The 11 Best Nicholas Ray Movies You Need To Watch

best nicholas ray movies

When I was in high school, there was only one event I was excited about. It was a small, travelling film festival. I was living in a city with a population of nearly 2 million; however, hardly you could find a cultural activity to follow and join. I first saw my Godard in that festival, and Bergman and Wenders and all others. I always remember first time I have watched A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) of Godard because one of my friend came with me felt asleep during the movie.

In the end, sleeping while watching a film means you trust that film. I had developed an immense and instant passion for Godard. When I saw the opening scene of Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, where Louis Garrel’s character Théo asks Michael Pitt’s Matthew about Nicholas Ray and quotes Godard’s words: “Nicholas Ray is cinema”, I remember how curious I got.

As a high school student with no access to movies in an underdeveloped industrial city, Nicholas Ray was a continent to be explored. When I went on to university and watch “In a Lonely Place”, I knew what Godard meant, at least sensed it: Both a studio filmmaker and an experimenter, Nicholas Ray was a true auteur; making his films in wide ranges of subjects and developing new characteristics and a new touch on every genre he had worked on – a feminist western, a youth film implying 1968 years before, a film-noir rambling with screenplay devices itself, a visionary documentary, a surprising experimental film…

Nicholas Ray was born in 1911 in Wisconsin. He attended University of Chicago for only one semester; nevertheless, he somehow managed to impress one of the biggest architects of the century, Frank Lloyd Wright and receive a scholarship to work with him.

He directed his first film in 1949. They Live by Night was an adaptation of a Depression era novel; even though it was not a box office hit, received generally positive reviews from film critics. It was one of the first films, film critic Thom Andersen used to define his theory of film-gris which is the name Andersen gave to the films-noir with a touch of leftist criticism of the society and a class point of view.

Ray directed three more films in 1949, he had a fast start in his movie; casted important actors and actresses in Hollywood like Farley Granger, Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. He continued to make some of the best movies Hollywood system ever managed to shot including the great commercial success Rebel without a Cause until 1963 when his habit of heavy drug and alcohol use caused him to be excluded from the studio system while directing the studio-epic drama 55 Days at Peking.

Ray was an auteur who brought distinctive tastes to the schematic genres of American cinema with his striking color use. He was one of the first to introduce architecture as a dramatic element into the cinema. Here are some milestone films he made for a better understanding of his work.


1. They Live by Night (1949)

They Live by Night

An adaptation of the novel Thieves Like Us, first feature film of Ray, They Live by Night tells a story of a man, Bowie, who convicted of murder he did not commit. He escapes from prison with some other criminals. They plan to rob a bank since he needs the money to hire a lawyer. Robbery goes wrong, and he meets a woman to start a new life, but his past will not leave him alone.

This Depression-era story questions the dead-ends of lower classes, those who had no opportunity to defend themselves against the law, against the state and how social deviance easily rules all society. Being Ray’s first feature, They Live by Night is a beautifully shot lower-class film-noir with great actors Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell at their best.


2. In a Lonely Place (1950)

In a Lonely Place (1950)

An out of favor screenwriter Dix, played by the magnificent Humphrey Bogart, meets a girl who reads a novel that Dix was asked to adapt into screen. Too bored to read, Dix invites her to his house to explain him the plot. The day later, Dix learns that the girl was murdered and he is one of the suspects. His temper and violent behaviors will not help his lover and friends to believe he is innocent.

Practically a film-noir, In a Lonely Place can also be seen as a story of a failing relationship with the murder story as a secondary device. Film deals with how a man’s personality – it is also important that Dix is a screenwriter – unravels in the eyes of his friends, his lover under suspicion and how critical moments test a relationship that is not meant to endure.

Ray’s beautiful adaptation of a play, In a Lonely Place, brings murder mystery and the unsolvable question of how woman and man survive together in a relationship together and manages to be both a genre-defining film-noir and an impeccable allegory about love.


3. On Dangerous Ground (1952)

On Dangerous Ground (1951)

A harsh and merciless police detective is somehow suspended from the city department and sent to a rural area to solve the murder of a girl. He follows the traces of the killer and teams up with the poor girl’s father who plans to kill the murderer. When he met with a blind woman who happens to be the sister of the mentally handicapped killer, he starts to question the justice of the case.

Ray’s ninth film is another film-noir but again with a different approach, with a different perspective of the crime, of the socially excluded. It starts as a detective story with the tough detective however changes later into a psychological drama in which tough detective came to reason with affection in the austere rural terrain covered with snow.


4. The Lusty Men (1952)

The Lusty Men (1952)

The Lusty Men is much a story of greed than a western movie about rodeo. It tells the story of a prominent rodeo competitor who quits, Robert Mitchum, falls in love with a married woman while her husband falls in love with the attention, excitement and money.

Ray’s movie is again a story in a familiar setting with its own rules. It is both a western and a “sports” movie. However, Ray uses rodeo as a device for telling the loss of a husband to greed and how a man sees himself in that husband fall in love with his wife, knowing what husband is about to lose. The Lusty Men is one of the best examples of Ray’s allegorical approaches in his stories.


5. Johnny Guitar (1954)

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Nicholas Ray’s first film in color, Johnny Guitar is one of the most innovative westerns. Despite the title suggests, the protagonist of the movie is Vienna, admirable Joan Crawford, who is a saloonkeeper, disputing with cattlemen of the village about the railroad that will be laid near the village.

Hated since she was a free woman and a saloonkeeper, she was disdained by the other women in the town, especially her rival Emma. When she was given 24 hours to leave the town, she was helped by a total stranger, Johnny Guitar, who is revealed to be one of the best gunslingers of the west and Vienna’s evergreen ex-lover.

The struggle of the women in the world has always been a struggle against the ruling idea that woman is inferior to man. The ruling patriarchal idea in this movie is solidified as the cattlemen who are jealous of a successful women and Emma again who holds grudge against Vienna since she realized everything she wanted.

This hatred against a woman who can stand on her feet transforms the townfolk into a furious lynch mob, destroying everything that tries to stop them. At the end, Vienna chooses to be with Johnny since he is not a man posing masculinity but accepting his weaknesses.