The 11 Best Nicholas Ray Movies You Need To Watch

6. Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

rebel without a cause

No words are enough to describe the movie Rebel Without a Cause. Should I mention this movie casts James Dean along with Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood, a generation of most talented and most unfortunate actors? Should I mention this movie tops the use of architecture in cinema as a flamboyant dramatic element? Should I mention this movie is one of the greatest movies reflecting the angst of being youth? Should I mention this movie predicts world-shaking times of ’68 nearly fifteen years ago?

Great acting, great setting, great screenplay and directing… Everybody was young; everybody passed that miserable and painful period of adolescence. Even if 60 years passed, this movie is still fresh as the lettuce your local grocery sells.


7. Bigger Than Life (1956)

Bigger Than Life

A father, husband and schoolteacher Ed, was diagnosed with a fatal disease which gives him no chance to live; at a desperate time, he accepts an experimental treatment to take cortisone hormone. He is miraculously cured and returns home. However, he is changed visibly, reflecting rage, anxiety, and obsession. It is revealed that he is taking cortisone more than he was prescribed. He drags himself and his family into darker situations.

Ray’s second attempt to question patriarchy but this time in an American nuclear suburban family and bring the drug addiction and its relation with human psychology into game was the most innovative and unexpected for its time. Shot in CinemaScope, embracing the space where the family is trapped with a drug addicted father, also with James Mason’s striking performance, film marks an important point in Ray’s filmography.


8. The True Story of Jesse James (1957)

The True Story of Jesse James (1957)

One of the best approaches of the life of notorious criminal Jesse James in cinema, The True Story of Jesse James, was one of the best depictions of the character as a human with emotional and reasonable motives. Comparable to Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James, Ray’s movie tells the story of James Brothers for their last 18 years; reveals how they came to be criminals with flashback uses while they are running away from an unsuccessful robbery attempt.

Ray again attempts to build a story which proposes already a plot with a different aspect. He tells the James Brothers life in flashbacks with the reasons that made them criminals instead of decent men. Ray surprises the audience again with the unexpected aspect of a known story or a familiar genre.


9. Bitter Victory (1957)

Bitter Victory (1957)

Two British officers with very different traits are ordered for a special mission in the North Africa in World War II. The voyage for the mission reveals that one of the officers, Captain Leith played by Richard Burton, had an affair with Major Brand’s wife before marriage.

Brand, dissatisfied with the mission and what he learned about his wife and his officer, fails to endure throughout and helped by Leith. However, the jealousy and the fear that Leith may reveal his weaknesses brought Brand to the edge of angst and madness.

The famous anti-war movie of Ray, Bitter Victory was hailed by critics first of all by a set of film critics of Cahiers du Cinema in Paris, who would be the next generation of filmmakers, marked as French New Wave. It is Bitter Victory in a critique of which Godard wrote his famous words for Nicholas Ray:

“There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.”

Ray’s movie is a beautifully shot anti-war movie which deserves a place next to Apocalypse Now and The Thin Red Line. It is an intriguing investigation of human soul under critical conditions; fear of death, anxiety, jealousy, and disgrace.


10. The Savage Innocents (1960)

The Savage Innocents (1960)

The Savage Innocents is the greatest film about Eskimos maybe just right after Nanook of the North by Robert J. Flaherty, which is, actually, a documentary. An Eskimo hunter, Inuk, kills a priest who refuses his traditional offerings. While he was chasing by police, he saved the life of one and surviving police questions which is more important: commitment to law or what Inuk has done for him.

Anthony Quinn gives his one of the best performances as Inuk while Peter O’Toole shines as the policeman. Ray’s movie is an important example of cultural relativism and signifies how a majority imposes the rules of a society onto minorities. As well, it is a movie concerning what is rightful and equitable. That a man obliged to choose between his conscience and reason, law and gratitude composes the theme of the movie deep down.


11. We Can’t Go Home Again (1976)

We Can't Go Home Again (1976)

After Ray failed in 55 Days at Peking, his most unsuccessful movie, he was never given credit to make any other film in the studio system of Hollywood. He managed to find a job as an instructor of cinema in Binghamton University.

This way he was able to shoot a movie or rather, gather a collaboration to shoot a movie in his distinctive style. As he had shown in Rebel Without a Cause, this time he again tried to capture the Zeitgeist of the youth in 1976, 8 years after 1968 and 21 years after Rebel.

His experimental movie We Can’t Go Home Again is not very easy to describe. All students and Ray play themselves as students and their instructor who try to make a movie. This way, Ray reveals the subcultures touch the students, urban culture, nudity, music, drug using and what it really means to be young in 1970s. Shown in 1973 in Cannes Film Festival as a work-in-progress, well-know cut of the movie was done in 1976. However, when Ray died in 1979, he was still working on the project.


Honorable Mention: Lightning Over Water (1980)

Lightning Over Water (1980)

It may sound inappropriate to add Lightning Over Water as an important movie of Ray; however, even though it is a film of Wim Wenders about Ray, it is co-worked with Ray; for which I believe it deserves – and it has! – a credit for Nicholas Ray himself.

Depicting the last days of Ray, Wenders developed the project as homage to his favorite and inspiring filmmaker. It is actually an inquiry towards the nature of life and death. Film includes the excerpts from Ray’s movies, Ray’s scenes in Wenders’ The American Friend and their discussions on life and death and of course cinema.

It is important for a filmmaker who tried to push the limits of the schemes and genres to make a film about his own death and push its edges again by not making a movie of sorrow but love of cinema and art. As a small surprise to cinephiles, Jim Jarmusch, then assistant of Ray, is briefly seen in the movie.

Author Bio: Ekin Can Göksoy is an author, and MA in Cultural Studies. Besides his works in fiction, his interests include cinema, urban culture, Internet subcultures, flânerie, cuisine, and the city of İstanbul. He has focused on his aim of making movies since 7th grade when he watched The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) of Alfred Hitchcock who happened to be his favorite director of all-time.