Tag Archives: Nicholas Ray

In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray)

Watching the opening titles of In a Lonely Place, I wished the design had allowed for it to appear like it was saying “Humphrey Bogart in A Lonely Place.” Just because. But it doesn’t. And wouldn’t really be appropriate either as it’s unclear, some ninety minutes later, if Bogart was indeed in a lonely place. There are hints at it, including singer Hadda Brooks’s number. But how much does Bogart’s life and demeanor change once romantic interest (and second and third act lead) Gloria Grahame enter his life? Not clear. He’s more productive at work—Bogart’s a screenwriter; Lonely Place is a Hollywood story, though it ends up not really mattering. None of the details end up mattering much in Lonely Place. One of the film’s more lacerating issues.

To get the other more lacerating issue out of the way early on (saving director Ray’s indifference to supporting performances)—cinematographer Burnett Guffey. Lonely Place looks very much to be on a budget. Limited locations, limited cast, definite but inexpensive location shooting; the only thing Guffey shoots well is the exteriors. Otherwise, it’s flat lighting. Ray lets George Antheil’s music do all the emoting, even though the lighting could do just as much if not more. Antheil’s music gets a little much, but it’s fine because it’s got to do all the drama—see, what if it turns out Bogart’s not just an alcoholic, violent, egomaniac, but what if he’s also a killer. What if Grahame’s life’s in danger (even though Bogart’s apparently never functioned as well with her literally managing his life)? Grahame’s suspicions take a while; Lonely Place—even at ninety minutes—has a draggy second act. Once she gets them, the movie gets going for a bit, including bringing Jeff Donnell back into the movie because Grahame needs someone to share her fears with. Donnell’s great. She’s Frank Lovejoy’s wife. Lovejoy’s the copper investigating Bogart who knows him from during the war, when Bogart was his awesome CO. And presumably killed a lot of Germans with his bare hands and probably some rocks because, wow, does Bogart like getting in fights.

Carl Benton Reid is Lovejoy’s boss and he thinks Bogart’s good for the murder. He sees through the war hero bit; actually, only Lovejoy fawns over Bogart for it. Everyone else sort of things he maybe is a killer.

Even his agent, Art Smith. Smith’s likable but not very good. He and Robert Warwick (as a now drunken silent film star pal of Bogart’s) are the supporting actors whose performances Ray doesn’t care about. Occasionally they have really bad comedic moments, which might add to Lonely Place’s plodding. I can’t exactly remember because I wanted to forget them; the timing’s all off from Ray, leaving the actors with eggy faces.

Warwick’s similarly likable, except then it turns out he’s a pig.

Morris Ankrum is great as Bogart’s next project’s director. Shame he’s only in two scenes. He pushes back against Bogart, which the film needs. It’s not a good enough part for Bogart to take up all the air, which is why it’s so nice—and the film improves so much—when Grahame takes over the lead.

Andrew Solt’s screenplay (of Edmund H. North’s adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes’s novel) doesn’t balance its leads well. When Bogart’s the lead in the first act, Grahame’s material is wanting. When Grahame’s the lead in the second and third acts… Bogart’s material is wanting. It’s too bad. But seems like a surmountable problem, only for the film’s deflated, predictable finish to take a safer route.

All the movie about the killer screenwriter needed was a… better screenwriter.

And cinematographer.

And for Ray to care equally about his actors’ performances. Speaking of which, I forgot to mention Martha Stewart. Better just leave it.

But Lonely Place does give Grahame a rather solid part for most of the movie. It even hints maybe she’s in the lonely place, only not really because she only gets a trouble sleeping scene to herself. Because problems. So many problems.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by Andrew Solt, based on an adaptation by Edmund H. North and the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes; director of photography, Burnett Guffey; edited by Viola Lawrence; music by George Antheil; produced by Robert Lord; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Humphrey Bogart (Dixon Steele), Gloria Grahame (Laurel Gray), Art Smith (Mel Lippman), Frank Lovejoy (Brub Nicolai), Jeff Donnell (Sylvia Nicolai), Carl Benton Reid (Capt. Lochner), Martha Stewart (Mildred Atkinson), Morris Ankrum (Lloyd Barnes), and Robert Warwick (Charlie Waterman).


