Nicholas Ray, or:
A True Beginning of Artistic Montage


Co-author: Cristina Álvarez López

Do You Think Nicholas Ray is the Solution to Your Life?” (1)

It’s always a matter of violence and moral solitude, in a desperate universe which leaves behind nothing but bitterness”. Already in 1955, François Truffaut seemed to be instantly rather bored by recounting the by-then familiar, auteurist themes of Johnny Guitar (1954). Certainly, “Nicholas Ray remains, throughout his work, faithful to a certain number of themes that are personal to him”. But Truffaut insists, even in the space of this short tabloid-magazine review, that a critic should “mistrust appearances” – especially those of plot and genre. The future filmmaker is clearly more excited when evoking Ray’s “very inventive, fine and intelligent mise en scène” and his “unusual framing”. (2) Just a year later, in the same columns of Arts, Truffaut (reviewing Rebel Without a Cause [1955]) seems even more wearied by the prospect of having to state the obvious: “Yes, Nicholas Ray is a bitter, pessimistic poet … ”. (3)

He sure is. But, all these years later, the majority of writing on Ray still arrives swamped in the same generalities, colourful but vague tabloid coinages: poet of solitude and violence, risk-taking gambler in art and life, rebel with or without a cause, Method Man behind the Movie Camera, the melancholic at twilight …

In this essay, we want to take a different path by speculating on the specificities of Ray’s cinematic style: how he staged, shot, and edited (that is, when he was not shut out of the cutting room) his scenes. Some things can be deduced from the evidence on the screen; other details must be inferred from stray remarks in interviews, biographies and the reminiscences of his collaborators. While forensic, genetic research (as Bill Krohn calls it) (4) could no doubt be carried out via careful delving in studio archives (where these exist), there are some things we will never truly know, that will remain pure matters of speculation. We can never fully place ourselves, imaginatively, inside the complex head of Ray. But we can try.

The Inner Logic of a Movement

It is a sequence of shots that has been well and truly enshrined in cinephilic memory, thanks to its insistently repeated, scratchy, slow-motion citation in Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998): the final images of They Live by Night (1948), an instant after the killing by police of Bowie (Farley Granger). His pregnant partner, Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) – whose cry of despair we hear off-screen and recorded very close to a microphone (slightly illogically, since we have just seen her asleep) – races to the corpse and bends down to him. Her first gesture – running and bending – is depicted in a perfectly serviceable match-cut. The latter of these two shots is complex and beautifully orchestrated as mise en scène: as Keechie sits up on her knees before returning to her ground position, the truncated bodies of cops swarm the frame in front of and behind her.

But what happens next, across three cuts in only six seconds, is far stranger – and compelling precisely because of its strangeness.

Shot 3 of this passage is framed at an unusual angle: hovering above the actor’s left shoulder, looking down. Keechie grabs the letter in Bowie’s pocket and turns as she sits up again on her knees. When the cut to shot 4 (a frontal close-up of Keechie) occurs, the lighting on her face is quite different – it has shadows on its right side where a moment ago it was clear. In this close shot, Keechie looks upward and then, with the camera following her movement, she begins to rise; she even goes out of focus for a few frames as she leans closer to the lens.

Cut to shot 5, which is (more or less) the continuation of shot 3: from her static position, and with her eyes looking forward (not up), Keechie rises
again. Then – in the rest of the shot, not included in Godard’s selective appropriation of this sequence in Histoire(s) – she walks, with her back to the camera (which follows her closely from behind), reading out the letter (a shadow, which could be of an in-scene extra or an out-of-scene crew member, passes across her left side); finally she turns and strikes a pose, on which slowly – agonisingly slowly – all movie lights are gradually extinguished before the ultimate quick fade-out. It is among the greatest and most affecting endings in all cinema.

What Ray and his RKO editor Sherman Todd have done here, in the part Godard highlighted (shots 3, 4 & the start of 5), is extraordinary: two camera set-ups have been intercut in such a way that a fluid overlap in the on-screen movement is created, but not in the conventional (supposed “invisible”) manner of repeating (going back over) just a frame or two of the action occurring across both shots. Instead, there is what could be called a re-setting of the movement through a larger winding back of a few seconds, thus clearly repeating the gestural action (of, in this case, Keechie rising) that we have already just witnessed – it’s not easy to see this as the film flows through (especially at this flashpoint of drama), but the effect is subtly jarring. Because the insertion of shot 4 (the second angle on Keechie rising) into shot 3, breaking it in two, brings with it at least three types of discontinuity: of light, position of the actor, and placement of her eyes.

