. However, writing about him, something I’d put off for three decades, led me to think about him and his work once again. Clearly he’d been deeply committed to the film. It had been so important to him that he gave it his last surges of energy. Surely I owed it to him to choke back my fears and scruples, and see what he and Wenders had achieved?

It was much easier to watch than I had expected. This was the Nick I remembered, much more so than the one I had last seen a couple of months after his last operation. That time, I knew he’d been desperately ill, and had tried to prepare myself. Nevertheless, I’d been shocked by his skeletal appearance, his loss of hair, his exhaustion. I expected the film to show him even weaker and more ill. In fact, there were flickers of his old self, his ironic, slightly self-deprecating humour, and that passion to communicate which sometimes led him to slight over-emphasis when acting (Kazan, he told me once, was a better actor, then added slyly: “but they gave him better parts!”). I’d detected this trait first looking at stills of the two of us taken together. He seemed too intense, concentrating too hard. I, conversely, was revealing a pomposity I strove to conceal. I realized Nick had placed our interaction in a frame of his devising.

We Can’t Go Home Again was another happy revelation. When I’d first seen it years ago, I’d hoped its split screen effects would embody some of that potential for Brechtian juxtaposition which I’d expected to form the core of the film about the Chicago Conspiracy Trial I’d shot footage for, and tried to help Nick set up. On this viewing, I was able to enjoy the poetic dynamics of the individual segments of the screen. Perhaps working and talking with Ken McMullen had brought back the key insight generated originally by watching Warhol’s Chelsea Girls: a shot has its own internal dynamic; letting it run on without bringing it to an imposed end by cutting for narrative or thematic meaning allows it to reveal its own poetry of duration and change.

lightning-over-water-nicholas-ray.jpgLightning Over Water, 1980

Thinking about Nick’s performances in these two highly personal films, one word comes repeatedly to mind: he was “lovable”. An odd word to describe someone so charismatic, but I remembered how generous he’d been when speaking about people from his past, even Joan Crawford! And the time late one night when I was taping his explanation of why They Live By Night had been largely unseen in the States. He told me R.K.O. hadn’t known what to do with it, then Howard Hughes had bought the studio and, as Cathy O’Donnell didn’t have “big tits...!”. The next day, he insisted on recanting. What he’d said about Hughes was the worst kind of cheap Hollywood sneer. He went on to talk in detail about Hughes, and the protection he’d been given in the era of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, despite a first meeting when, summoned to Hughes’ office, he advised him to walk away from I Married a Communist. His stories revealed his fascination with people and what made them tick, his respect for their complexity and diversity, qualities which, I believe, made him so great a director of actors.

In the first sequence shot for Lightning Over Water. Nick introduces a screening of The Lusty Men at Vassar College. Polls and surveys at the time of production had demonstrated the general desire amongst Americans to own a home of their own. It is this new American dream that motivates Louise (Susan Hayward) throughout the film, and her husband Wes (Arthur Kennedy) too, before he is temporarily seduced by the glamour and wealth of rodeo success. I remember Nick telling me how, one morning near the end of shooting, he unexpectedly bumped into Frank Lloyd Wright. Despite their acrimonious parting years earlier, Wright reminded him he had promised to build Nick a house one day. After this chance encounter Nick, too, wondered whether he should take Wright up on his offer, and try to give his failed marriage (to Gloria Graham) yet one more chance. Part of him bought into the national dream of domestic bliss. Another part was susceptible to the glamour of success, preferring to play poker with Lew Wasserman and other business high-fliers, and romance Hollywood’s stars and starlets. This conflict is central dramatically to virtually all his major films, to that art which he confessed was more important to him than any relationship.

lightning-over-water-nicholas-ray-2.jpgLightning Over Water, 1980

Within a few years, the happy ending of The Lusty Men had become Bigger Than Life’s suburban nightmare of destinations unvisited, illness, boredom, drug induced profligacy, and poverty (Gavin Lambert, Nick’s protégé, collaborator and occasional lover was hired to work on the film at a salary many times that which its teacher protagonist would have earned). Nick had to go to the Arctic to put domestic bliss on the screen, in The Savage Innocents. Even there, it is threatened by men who go into a strange land accompanied by their laws, not their wives. I’d been particularly looking forward to seeing the opening of this film again, a CinemaScope composition so precise that the sound cues become meaningless in cropped prints, so beautiful in articulating the tension between visual abstraction and narrative action. (David Lean in the desert, François Girard with the opening of Thirty-two Short Films about Glenn Gould, were echoing the best). But I missed it, a sudden snow shower delaying me on my trip to the cinema…

