I often wonder how much of James Dean's iconic reputation stems from his talent, how much from his early death -- we never got to see him in all those bad movies that Brando made in the late 50s and early 60s -- and how much from his directors.George Stevens, who made Giant, led a lot of actors to Oscar nominations. Elia Kazan, the maker of East Of Eden, directed eight Oscar-winning performances in less than a decade. Then there's Nicholas Ray, Dean's collaborator on Rebel Without A Cause (February 18, 6:30 pm; February 22, 2 pm), the best director of actors in Hollywood in the 50s.
That's a heretical-sounding statement, especially with the holy name of Kazan in the same paragraph, but it's worth considering. Kazan, after all, had that pipeline to the Actors Studio in New York City.
As David Mamet has noted, the Actors Studio didn't make great actors -- it started with them. Kazan has a reputation for getting fine performances from Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Eva Marie Saint and Vivien Leigh. But how tough was that?
Ray, on the other hand, working in an assortment of workaday genres like film noir and the western, did something far more interesting. He got fine work from unexpected actors and unexpected work from great actors.
Consider, for example, Humphrey Bogart in In A Lonely Place (February 13, 8:15 pm; February 15, 4:30 pm), one of the rare films to consider the idea that Bogart's cool, tough-guy exterior may simply hide a man riven by homicidal impulses. Ray gets Bogart to play it, too, and alone among his post-Warner Brothers films, In A Lonely Place makes us believe he's capable of murder. Add Gloria Grahame as the woman who goes from alibi to inamorata (Ray liked her so much that he married her) and see one of the most deeply romantic film noirs.
Consider also Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men (February 14, 6:30 pm), a story about itinerant rodeo cowboys. Mitchum's one of those fascinating anomalies, a fine actor who rarely gave a great performance and often conveyed the sense that he was just fulfilling a contract.
What Ray gets from him is remarkable: we get the performance an actor questioning his own mortality, even if it's never stated that way. And it's perhaps Ray's most visually beautiful film, which is saying something when we remember the baroque stylization of Johnny Guitar (Friday, February 7, 6:30 pm), the chases through the snow in On Dangerous Ground (February 15, 6:30 pm) and the desert landscapes of Bitter Victory (March 11, 6:30 pm).
Actor after actor shows up in Ray's films and does surprising and brilliant work. There's Robert Ryan's cop in On Dangerous Ground, a thug with a badge who's tortured by the paradox. Ryan may be the most underused great actor in American movies, which may be why he's so good when given a chance, as he is here.
There are excellent supporting performances all over the place, like Mercedes McCambridge's avenging fury in Johnny Guitar.
Ray is a strange and protean director, a master of the black-and-white rectangles of noir. Yet he was also one of the most flamboyant colour directors of his period and one of the early masters of wide-screen, an unusually challenging medium in the early days of 'Scope. He was associated with no particular genre, and managed a masterpiece in almost every one he touched, from westerns to film noir to war movies.
If you're wondering, "Well, why don't we just get the video?," note that many of the films in Cinematheque's retrospective are unavailable in any format, and the only Ray currently on DVD is Rebel Without A Cause, though In A Lonely Place is due next month.
To watch the colours and 'Scope compositions of Party Girl (March 2, 1 pm) panned and scanned on cassette would be a crime against email@example.com
THE CINEMA IS NICHOLAS RAY Cinematheque Ontario, Art Gallery of Ontario's Jackman Hall (317 Dundas West, McCaul entrance), from Friday (February 7) to March 11. For this week's schedule, see Rep Cinemas, page102. 416-968-3456. Rating: NNNNN