But these discontinuities are clearly of no concern to Ray. What works in the scene is its rhythm, its emotion, and its peculiar, modernist flow. It is not a matter, for us as spectators, of overlooking or excusing the seeming errors in screen craft (as Truffaut tried to do); rather, as Joe McElhaney has commented of a similarly wild edit in Johnny Guitar, “the surprise of the cut here, which works to both mismatch and slightly overlap a simple action, gives the gesture an indelible nervous intensity”. (5)

The more you study such shot-conjunctions – and this is true of many scenes throughout Ray’s career – the more you wonder about the intricate practicalities they entailed (or short-circuited). What was going on before, during and between these takes? Were they even all done in the same burst of shooting, on the same day? Possibly not: in shot 3, which shows Keechie grasping the letter, Farley’s body is not visible in the frame, suggesting that it may have been a re-take shot at another time (without the male actor present!) in order to be added into the editing, thus providing a stronger finale. Such reshooting was a fairly common Hollywood practice.

The important point, however, is that Ray did not aim, after gathering these diverse angles and shots, for what is known in the industry as seamless continuity. Ray, as we shall see, rejected the professional code of strictly “logical” and “invisible” editing as much as he decried its seeming opposite, the intellectual theory of “collisionary” and “analytic” editing. (6) For Ray, editing had to possess what he called an inner logic. And that logic, in practice, has a stunning materiality, which influenced later directors including John Cassavetes and, naturally, Godard himself.

Godard’s praise of these shots in They Live by Night is not slight; for him (as he expressed to Youssef Ishaghpour in 2000), they constitute “a true beginning of artistic montage”. (7) The claim might seem excessive: didn’t Sergi Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, D.W. Griffith and all those cats have a little something to do with the invention of montage some 20 years beforehand? But – just like Josef von Sternberg’s equally vexing claim in 1960 that although Eisenstein (whom he had known personally) “wrote about horizontal and vertical montage, he never made use of it” (8) – we must try to project ourselves into what is at stake in Godard’s bold statement.

It is significant, we believe, that Godard’s favourite examples of “artistic montage” take place within the confines of more-or-less classically narrative films – classical, at least, in the sense that they narrate and follow the line of a single story. Yet the montage sequences that Godard rag-picks are not a mere diversion from, or detonation of, the narratives encasing them. In Ray as in Orson Welles, Godard saw an intermittent, stuttering action, “something like a trail leading toward what all film makers are after, which is really montage to tell stories in a different way”. (9) By the time Ray was working with multiple screens for We Can’t Go Home Again (1973/2009), he too was seeking to use montage (both hard and soft montage, in Harun Farocki’s terminology) to tell a story in a different way. The narrative aspiration never entirely disappeared from his (or Godard’s) work – as fragmented, dispersed and pulverised as that work undoubtedly became over the course of time.

The World of the Modern Cinema

Let us insist on certain details that sometimes disconcertingly strike the consciousness of even the most enraptured Ray fans – those viewers who are completely immersed in the unfolding moods and emotions of his work. His films are full of what can be conventionally called bad edits: clear mismatches of action, posture, and eyeline from one shot to the next. Glaring examples have already been noted in that finale of They Live by Night, but almost any dialogue scene in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) offers an instance of this phenomenon at virtually every cut, as in the following two examples from a scene between James Dean and Natalie Wood 70 minutes in.

Now let’s add something that can register as an even odder phenomenon, fairly unique to Ray’s work: a recourse, at puzzling moments, to placing an actor’s dialogue off-screen (sometimes for a good while) just when we might expect (consciously or unconsciously) the camera to be trained on them, or the editing pattern or découpage to return to them. In Johnny Guitar, there are even cuts away from an actor just as he or she opens their mouth to speak!

The World War II drama Bitter Victory (1957) is a film that seems – doubtless because of the legendary chaos of its shoot, as Ray’s biographers duly attest – to invite finger-wagging scrutiny of its gaffes or “mistakes”. In fact, one scene in particular, eight-and-a-half minutes in, has attracted four crucial commentaries, two absolutely pro, and two that are (in some respects) contra.

Godard, 30 years before making his Histoire(s), hailed Bitter Victory as, in general, “magnificently edited [monté]” and, in particular, cited the “fantastic brio [brio fou]” of the découpage in a sequence (actually strung out over several short scenes) where, in a restaurant, Captain Jim (Curt Jürgens) observes the interaction between his wife, Jane (Ruth Roman), and his rival, Major David (Richard Burton). (10) Godard gave no further detail of this in his review beyond noting that Bitter Victory boldly inhabits and announces “the world of the modern cinema”. But Robin Wood took the baton relay during the early 1970s, giving it a more classical delivery to the finish-line.