This post is part of the Noirathon hosted by Maddy of Maddy Loves Her Classic Films.

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Bigger Than Life (1956, Nicholas Ray)

Despite producing the film himself, top-billed James Mason doesn’t have the best part in Bigger Than Life. Instead, Barbara Rush–as his suffering wife–gets it. Mason’s a man with a life threatening chronic illness who has to take special medication. Slowly–though not too slowly–that medication starts making him psychotic. Rush is the faithful wife who ignores advice and sticks by Mason’s side, even before she finds out it’s an increasingly known side effect of the medication. After she does make that discovery, it’s basically a rush to the finish with the danger being how far is Mason going to go.

And, actually, he doesn’t go anywhere near as far as one might assume. There’s a bit of restraint, because the movie never wants to make Mason too much the villain. He can be psychologically abusive to son Christopher Olsen, but it takes Olsen a really long time to break down and tell mom Rush how he hates Msaon now. And even after family friend Walter Matthau counsels Rush to call Mason’s doctor–little does she know Mason’s actively deceiving doctor (Robert F. Simon) and has been since his first night home from the hospital. The screenplay–credited to Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, but with some uncredited help–gives Rush a range of fantastic scenes as she copes with Mason’s awful behavior, without ever really giving her a great role. She’s just dutiful wife. Of course she’s going to stand by her man, why wouldn’t she?

Though I suppose Mason’s lack of actual dangerous outbursts, just psychological torture of his family, do play a part. Though it’s not like Rush gets to react to them after the fact. She doesn’t get much in the way of character development. No one does. Not even Matthau, who’s third-billed but an overblown cameo by the second half. In the first act, he’s Mason’s best pal–Mason’s a school teacher, Matthau’s the gym teacher–and essential support to the family. Once Mason’s out of the hospital, the film forgets about him until they need an exposition dump. He’s the one who tells Rush about the drug’s side effects, as well as informs on Mason after Mason loses it at a school open house.

The scene where Mason faces repercussions for the behavior at the open house is entirely missing, as principal Rusty Lane–another pal of Mason’s early on–fades away. The more the story focuses in on just Mason, Rush, and Olsen the more unreasonable the plotting becomes. Director Ray is able to get some real tension in the third act, but it’s almost out of nowhere. The family goes to church, which sets Mason off in unexpected ways. Not at church, however, once they’re home, which makes Mason’s earlier public out burst a little nonsensical. His behavior’s predictable to some degree–he’s abusive at home–but only because home is the only place where the action takes place. Presumably he’s still going to work, but there are no further scenes there after a point, which makes the film more and more Rush’s, which is fine. She’s great. But the narrative’s lacking.

Bigger Than Life does only run ninety-five minutes, however, so there’s only so much it can do. Kipp Hamilton, as one of Mason and Matthau’s coworkers (who Rush suspects is having an affair with Mason at one point), completely disappears after Mason’s first day out of the hospital. She’s there long enough to stir up some masculine pride in his wife’s figure (Hamilton is a snazzier dresser than Rush) so Mason decides to bankrupt the family to get Rush a fancy dress. See, the erratic behavior starts right away, when theoretically Mason is taking his prescribed dose… his abuse gets worse as the film goes along, increasing as his mental problems increase, but there’s no direct narrative connection between the two threads. They’re parallel, understood to be causal, but unexplored.

Instead Mason just gets on this kick where he’s going to save the world from the stupid kids of modernity through a return to classical teaching. It’s not explored much more than that description. The script avoids a lot.

But until the third act, the movie basically holds it all together. It’s not until Rush has a last minute monologue explaining herself, which doesn’t actually explain any of her behavior on screen–the dialogue doesn’t jibe with her performance to this point–it seems like no one really knows how to end the movie. Then the movie sets a goal for how it can succeed and… doesn’t. What should be a great acting opportunity for Mason turns into some schmaltz. Not even enthusiastic schmaltz, much lses sincere.

There’s great photography from Joseph MacDonald, good direction from Ray–who has that wide Cinemascope frame but still manages to confine his actors in it, particularly in the tense home scenes, which are the film’s main type of scene–and some fine production values. Ray doesn’t have quite the handle on the school scenes, particularly not as far as tension goes, but they’re pretty sparse once things get going. One of the best sequences, Mason and Olsen playing football and Mason getting progressively more abusive, seems like it’s out of another film entirely, Ray’s style is so different and MacDonald shooting exteriors is such a visual shift.