The highlight of the season was Bitter Victory in a new, restored print. I guess I’ve seen so many shorter versions in the past (the U.K. release print, from which the distributors omitted all the final scenes, and which also suffered from a couple of crucial censorship cuts; the Cinémathèque print, after Nick had called Paris from New York to set up some screenings for Gaila and myself; off-air VHS tapes) that, on a single viewing, I found it hard to spot material I had not seen before. Perhaps over the years I had seen all the cut footage, sometimes in one print, sometimes in another? Even the return to the scene at the bar which frames the uneasy encounter between Leith (Richard Burton), Brand (Curd Jurgens) and Jane Brand (Ruth Roman), Leith’s former love, abandoned so he can return to his science, seemed familiar. The bar scene’s brilliant: a pair of hands miming a surprise attack on a German position, accompanied by vocalized sound effects. I’m even more convinced now that, despite all the damage inflicted by the impositions of producer Paul Graetz, this is Nick’s masterpiece. It has one of the greatest scores in world cinema, and where else is a scene more powerful, complex and beautiful than that when Leith, left alone in the desert with two wounded soldiers, ends by killing “the living” and saving “the dead”? It is at this moment that “a tonal theme in G flat major develops, gradually prepared for, but emerging only now, and not ... over the credits or soon after” (composer Maurice Le Roux, quoted in Bernard Eisenschitz’s biography Nicholas Ray: an American Journey). It’s a “big tune” after the earlier anxiety-provoking musique concrète, dodecaphonic music and atonality. However, rather than offering, in the manner of a Shostakovich march, some kind of resolution, however perfunctory, to earlier passages of darkness and uncertainty (cp. the finale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, which the composer subtitled “A Soviet artist’s response to just criticism”) this big tune serves only to intensify one’s sense of despair and futility, and the feeling that this is a comment on all human endeavour.

lightning-over-water-nicholas-ray-3.jpgLightning Over Water, 1980

Nick had originally wanted Shostakovich, and had taken his rough cut to Cannes, to show to the Soviet delegation. They told him no Soviet composer could write music for a film so hostile to the concept of the hero. Years ago, chatting to Yuri Norstein at the Animation Festival in Bristol about cinematic heroes (Rambo in particular, I think) I told this story; he responded with the exchange from Brecht’s Galileo: “Unhappy is the land that has no heroes... Unhappy is the land that has need of heroes”.

Chance meant that, shortly after seeing Bitter Victory, I looked again at images which had helped form the thinking of those Soviet delegates. I studied passages of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in some detail. Part 1 “taken by itself stands as perhaps the only masterpiece of any art which fully embodies the aesthetics preached by Stalin – namely, Soviet Socialist Realism.” It ends with Prokofiev’s triumphant music as the heroic leader is urged to return to power: “The shots of the large figure of the Czar and the tiny figures of the people beyond and below – capture the quintessential relationship between the people and their leader” (Richard Farnsworth: International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Vol. 1: Films). I’ve always thought of Ivan as coming from another generation, another era of filmmaking. To us good disciples of André Bazin, whose filmic formation came in the ‘60s, lovers of spatial integrity, staging in depth, and CinemaScope, Eisenstein was the epitome of what we were reacting against. I realized long ago that, in fact, we were reacting against a simplified version of Pudovkin, and had totally ignored Eisenstein’s ideas and practice of what he termed “montage within the frame”. Now I suddenly realized that, to modern cinéastes and cinéphiles, Ivan and Bitter Victory are effectively from the same era. Part 1 appeared less than a dozen years before Nick’s film, Part 2, as a result of Stalinist censorship, not till some years after. My heart remains with Godard, who praised Bitter Victory as, effectively, a definition of “modern cinema”; my mind realizes it has become another vintage classic “very, very quickly”.

The retrospective in question was held at London’s National Film Theatre. James Leahy was a personal friend of Nicholas Ray and last January he discussed Ray’s work with writer/director Jon Sanders on resonancefm.com. He has also written about it for sensesofcinema.com and PIX 3. The latter is available from BFI Publishing, which also published a revised edition of Geoff Andrew’s study of Nick’s films to coincide with the NFT season.