The intensity of the Ray – it must be among the most electrifying dialogues ever filmed – arises partly from the cutting […] The fascination of the sequence does not lie merely in the acting. Ray has conceived the whole scene in terms of exchanged or intercepted looks; the significance, instead of being extracted from the text, is conferred upon it by the way the characters look at each other. The cutting stresses (but not crudely) the significance of the glances, Ray using editing rather as a poet uses accent to obtain the most precise inflections. […] It is difficult to think of the acting in the Ray scene distinct from the editing. (11)

In a carefully formulated argument of 2014, Kent Jones criticised much analysis performed under the auteurist banner for neglecting patient description of a whole film – description designed (adapting a fine motto from André Bazin) to “prolong the shock of the work for the reader” – in favour of asserting “the essential truth of the auteur” as manifested in fleeting “scenes, passages, grace notes, epiphanies, directorial ‘use’ of this or that actor or actress”. (12) Wood’s account of Bitter Victory, in Jones’ view, falls under the banner of such woolly essentialism.

According to Jones, the first volley of the sequence in question, when scrutinised at the level of script content, “feels like a collection of drafts, stray notes, and ideas mashed together on the morning of the shoot” – as it may well have been. The “non-logic” of the dialogue interaction amounts, in Jones’ estimation, to a “rickety edifice atop an uncertain foundation”. In this context, Ray’s découpage (“42 variations of three set-ups in two minutes” are specified, with also a general three-shot appearing five times as punctuation) is a dazzling cover for “murky” and unfocused acting and characterisation: “It’s unclear who is having what effect on whom”. We would dispute this assertion, as the interaction – whatever the artistic level of its dramatic realisation – seems to us quite clear and unambiguous.

Nonetheless, Jones has a point: the rapid editing pattern has an odd insistence, a brio fou indeed. It calls attention to itself, in a manner that Éric Rohmer might have designated as an arabesque, an ostentatious ornamentation of the scene. (13) The editing both expresses or “inflects” the scene (as Wood proposes) and also, somewhat, floats above it – another trademark, we would say, of modern cinema. Placed within this “keynote strangeness” (the terms comes from Manny Farber) (14) or ambient dissociation, there are merely “characters moving like sleepwalkers through the action” for Jones (a slight that Ray would have hated!).

Finally, the critic notes a sombre, dull grey, CinemaScopic composition “reminiscent of funeral parlors and hospital chapels”, lacklustre set design, and sad soundtrack elements of “a deadened room tone and looped dialogue”. Ouch! Personally, we would rate this sequence as striking and effective, but not among Ray’s best – for starters, it’s an unusually static scene for him.

David Cairns has more recently proposed in relation to this scene that Ray (like many filmmakers) deliberately and often skilfully used techniques of “cheating” – such as rearranging the relative positions of actors from shot to shot – in his work, as did (more successfully in Cairns’ view) Alexander Mackendrick. (15) However, it is sometimes the case for Cairns that this “subliminal nudging” – to create the expressive feeling that “something’s not quite right” – can exceed its limit in Ray and end up signalling to the viewer that “nothing is right” in the construction of the filmed event. (He is especially perturbed by an “eyeline violation” near the end of the Bitter Victory scene which seems quite alright to us!) At such moments of stylistic breakdown, according to Cairns, Ray plunges us into a vacillating and unwelcome “uncertainty/discomfort” – that word uncertainty again! An uncertainty, no doubt, as to whether Ray was entirely in control of the stylistic ensemble at his disposal, and/or whether he was always able to successfully shape the chaos of it in post-production.

However, it’s possible to put all this in a far more positive light. By means that we shall soon go into, Ray liked to create in the shooting (as well as in all other phases of production, including scripting) unstable scenes – neither smooth nor predictable. He was constantly edging the material toward fracture or breakdown. Disequilibrium, on every level, was his favourite working tool. This was – as has been underlined by many commentators, especially biographer Bernard Eisenschitz (16) – the risk factor in his art: an approach that had such an enormous effect on one admirer, Jacques Rivette, that the latter made it the basis of his own art. (17)

Ray’s ultimate aim (somewhat different from Rivette’s) was a detailed, moment-to-moment dynamism of mood, character behaviour/psychology, and style. Truffaut had gleaned exactly this in 1955 (although it probably would not have entirely pleased Ray, who prided himself on the ability to craft a “whole piece of entertainment”, to encounter this particular praise): “It’s clear that Ray aims less for conventional, overall consistency in a film than to give each shot a certain emotional quality”. (18)


In terms of specific film style – as distinct from more general matters of approach to directing or acting – unquestionably the most revealing chapter of Ray’s assembled writings, classes and ruminations, I Was Interrupted, is the one devoted to “Cutting”. In these mere two-and-a-half pages, Ray vividly expresses his lifelong antipathy to what he calls the Darryl Zanuck (producer/studio head) school of editing: “the style of the old-fashioned boys – Henry King, Henry Hathaway: long shot, medium shot, close shot”. Contrary to that tendency is what he identifies – and this will be surprising to some old-school cinephiles – as the Billy Wilder method.

