5 Movies Directed by Nicholas Ray

An auteur filmmaker long before the term was popular, Nicholas Ray directed moody psychological dramas laden with sexual subtext. Ray was a subversive filmmaker who worked in a number of genres, including film noir and even Westerns. Later in his career, he was drummed out of Hollywood for his heavy drug and alcohol use, but kept working in experimental films.

In his first motion picture, They Live By Night, Ray directed a taut film noir filled with emotional anguish and stylistic flair that would later characterize his more iconic films. The film starred Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell as Bowie and Keechie, two Depression era thieves on the run from the police. Wrongly convicted of murder, Bowie escapes prison and stages a bank robbery that leads him to Keechie, the daughter of a gas station owner. He plans to marry her and live an honest life, but gets pulled back into a life of crime and drags her with him. Ultimately, their naiveté catches up to them, alongside the police, leading to tragic consequences. Ray's first film was a triumph and portended greater things to come.

Just a year after his debut film, Ray directed screen icon Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place, a moody psychological drama set in Hollywood. Bogart played Dixon Steele, a washed up screenwriter with anger management issues who lands a book adaptation. But instead of reading the book, he asks the hat check girl at a nightclub to tell him the plot, only to find himself as the prime suspect when she winds up dead. Luckily, his sultry neighbor, Laurel (Gloria Grahame), gives him an alibi. The two strike up a relationship, but as time passes Laurel comes to believe that Dixon might be the murderer after all. Dark and violent—a tone no doubt fueled by Ray's deteriorating marriage to Grahame—In a Lonely Place was one of the director's best films and has lived on as one of the great film noirs of all time.

Ray next joined forces with Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden for Johnny Guitar, a female-centric Western that was initially panned by critics. Adapted from the novel by Roy Chanselor, the film focused on Hayden as the titular character, a guitar strumming drifter who finds his way to a saloon owned and operated by Vienna. Vienna doesn't care much that her saloon makes no money and lives on promise that the railroad while bring in a slew of new customers. But hard-driving rancher Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) is determined to drive Vienna off and has the backing of just about everyone in town. Eventually, Vienna gets help from a reluctant Johnny—who happens to be a feared gunslinger—though her life ultimately hangs in the balance. Despite being despised by critics at the time of its release, Johnny Guitar has become regarded as one of Ray's most notorious movies.

A seminal film and all-time classic, Rebel Without a Cause was one of those once in a lifetime movies that remains important across generations. A searing drama about teenage angst and juvenile delinquency, the film starred James Dean as Jimmy Stark, a problem teen who's always finding himself in trouble with authority figures. Never able to fit in thanks to his parents constantly moving from one town to another, Jimmy struggles to find his place at a new high school, where he meets girl next door, Judy (Natalie Wood), and Plato (Sal Mineo), sensitive teen from a broken family. Jimmy runs afoul of Judy's boyfriend, Buzz (Corey Allen), which leads to a "Chicken Run" race that ends in Buzz's death. Jimmy gets blamed for the accident, and hides out with Judy and Plato, forging a bond with the other two misfits. But the tragedy doesn't stop there, as Plato finds himself at the wrong end of a gun. Rebel Without a Cause was a high watermark for Ray and turned Dean into an icon following the actor's own tragic death before the film was released.

An excellent examination of addiction and mental illness, Bigger Than Life explored the emotional and psychological trauma of an everyman who becomes addicted to cortisone. Based on an article published in the New Yorker, the film starred James Mason as Ed Avery, a school teacher and family man suffering from immense pain and severe blackouts. After being diagnosed with a rare disease, Ed is given an experimental treatment and makes a surprising recovery, only to become an addict whose frequent psychotic episodes put his family in danger. Controversial upon release, Bigger Than Life was a flop at the box office. However, more recent scholarship has concluded it to be a masterwork of a psychological breakdown thanks to Ray's use of tight interior spaces and extreme close-ups.