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Movements in Abstraction: "Hot Blood" and "Bitter Victory"

Top: Hot Blood.  Above: Bitter Victory.

Hot Blood and Bitter Victory play as part of a 15-film Nicholas Ray retrospective at New York’s Film Forum on August 4th.

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Bigger than Life tends to feel like an anomaly within Nicholas Ray’s work in CinemaScope. Whereas that film is precise, controlled, claustrophobic, and scary, most of the other ’Scope films push Ray’s experiments in abstract space and temporal isolation to further extremes. The pleasures of Hot Blood (1956) rest partly upon the removal of narrative content from form, while Bitter Victory (1957) manages to fuse On Dangerous Ground’s relationship to nature with the acidic attitudes toward masculinity from In a Lonely Place.

Hot Blood is Ray’s first conscious foray into ethnographic exploration, a methodology which comes with some ease to a filmmaker instinctively empathetic with those who do not walk down the streets of “normal” society. It is the first film in which Ray begins from within a fully formed community. Ray, naturally enough, revels in the qualities of Gypsy existence. Narratively, the film is more problematic. Ray’s signature tension is missing from much of the film. There is no real threat from gajo society or anywhere else, even when faced with the notion that Marco (Luther Adler) is dying and Stephano (Cornel Wilde) may defect from the Gypsies. Annie’s (Jane Russell) defiance, along with Marco’s swindling and Stephano’s emotional transformation, also carry little weight. Narrative arcs feel rushed, not allowed to organically unfold the way that they should.

But none of this narrative ethereality needs to matter much; because Hot Blood’s true nature emerges whenever the characters dance. The intense, saturated colors place the lovingly depicted, natural, authentic details of quotidian Gypsy life in a hyperrealist state. It is only appropriate, then, that the film becomes a genuine musical when Stephano and Annie dance. Their bodies--their physical impositions on space--communicate the mutual attraction and hostility they have for one another. This is perfectly realized in their wedding dance, with Stephano’s bullwhip snapping all about Annie’s contorting frame. The emotional dizziness of such a moment recontextualizes the rest of the film as an unself-conscious musical from beginning to end. The belt fight between Marco and Stephano at the end—itself reminiscent of the knife fight in Rebel Without a Cause—is a balletic, choreographed duet between two foes, their anger and misunderstandings coming to the fore through their physical properties, be it experience vs. wisdom, youth vs. age, rage vs. calm.

“You were afraid to go in and kill with your bare hands. That’s what makes a soldier and destroys you as a man.”

Made one year later, Bitter Victory is no less audacious in pushing formal boundaries, but whereas Hot Blood is ecstatic to the point of being intoxicated only by its big moments, Bitter Victory burrows inward, its formal techniques working in unity with its narrative and emotional trajectories. It observes the moral war between two men, James Leith and David Brand (Richard Burton & Curd Jürgens) as they both rot from within. It is appropriate, then, that Ray uses a stark black-and-white palette to render wide, arid desert lands even bleaker than if they were in color.

Bitter Victory also displays Ray’s most radical use of sound. His deep-focus compositions and controlled use of non-diegetic music were always expressive tools which he used extensively. In this film, long stretches of feet running across cobblestones, a band playing in the background, or the occasional strains of a dissonant, unsettling score serve to abstract and complicate the images even more. The desert is wide and empty, and so is the aural tapestry Ray weaves.

The film is Ray at his most absurd. The War means little, if we are to gather anything from the great loss of life on the soldiers’ mission to the Libyan desert. Their objective is never clearly defined, never placed within the larger context of the war’s purpose, and ultimately a ridiculous failure (important documents from Rommel’s headquarters are burned by a captured German officer just as the men are about to be rescued). Leith does not belong in this scenario; his intellectualism, along with his affinity toward the desert and to Arab culture, set him squarely outside of the military establishment. His continuing bitterness toward not only the effects of war on human beings, but also of modern life in general, turns him into a nihilist no longer able to understand the value of human life.  His most famous line, “I kill the living and save the dead,” is emblematic of his receding condition into nothingness.

Conversely, Brand is molded by traditional notions of service and honor, to which he can only pay lip service. Ray, in bringing to fruition something he hinted at in Rebel Without a Cause, places these two men in equivocal positions, morally and well as graphically. (Note how they switch placement within the frame as the film progresses). Leith’s death drive is just as bankrupt as Brand’s cowardice. Leith becomes Brand’s salvation, even though Brand tries to, and then is successful in killing him. Brand no longer wishes to hide the truth of himself, but instead faces and rejects his own self. Leith’s death suggests transference of identity, similar to Jim and Buzz, and predicts Murdock and Cottenmouth. This is concretized when Brand’s wife Jane (Ruth Roman)—Leith’s former lover—says, “It’s good to have you home, Leith,” to Brand’s face when he returns. His final gesture of bitterness is to make a straw dummy the symbol of his honor. Ray’s most scathing film thus comes to a profoundly tragic end.

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Homes for Strangers: The Cinema of Nicholas Ray is an on-going series of articles covering the 2009 retrospective on Nicholas Ray, running from July 17th to August 6th—with a special bonus on August 16th & 17th at the Anthology Film Archives—at New York's Film Forum.

The story goes that Ray wanted Burton to play Brand, and for Montgomery Clift or Paul Newman to play Leith. Like the Crawford-Stanwyck showdown of “Johnny Guitar,” it’s funny to think what might have been.

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