Zanuck would slide into a scene, while Wilder would say, “If you’re going to cut, you have to feel it, you have to have a reason”. So in a film of Zanuck’s, from the straight-on shot you move in a little closer, a little bit over to the right, a little bit over to the left – and it’s tepid. With Billy, you’re there, and it’s WOW! over to the right, WOW! over to the left, BANG! to the centre – Billy was a great director of comedy, and also a great director of tension and suspense, as in Double Indemnity [1944]. (19)

The wow-bang emphasis in these remarks should alert us to the fact that, like Mackendrick (another prodigiously crafty cheater of screen space), Ray indeed had no truck with the Hollywood gospel (today still a staple of film and TV production) of so-called “invisible” style. Rather, stylistic decisions or gestures are meant to be seen, noticed – and, above all, felt. Nonetheless, Ray had no time for what he termed “camera tricks” or exhibitionistic displays of style for its own sake. The formal work of a film has to be tied closely to character and story – it needs to be “logical” and based on an “emotional foundation” – and this is Ray’s classical side, even in the late period when he was exploring experimental techniques such as video synthesis. (His example of an “illogical” flourish is the camera rising “from the bottom of a gravel pit to the top of a gravel pit” in King Vidor’s The Fountainhead [1949].)

It is well known – and again proclaimed in “Cutting” – that Ray entered filmmaking in the late 1940s with an obstinate idea of adapting the visual style of comics for live-action narrative (he cites two strip series by Milton Caniff, Steve Canyon and Terry and the Pirates). To “get away from the style of the old-fashioned boys”, he asked: “Why can’t we do this the way they do in the comic strips?”. It was an idea that preoccupied him his entire life. It is from this graphic art form that Ray derived conjoined ideas about both framing and editing. In a nutshell: framing had to be strong, singular and decisive; and editing had to be dynamic and emotive to the point of being (when necessary) disjunctive.

Most students of Ray’s cinema would agree that, in his career, it is really only his stunning debut feature, They Live by Night, that keeps consistently to a comic-strip aesthetic of visual composition: crowded, claustrophobic frames, angled from high or low, that configure three or four bodies at a time – a particularly exacerbated variation on what Alain Bergala calls the aquarium shot, but continually volatised with movements of bodies in and out of the frame. (20)

As Ray went into the production of They Live by Night, he placed his key collaborators (editor Todd and cinematographer George Diskant) on notice that he would be delivering unusual camerawork and non-standard shot coverage; they apparently happily accepted the gambit. (21) By the time of In a Lonely Place scarcely two years later, however, Ray’s style had already modulated away a great deal from that initial blast of brash, quasi-baroque mannerism.

What does not change, however, is a commitment to the importance of finding a strong angle for the camera. This arrangement can be static – there are powerfully pictorial moments of held composition in Ray, especially in his CinemaScope productions including Bitter Victory.

More often, however, an angle is accompanied by the gesture of the apparatus’ subsequent movement as it observes and records the unfolding action of a scene. McElhaney notes in this regard that the “framing, editing, and movement of the camera constitute a form of cinematic gesturing, a physical ‘writing’ with his camera that occurs in tandem with the gestures of the actors” – his example being the camera following the movement of a cowboy hat placed on the bed and then hurled to the floor (below screen) in The Lusty Men (1952). (22)

Still or moving, the camera-sense of Ray remains firm throughout his career. Choosing an angle, as Godard has regularly insisted, is never an innocent or neutral act. “The angle is a cut through reality, like a boat in the sea. You have to enter at a very precise point, as at a crossroad” (just look at the shot of the corralled bull that tilts to also show Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men). (23) And then two or more angles in succession form the entire diagram of any given dramatic “crossroad”. This is a style we can find elsewhere in American cinema of the 1950s, in the work of Samuel Fuller, Anthony Mann, Robert Aldrich or Elia Kazan – a generation of artists for whom a new (and frequently neurotic) modern psychology of the post-war era demanded a renovated form of Expressionism, extending far beyond film noir into melodrama, Westerns, even musicals (Vincente Minnelli) and comedy (Frank Tashlin) … (24)

Like those contemporaries, Ray favoured a nervy and extensive “cutting on movement” that went way beyond a simple abhorrence for static, listless, purely talky patches in this medium of “moving pictures”, or a conventional predilection for seamless continuity based on match-cutting (as in John Ford or Howard Hawks). Ray cut in and out at often surprising points of an action, leading to Tom Milne’s overall impression that the director’s shooting and editing methods “attempt to seize his characters in their most revealing, off-guard moments” (25) – the sudden surprise-reaction shots of Susan Hayward in The Lusty Men, caught mid-motion, are a fine example of this.