The film acknowledges quite a bit about toxic masculinity, though nowhere near all the toxic masculinity it ends up visualizing–and Rush’s eventual capitulation to it–which makes things interesting. It’s another of the film’s little disappointments. The hasty finish keeps everyone aware from any self-examination.

Besides the great performances from Rush and Mason, Olsen’s good as the kid, Matthau’s likable in his part, Simon’s good as the doctor. If Ray gave the entire film as much subtlety as the doctors standing around silently regarding Mason, well, it’d be a much different picture. Though, given the way the script works, maybe not a better one. It’s just a bunch of different style choices in a relatively short amount of time. Even the finale is a style choice. Ray’s great at implementing those styles, just not at making them matter.

Bigger Than Life is pretty good, but cast and crew deserve more.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, based on an article by Burton Roueche; director of photography, Joseph MacDonald; edited by Louis R. Loeffler; music by David Raksin; produced by James Mason; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring James Mason (Ed Avery), Barbara Rush (Lou Avery), Christopher Olsen (Richie Avery), Walter Matthau (Wally Gibbs), Robert F. Simon (Dr. Norton), Kipp Hamilton (Pat Wade), Roland Winters (Dr. Ruric), and Rusty Lane (Bob LaPorte).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE JAMES MASON BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS.


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Knock on Any Door (1949, Nicholas Ray)

Knock on Any Door opens with Humphrey Bogart, then heads into a lengthy flashback detailing the life of young thug John Derek. Bogart’s his attorney, defending him on a murder rap; Bogart’s opening statement leads to the flashback. It’s a lengthy flashback, introducing not just Derek but Bogart and the assorted Skid Row denizens who will show up again on the witness stand.

There’s only one significant problem with the flashback, which is otherwise well-directed and beautifully photographed by Burnett Guffey. It’s Derek. He’s awful. Director Ray doesn’t do particularly well with his actors. Bogart’s either fine or excellent, but he doesn’t need any help. Derek clearly needs a lot of it and Ray instead focuses on his “pretty boy” looks (including in an awful jump cut at the finish).

The filmmaking is effective enough–and exploitative enough–to make Derek sympathetic to some degree. Particularly when he’s ruining his pretty young wife’s life (Allene Roberts in an under-directed, thankless performance). Roberts isn’t great but she can carry it. Derek’s just too shallow.

Except then the film finally gets to trial–an hour or so in–and it turns out most of Door is pretty shallow. Ray also gets a questionable performance out of George Macready as the awful prosecutor. Ray pushes too hard to make Macready unlikable and it hurts the film. Ray already does better with the flashback sequences (and an outstanding setup) than he does with the trial directing. Macready and Bogart bickering just gets annoying, especially since it turns out Ray and his screenwriters are just throwing red herrings like they’re putting it into fishie chowder.

Bogart does get a great lawyer monologue, but it’s problematic not just in terms of the narrative but also in how the film turns in on itself. It’s such a severe disconnect, it doesn’t matter Derek was awful in a flashback running over half of the runtime. Manipulation trumps bad acting most times.

There are some solid supporting turns, all uncredited. Except Barry Kelley’s judge. He brings a lot of gravitas to the trial scenes, something Macready and director Ray do not.

Mostly great editing from Viola Lawrence, especially in the flashback sequences and the opening setup. Great sets, almost mediocre music (from George Antheil).

I wish I was more disappointed about Knock on Any Door, but it’s so lacking in sincerity, I can’t muster it.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by Daniel Taradash and John Monks Jr., based on the novel by Willard Motley; director of photography, Burnett Guffey; edited by Viola Lawrence; music by George Antheil; produced by Robert Lord; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Humphrey Bogart (Andrew Morton), John Derek (Nick Romano), Allene Roberts (Emma), Candy Toxton (Adele Morton), George Macready (Dist. Atty. Kerman) and Barry Kelley (Judge Drake).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE ORDER IN THE COURT! THE CLASSIC COURTROOM MOVIES BLOGATHON HOSTED BY THERESA OF CINEMAVEN'S ESSAYS FROM THE COUCH AND LESLEY OF SECOND SIGHT CINEMA.


