Friday, July 31, 2009

Nicholas Ray's Least Seen Signature Features: Wind Across the Everglades, Party Girl and The Savage Innocents

Is there another American director of a stature comparable to Nicholas Ray whose major films are as intermittently available in the United States? Given that Ray may have been the key figure of 1950s Hollywood, reinterpreting and renewing nearly every genre he touched while providing one of the boldest challenges to the decade's decisive consensus, the answer would seem almost certainly to be no. Not that the director's partial neglect is entirely inexplicable: the estimable Rebel Without a Cause (1955) aside, virtually none of Ray's films manifest those qualities that might make his work more AFI-ready. Rather, the virtues of Ray, and in particular those major works currently seen least in the US, center most on making resistance and the libidinal palpable, within a mise-en-scène that alternates between poetical landscape photography, attractive high-50's artifice and utter indifference. Ray does very little to make his films "good," while so often producing something great, whether across the totality of a work or more modestly in a single sequence.

Representing the latter case, Wind Across the Everglades (1958), scripted by On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954) scribe Budd Schulberg, who apocryphal account has it took over direction for the heroin-abusing filmmaker, represents the absolute apex of Ray's drive toward contradiction. In visual terms, the director's elegant mobile framings of the South Florida landscape stand side-by-side with perfunctory multi-figure set-ups and degraded second-unit style inserts of the area wildlife. The last of these, especially in the frequent inclusions of alligators submerging and emerging from the Everglade swamps, assures the film's connection to the recent Hollywood cycle of the safari picture, popularized by King Solomon's Mine (Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton, 1950), with its human subjects sutured into an often dangerous wilderness. While Wind Across the Everglades provides for a similar fauna-based spectacle, it remains less the source of adventure that it is in the purer safari iterations than a signifier of the Everglades status as wilderness. Indeed, the Everglades are here, in this turn-of-the-century set narrative, a Western-style frontier with the Law contending against the Lawless (plume-hunting poachers), who claim as their watchword, the very un-50s notion of "protest."

In Ray's hands, there is sympathy for both, with each located comfortably outside of a cultural hegemony that the opening, kitschy (at least from our present perspective) voice-over establishes - namely the craze for plumes in ladies' hats. Christopher Plummer's Audubon Society hero Walt Murdock fights against the consumerist-inspired environmental destruction wrought by this trend, with outlaw poacher Cottonmouth (Burl Ives) and his libertine cohorts the principle source of his quest. The latter faction, however, promotes the pleasures of the flesh that one senses quite clearly Ray himself endorses - busty women, swamp game cooked over an open flame, homemade liquor - while taking the freedom of the individual to his logical conclusion: "eat or be et." (Their ultimate spirit-addled confrontation with Murdock on Cottonmouth Key represents the aforementioned great moment.) They are, in other words, the perfect 1950s dissidents, while Walt is a strident opponent to the unassailable value of commerce, which is to say he is the perfect 1950s dissident. Whatever the role that Schulberg played in Wind Across the Everglades, the film manages to fully embody Ray's cinema.

Party Girl (1958) is a Nick Ray film of quite a different sort. While Wind Across the Everglades invents a new form in the matrixed combination of safari picture, Western and topical film, Party Girl reinvents the dormant form of the 1930s gangster picture within the director's melodramatic mode (displayed in Rebel Without a Cause and his supreme masterpiece, Bigger Than Life, 1956, among others). In looking to this earlier source, prohibited by the same Production Code to which Ray's films uniformly applied stress, aiding in its ultimate collapse a decade later, Ray also finds a politics to challenge 1950s consensus thinking: an advocacy for the little guy that promoted physically impaired attorney Tommy Farrell's (Robert Taylor) original association with gangster Rico (Lee J. Cobb). In the narrative's present, Tommy has become an advocate for the guilty, adroitly manipulating juries to acquit the clearly criminal. His comfort with this arrangement, however, decreases after he meets the eponymous 'lady of leisure' and dance hall girl Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse), with whom he eventually becomes conjugally involved, in spite of the fact that he is still supporting a wife at the time of the original meeting. In short, Party Girl revives pre-code subject matter as much as it does the gangster genre itself.
Moreover, Party Girl pushes the limits of what is permissible on screen: Charisse, who is subsequently glimpsed nude briefly behind a semi-opaque screen, engages in a striptease - the same year as Julie London's infamous Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958) strip - amid a series of on-camera dance set-pieces that collectively mark the film as a work of mixed cinema. Ray notably shoots these sequences in Cinemascope, from a variety of angles that include overheads with Charisse staring directly into the camera, thereby highlight the picture's decisive artifice. Then again, Party Girl contains none of the cheapness apparent elsewhere in the director's work (as for instance in The Savage Innocents, discussed below): Party Girl's set designs are often intricately constructed and its color palette immaculately chosen, as for instance in Ray's inspired layering of Charisse's red dress on a differently toned red couch. Throughout, Ray and director of photography Robert Bronner's cinematography is characteristically sinuous, fluidly registering the film's memorable interiors much the same as Howard Hawks's and Lee Garmes's mobile camera work achieved a similar effect in the definitive Scarface (1932). And as the film's earlier source, Ray's remaking of the gangster genre even includes a machine-gun montage.