In a lively public TV interview from 1976, Ray re-enacted how the gesture of James Dean lolling expansively on a couch during an improvised, at-home rehearsal for Rebel Without a Cause led to the idea for the famous “180 degree turn” in which the camera “gets up” from a low position, momentarily seeing the surroundings upside-down before coming right-side-up. In that same interview, Ray evokes his essential method of camera placement. It is similar in many respects – although more dynamic and disjunctive – to the idea outlined by Mackendrick (in his published class notes and lectures) of the camera as an “invisible imaginary ubiquitous winged witness”, at once inside the scene yet also a detached, evaluating observer. (26) Ray’s version of that notion: the camera itself as an extra actor.

I try to put the camera in the position of an actor, as soon as I can, so that I always have a point-of-view in the scene. Sometimes several points-of-view. It helps intensify the conflict. And it really gives me another actor, because then the camera can act for me. (27)

Not the least remarkable effect of Ray’s commitment to putting the camera in the scene and having it “act” is the creation of moments of high unreality around semi-subjective shots – even when characters are blind, either temporarily (as in Party Girl, 1958) or permanently (On Dangerous Ground, 1951). Ray both is and is not a POV (point-of-view) director. He is unlike Alfred Hitchcock or Brian De Palma in rarely letting the camera directly or unambiguously take the place of a character’s vision. By the same token, he is compelled, to the point of obsession, with involving (immersing as we would say today) and implicating the spectator in the unfolding action – especially where violence is concerned (and tenderness is never very far from violence in Ray’s cinema). Colin McArthur made a valuable remark about this tendency.

The audience is rarely a passive observer, but more usually a participant, the violence sometimes coming from the characters into the camera. […] In no case does the violence come directly into the camera as it would if the camera were representing the subjective position of one of the characters: it seems to be directed, more disturbingly, at an area behind the camera – in terms of the viewing experience, at us, the audience. Alternatively, Ray sometimes reverses the process, so that acts of violence seem to be perpetrated by the audience on his characters. (28)

Among McArthur’s examples of that last – fully oneiric or nightmarish – procedure is Party Girl, “in which figures moving at speed towards the camera are shot down by guns which suddenly appear in the left of the frame”.

At the beginning with They Live by Night, Ray’s comic-strip-inspired stylisation probably necessitated careful storyboarding – a form of pre-visualisation, pre-planning. It would seem, by all accounts, that Ray evolved into adopting a looser (and riskier) approach for the majority of his career, whether in Hollywood or outside it. He would film very many takes – and is said to have had an astounding memory of which of these takes (or fractions thereof) had “nailed it” in his eyes. There would be changes in the scene, involving small-scale rearrangements or large-scale improvisations, from one take to the next – thus making life hell for those appointed crew members in charge of continuity conventions. Moreover, Ray would often fiddle with the camera angle from take to take, altering it just a little (which also sent the crew insane), neither retaining the exact previous framing nor postulating a completely different vantage point.

Working with so much material in the editing room – and anticipating the expansive method of Terrence Malick in this regard – Ray could undoubtedly shape performance effects, even invent them from whole cloth where they did not exist between the actors on the set, by juggling fragmented bits of takes. The Bitter Victory sequence discussed above may have come about precisely this way. It is what Wood well intuited when he asserted: “It is difficult to think of the acting … distinct from the editing”.

Follow That Horse

We shall explore one final, synthetic example of Ray’s style at work in all its febrile discombobulations and re-drawings – some subtle, some flagrant – of an unfolding action. It is a key scene 35 minutes into The Lusty Men, where Louise (Hayward) angrily confronts Jeff (Mitchum) as he works shovelling hay in the barn. The absent bone of contention in this exchange is Louise’s husband, Wes (Arthur Kennedy), who has been inspired by Jeff’s example to buck his steady lifestyle and hit the rodeo circuit as a new contestant.