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Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray)

For a film with pioneering use of widescreen composition–the shot with the cars moving past Natalie Wood–and one of the better film performances (James Dean), Rebel Without a Cause is a curious failure. It’s loaded with content–there’s the stuff with Dean and his parents, the stuff with Wood and her father, the gang, Sal Mineo, the police, the stuff with Dean and Wood, Dean and Mineo, Mineo and his home life. It goes on and on until it finally gets to the ludicrous conclusion. The film’s entirely nuance-free. It’s probably the finest example of “Technicolor filmmaking.” Even if it was shot in Warner Color.

There are countless problems with the film’s details–like Corey Allen’s affable gang leader, Wood going from amoral sociopath (cheering on the bullies, something she never shows any regret for–her actions towards Dean, yes, but not the ones she supported). Then there’s the film’s almost unimaginable lack of subtext. There’s a frequent and rather misogynistic conflict between Dean’s parents, Jim Backus and Ann Doran. Dean’s constantly suggesting Backus needs to assert himself more and it leads to Backus sitting on the couch in a flowered apron trying to defend him. It’s like the film’s parodying itself (but it is not).

For every second he’s on screen–which is thankfully most of them–James Dean commands the film in a perfect performance. He’s in the first shot and from there on in, I don’t think there’s a single scene where Dean doesn’t do something amazing with his performance. The script occasionally gives him great material–the early scene with Edward Platt, some of the scenes with parents Backus and Doran (Backus’s browbeaten husband gets to be a bit much very quickly), and most of the scenes with him and Wood. Wood’s got a story arc all her own–the film drops it after a while, which is a bad move; the fast forward romance between her and Dean is well-acted by both, but it comes off false. The film opens with Dean, Wood and Mineo at the police station, all three with some definite problems–as the story progresses, it forgets about Dean and Wood’s problems and concentrates solely on Mineo’s, given their Cinemascope potential. The conclusion for Dean and Wood comes off goofy, but Rebel‘s been goofy for almost an hour and a half so it’s not exactly a surprise, but it is a disappointment….

The film has two conceptual failings–first, it’s a teen gang movie where we’re supposed to believe Allen’s a scary tough guy (not to mention gang fights happen at scenic spots, cheered on by a dozen middle class kids); second, it’s a continual present action. The film takes place over a day and a half. There’s the whirlwind friendship between Dean and Mineo, the whirlwind romance between Dean and Wood–both of those can get a pass (it’s a movie, after all), but the film forgets these people have been up for thirty hours. Stern’s script, so strong in the first act, kills off a kid in front of twenty other kids, none of whom freak out–no crying, not even from the kid’s girlfriend. It’s an abject oversight–Rebel Without a Cause would have been a much better film if it’d taken responsibility for that plot development and dealt with it, instead of ignoring it for the Mineo emphasis.

The story problems do bring down the film, but they can’t really vandalize Dean’s performance (or Wood’s to some degree). Like I said before, Dean’s enthralling. But Ray doesn’t keep him on screen enough, talking enough, to camouflage the plot deficiencies (the frequent, poor scenes with the teen gang on the loose jar). But Ray does a great job directing Rebel Without a Cause and that achievement–significant as it may be–doesn’t overcome the writing. Maybe because the film came from Ray’s story, so he’s embracing all the shortcomings.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by Stewart Stern, based on an adaptation by Irving Shulman of a story by Ray; director of photography, Ernest Haller; edited by William H. Ziegler; music by Leonard Rosenman; production designer, Malcolm C. Bert; produced by David Weisbart; released by Warner Bros.

Starring James Dean (Jim Stark), Natalie Wood (Judy), Sal Mineo (Plato), Jim Backus (Frank Stark), Ann Doran (Mrs. Carol Stark), Corey Allen (Buzz Gunderson), William Hopper (Judy’s Father), Rochelle Hudson (Judy’s Mother), Dennis Hopper (Goon), Edward Platt (Ray Fremick), Steffi Sidney (Mil), Marietta Canty (Crawford family maid) and Virginia Brissac (Mrs. Stark, Jim’s grandmother).


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