The director's European-financed The Savage Innocents (1960) synthesizes Wind Across the Everglades's predilection for poetical, aquatic-dominated landscapes, here often approaching a surreal beauty, with Party Girl's highly constructed spaces, here conveyed through the film's igloo interior and matte-painted Arctic snow-scape sets. (This striking convergence of the real-world and studio aesthetics corrobrates Jean-Luc Godard's suggestion that the whole of the cinema could be exumed from Ray, along of course with its combination of sex and violence.) Ray pairs these spaces with a Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956)-brand electronic score that combines to make The Savage Innocents an apogee of both the director's distinguishing artifice and his taste for the palpably odd. Then again, the film's subject insures the film's strangeness far more than its expressly unreal sets: an Eskimo Anthony Quinn finds a salve to loneliness in "laughing" with a comely native girl, whom he then exchanges for her more attractive sister, Asiak (Yoko Tani), after becoming jealous of the latter's "husband," and his principal rival. With Asiak in tow, Quinn's Inuk encounters white traders and discovers that his in-born ability to hunt fox could mean the chance to buy a fire arm or "thunder stick" (the director's ecological concern returns in the film's suggestion of the practice of over-hunting). Here, Ray combines the primitive and modern in this place to startling effect, with its juke box, Elvis-look-a-like native and the aforesaid pelts all introduced in a single setting, wherein Asiak, moreover, performs one of the silver screen's most memorably bizarre dances. Nevertheless, the young Eskimo woman remains skeptical of the white man, who "doesn't approve of naked people," and who in one later instance refuses Inuk's generous invitation to 'laugh' with his wife.

In this latter regard, The Savage Innocents appears to prefigure the sexual emancipation that would emerge subsequently in the nascent 1960s, and allies with that period's broader challenge to bourgeois Judeo-Christian values. In The Savage Innocents, itself an extreme form of the Western according to film scholar Lisa K. Broad, sympathy is purely on the side of the uncivilized, on the side of those who pursue the pleasures of the flesh without succumbing to the temptations of greed. For them, a woman is new every time she reenters the igloo, whether or not she has 'laughed' with another. As always, Ray's film is about sex. However, the imperatives of civilization, whose laws are stronger than any individual, and therefore flawed according to Ray's way of thinking, will demand that Inuk experience punishment for acting according to his own, anti-Western ethical, free-love code.

The Savage Innocents is the ultimate Nicholas Ray film. Perhaps it is only fitting that it should initiate a decade (from outside the US) that would move toward Ray's own worldview, rather than occurring in a second that found him at odds with the America around him, which he may have defined, but in negative.


Mike Lyon said...

Wonderful to hear about these little-seen features (I've never stumbled on them; lucky you!)... I have a personal favorite obscure Ray feature, 1952's "The Lusty Men" - I would kill for some sort of retrospective box of Ray's unsung features... Make it so, Criterion!

Michael J. Anderson said...

I agree with you on the very fine The Lusty Men, which I guess goes to show just how under-seen Ray really is. Party Girl is available on a French DVD, and The Savage Innocents on a UK Masters of Cinema release, my favorite in the group, but certainly a Criterion box set would be in order for American fans.

R. Emmet Sweeney said...

The Lusty Men is great! There's a magazine ad of it hanging over my TV.

There's a Film Forum retro going on right now, and most of these are screening. I saw WIND last night, and thought it was minor, but fascinating, especially the sequences on Cottonmouth's island. The whole outlaw ethos, and "protest" speech are incredibly powerful.

The production was a nightmare, as detailed in Bernard Eisenschitz's great bio of Ray, "An American Journey". The producer, Stuart Schulberg, and his screenwriter brother Budd, basically wrested the shoot away from Ray, claiming he was unstable. In any case, the best scene, the drinking contest between Ives and Plummer, was the last sequence Ray shot. Schulberg helmed the final sequence. Ray wanted his name taken off, but it didn't happen.

Party Girl shows next Thursday. I'm pumped.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Rob, I don't wholly disagree with your assessment of Winds Across the Everglades. I'm not sure I would use the word minor, simply because it embodies the director's work fairly saliently, but certainly there is something off about it. It is rather clearly the least of the three in terms of quality.

R. Emmet Sweeney said...

It definitely exhibits Ray's thematic concerns (outlaws, subversion, etc.), but the execution is wanting due to production circumstances. Scenes were removed and reams were cut out by the Schulbergs. I'd take Born to be Bad over it, even though Ray's influence is harder to detect, aside from his casting of Robert Ryan, whom I'm in love with.

The drinking contest sequence is worth most directors' entire output, though.

Michael J. Anderson said...

The drinking contest sequence is worth most directors' entire output, though. Agreed. Really, whatever excellence there is in Wind Across the Everglades, and I would agree that there isn't too much, is more or less limited to this sequence. (Accordingly, in the spirit of revisionism, I have added a couple of sentences to better construe this in the original piece. Rob, thank you for keeping me honest here.)

I have not had the chance to see Born to be Bad, which does rank near the top of my Nick Ray to-see list.

Also, on our recent discussion over at Movie Morlocks, I did go ahead and re-see Sudden Impact, which upon a second viewing I found phenomenal, easily among Eastwood's best. I will have to find some venue to record my thoughts on it, be it here or elsewhere. I would say that I agree with the very strong Hitchcock connection, though I think it is more Strangers on a Train / North by Northwest than Vertigo, in spite of the San Francisco location, Locke's appearance (more Marnie, actually?) and especially its double-chase structure. Truly masterful, thanks for the recommendation; Firefox is in the mail.