At first glance – or in the smoothing-out retrospection of memory – the scene seems to be based on a quite classical mise en scène conception. (29) That is to say: a space (the barn), with clear ‘marks’ or placements for the actors to hit in a particular, escalating sequence. Jeff stays fairly still, while Louise circles at a distance, kept apart from him by the beams of the stable enclosures for the barn’s horses – and one horse in particular, right in the centre of the action, between the two human characters. Eventually, Jeff will move a little toward Louise, and then she will make a bolder move to step up to his raised level, get much closer and address him directly face-to face: this is important in establishing the erotic tension that will later figure in the story. The scene ends with Louise’s departure, and Jeff’s jokey rapport (also somewhere between tenderness and violence!) with the horse.

It is our speculation that Ray shot this scene in at least several different ways, and that the traces of these varied takes are evident in the final montage. The dialogue could well have been performed ‘as written’ (or relatively so), but Ray tried it out in various play-through combinations of marks, movements, and glances off-screen. There are give-aways – we’ll get to them – that can cue us into the director’s ever-changing, evolving process of crafting this event for the screen. But let’s first try to orient ourselves, as best we can, within the general situation.

Louise, once she has entered, takes up five successive spots, moving to her right (the start, middle and end of this itinerary are recorded in the screenshots above). She does most of the (exasperated) talking in the scene, during and between her circling motion. Correspondingly, there are reverse-shot positions for Jeff, listening, reacting or responding, and these arrive in three bodily stances: turned to his left, looking straight ahead (middle position), turned to his right. Yet, there is a vague mismatch at one point where Louise has gone further around while Jeff is still looking dead ahead to the centre. This constitutes the first, subtle give-away. Ray, juggling his material, would always choose the take in which the actor’s performance had registered most clearly, eloquently and strongly for his creative purpose. If the eyelines and directional cues don’t always exactly match – or do so only fuzzily – then so what? As Ray might have remarked: you get the idea.

It is for the same reason – the concerted choice to concentrate on one actor rather than another at any given moment of a scene – that Ray employs an unusual and surprising editing of voices in relation to the images. Early in this scene, Louise is on screen for a comparatively long time (20 seconds), and Jeff’s intermittent responses are relegated to the off-space – just when, conventionally, we would expect a cut-away to hear him speak. Once again, Ray must have chosen what he regarded as Hayward’s best and most sustained blast of angry energy, contained in that held shot.

Late in the scene, Ray also employs a wow-bang device that (as David Bordwell reminds us) received relatively little play beyond the early years of cinema: the axial cut, jolting us from an angle on Louise to a closer version of the same framing. (30)

In subsequent films, with sometimes only slight variations in camera angle from take to take, Ray would explore all the jarring possibilities of nearby cutting – or its complete opposite number, sudden montage-leaps to a camera position that is unexpected because it is either outside the traditional 180 degree semi-circle, or focuses on a visual configuration (such as a mirror reflection) we didn’t see coming.

The term cheating has been mentioned. Filmmakers routinely cheat space, eyelines, respective positions of actors and props, usually in order to create an illusion of flow and a legibility of action. But Ray has some special craft tricks up his sleeve that paradoxically serve his ethos of modern cinema very well. His first ace card is to forego any definitive establishing shot of the barn’s internal spatial layout. The more stodgily and rigidly established (in conventional screen terms) a setting is, the less Ray can play his cunning, modulating games with it – this is the case with the Bitter Victory sequence, for instance (thus accentuating its “faults” in some critics’ eyes). But, to the extent that we never get a perfectly clear sense of the barn space (it is impossible to draw as a floor plan), Ray is perfectly free to rearrange certain elements as he wishes, from shot to shot and take to take.

So: the ultimate star of this scene in The Lusty Men is the horse. The big give-away! Follow (once more) the scene closely, but concentrate only on this handsome beast of burden. It’s far from Jeff, then close to Jeff; it’s angled this way (along Louise’s sightline), then that way (as an object of her gaze); it’s occupied on one side of the hay bail, and then on the other. It is almost never in the same position two shots in a row! Darn animal, so difficult to keep still inside a pre-planned mise en scène … but so useful for Ray’s sense of screen plasticity. In fact, this ever-shifting horse as a free point of visual overlap corresponds rather well to Ray’s observation about comic strip style in “Cutting”: “Some of the strips take you from close-up to extreme long shot, but there will always be some key object in the center that leads you out”. (31)

Furthermore, a close affinity (whether conscious or not) can be traced between what Ray does here – with the plasticity of moving objects about, with overlapping and “leading out” on pictorial elements, and with the axial cut – and Eisenstein’s work in Alexander Nevsky (1938), as analysed by Bordwell, and by ourselves in an audiovisual essay. (32)

Ray was counting, of course, on the assumption that our attention would be distracted elsewhere, to the characters and the tension between them. He’s right about that. Meanwhile, he can manipulate the elements of the scene in order to create the successive configurations he wants and needs: emotional clinches, icy intervals of distance, an obstacle course between Louise and Jeff, or a clear path to their potential intimacy … and the horse is the prop that can most easily be moved around to align itself with any or all of these needs and configurations.

This is the paradox of Nicholas Ray as a fully transitional figure within cinema history. Between classical and modern, between story and mood, between transparency and plasticity. A true (re)beginning of artistic montage.

An earlier version of this text appeared in the 2021 booklet publication (unavailable for sale or distribution) of Cinea’s annual Summer Film School in Antwerp, Belgium.

Our audiovisual essay Nicholas Ray: Notes on Style, which picks up themes and motifs from the text, can be viewed at: https://filmkrant.nl/video/thinking-machine-50-english/. It contains a transcription error we note here: the on-screen quotation from Douglas Pye should refer to the considerable – not incredible – force of small details in Ray. Our unbridled enthusiasm for the films got the better of us there!

MORE Ray: Party Girl


1. This line was spoken to Ray’s third wife, Betty Utey (who appears among the dancers in Party Girl), by the director’s own shifty psychoanalyst, Dr Carel Van der Heide. It is recorded (with the doctor’s name misspelt) in the often scorching memoir of Ray’s and Utey’s daughter, Nicca Ray, Ray by Ray: A Daughter’s Take on the Legend of Nicholas Ray (New York: Three Rooms Press, 2020). back

2. François Truffaut (ed. Bernard Bastide), Chroniques d’Arts-Spectacles (1954-1958) (Paris: Gallimard, 2019), entry from Arts, no. 504, 23 Feb-1 March 1955. back

3. Truffaut, Chroniques, entry from Arts, no. 562, 4-10 April 1956. back

4. See, for an example, Bill Krohn, Hitchcock at Work (London: Phaidon, 2003). back

5. Joe McElhaney, “Nicholas Ray: The Breadth of Modern Gesture”, in Steve Rybin & Will Scheibel (eds), Lonely Places, Dangerous Ground: Nicholas Ray in American Cinema (New York: SUNY Press, 2014), p. 21. back

6. Nicholas Ray (ed. Susan Ray), I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 42. back

7. Jean-Luc Godard & Youssef Ishaghpour (trans. John Howe), Cinema: The Archaeology of Film and the Memory of a Century (London: Berg, 2005), p. 16. Ishaghpour, a gifted critic-essayist and author of a 3-volume work on Orson Welles, died in 2021; this is a tribute website. His Jean-Luc Godard, une encyclopédie, on which he worked for two decades, will appear in May 2023 from Éditions Exils. back

8. Herman G. Weinberg, Josef von Sternberg: A Critical Study (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1967), p. 13. back

9. Godard & Ishaghpour, Cinema, p. 17 (emphasis ours). On this point, we are in accord with Dominique Païni who asserts, in the special Godard tribute issue of Cahiers du cinéma (no. 791, October 2022), that the director’s work is based on the “specific tension”, derived from silent cinema, “between plasticity and narrativity. […] Installations [i.e., of the art gallery kind] bored him because they lacked this tension with narrative … there is only the image” (p. 90, interview by Alice Leroy). back

10. Jean-Luc Godard (ed. & trans. Tom Milne), Godard on Godard (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), pp. 65-66; the original is in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 79 (January 1958), p. 45. Milne is a peerless French-to-English translator, but he tends to conflate Godard’s use of montage and découpage, rendering them interchangeably as “editing”. back

11. Robin Wood, “The Seaweed-Gatherer”, in Philip Nobile (ed.), Favorite Movies: Critics’ Choice (New York: Macmillan, 1973), pp. 161-162. back

12. Kent Jones, “Critical Condition”, Film Comment (March-April 2014). A more upbeat statement of Jones’ genuine appreciation of Ray can be found in “Without”, La furia umana, no. 18 (2014), currently offline at May 2023. back

13. See Éric Rohmer’s review of Anthony Mann’s The Last Frontier (1955), “Le Roi des Montagnes”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 63 (October 1956), p. 39. We delve into this fascinating, indeed legendary, piece of descriptive criticism here. back

14. Manny Farber, “Space in Film”, Artforum (March 1970). This piece was expanded into the introduction for Farber’s 1971 book Negative Space; both versions are included in R. Polito (ed.), Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (The Library of America, 2009). back

15. David Cairns, “Cheating”, Shadowplay (blog), 10 July 2021. Lest we give the wrong impression, Cairns finds Bitter Victory, on the whole, “really outstanding”. back

16. Bernard Eisenschitz (trans. T. Milne), Nicholas Ray: An American Journey (London: Faber and Faber, 1993). The later Ray biography in English is Patrick McGilligan, Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director (New York: It Books, 2012); it pushes a strange barrow, often needlessly suspicious and hypercritical of its subject. back

17. For Rivette on Ray, see his review of The Lusty Men, “On Imagination”, in Jim Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma: The 1950s (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 104-106; the original appeared in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 27 (October 1953), pp. 59-60. For a complete elaboration of the art-as-risk principle, see the long 1999 interview with Hélène Frappat in Rivette, Textes critiques (Paris: Post-éditions, 2018), as well as the discussion of it in Adrian Martin, Filmmakers Thinking (San Sebastián: EQZE, 2022). A serviceable English translation of the Rivette interview can be consulted here. back

18. François Truffaut (under the pseudonym Robert Lachenay), “L’admirable certitude (Johny Guitare [sic])”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 46 (April 1955), p. 40. Leonard Mayhew’s English translation of this review in Truffaut’s anthology The Films in My Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978) – mixed with the Arts piece already cited and already slightly diluted by the author from its original version – completely misconstrues the meaning of this sentence, so we have retranslated it here. Ray’s comment about entertainment appears in I Was Interrupted, p. 78. back

19. Ray, I Was Interrupted, pp. 40-42. Ray’s debt to Wilder is evident in the strong similarities between the lengthy opening sections of Johnny Guitar and Five Graves to Cairo (1943). back

20. See Alain Bergala, La création cinéma (Crisnée: Éditions Yellow Now, 2015). back

21. McGilligan, Nicholas Ray, p. 251 of iBook version. back

22. McElhaney, “Breadth of Modern Gesture”, p. 21. back

23. See Jean-Luc Godard & Jean-Pierre Gorin’s 1973 interview with Robert Phillip Kolker from Sight and Sound reprinted in D. Sterritt (ed.), Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1998), pp. 59-68. back

24. For an in-depth exploration of this theme, see Seth Barry Watter, “Blasted Space: Anthony Mann”, Screening the Past, no. 46 (December 2022). back

25. Milne, Godard on Godard, p. 251. back

26. Alexander Mackendrick (ed. Paul Cronin), Alexander Mackendrick on Film-making (London: Faber and Faber, 2004), pp. 197-199. back

27. Transcribed from Camera Three – Profile of Nicholas Ray, an extra on the DVD of We Can’t Go Home Again / Don’t Expect Too Much (Oscilloscope Laboratories, 2013). The interviewer is Cliff Jahr (1937-1991). Not the least fascinating aspect of this discussion is Ray’s wary hyper-sensitivity to – but also cagey willingness to discuss – any hint of potential queerness in James Dean, and in the director’s way of working with him. back

28. Colin McArthur, Underworld USA (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), p. 125. See also McElhaney’s discussion of the unusual semi-POV structures in On Dangerous Ground: “The camera becomes a type of physical being, a point of mediation for the bodies of the actors” (“Breadth”, p. 22). back

29. See, for a more classical treatment of Ray’s mise en scène in a different sequence of The Lusty Men, Douglas Pye, “Movies and Point of View”, Movie, no. 36 (2000), pp. 15-34. back

30. David Bordwell, “Seed-beds of Style”, Observations on Film Art (blog), 27 November 2009. It is worth noting that Samuel Fuller, like King Vidor in the 1940s and ‘50s, often literally rephotographed parts of frames in order to create (inevitably grainy) axial cuts, and to multiply montage possibilities. Ray never appears to use this method – at least, not until we arrive at the radically reworked raw material (generated on many gauges from Super-8 to electronic video) of We Can’t Go Home Again. It’s worth noting that Truffaut, too, was fond of “enlarging shots on the Truca” during post-production, “which didn’t much please his camera operators” – see the splendid interview with Martine Barraqué, Truffaut’s chief editor from 1969 to 1984, in François Truffaut, Hors-série Cinéastes no.1 of Cahiers du cinéma (April 2023), p. 74. Celebrated cinematographer Néstor Almendros specifically discusses this sole contentious ‘difference’ between the working methods of himself and Truffaut in A Man with a Camera (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1986). back

31. Ray, I Was Interrupted, p. 41 (emphasis ours). back

32. Bordwell, “Seed-beds”, and his audio essay on the Criterion DVD release Eisenstein: The Sound Years (2001); Álvarez López & Martin, “An Awesome Picture” (2018). back



© Cristina Álvarez López & Adrian Martin July 2021 (with updates May 2023)

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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