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The Major and the Minor: Notes on Two Early Films by Nicholas Ray

The Major and the Minor: Notes on Two Early Films by Nicholas Ray

Above: a publicity still of Joan Fontaine and Robert Ryan in Born to Be Bad (1950). Courtesy Photofest/Film Forum.

Among the many things the American interpretation of la politique des auteurs did was partially bury left-of-center movies by accepted masters—attending New York’s retro of Nick Ray’s films makes such non-essential entries like A Woman’s Secret (1949) and Born to Be Bad (1950) stand out not because they are unappreciated masterpieces but because they aren’t.  Do they need to be?  Ray is present in both works in spades, which I suppose should be enough for any die-hard auteurist, but no one said a director has to grasp a picture with the overwrought claws of his or her full-blown, mature and idiosyncratic artistry for a film to be deemed worthy, or interesting, or beautiful, or a masterpiece.  Needing to make sense—and meaning, and importance—of a movie by associating it with its director will always do maximum disservice to fine films that escape the clutches of a given cineaste. These movies are of Ray but they are not only Ray.

The first film—and Ray’s second, if that’s relevant—is weird, and we’re talking Johnny Guitar weird.  A Woman’s Secret is less vibrant than that notorious Frankenstein monster of a film, but just as cobbled together.  It is written and produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz (he of Citizen Kane) as a void-film, something like Robson’s The Seventh Victim where the characters swirl in a talkie, whirligig fashion around an empty pit at the center of the film—that pit being the mystery of who shot Gloria Grahame (Maureen O’Hara or Grahame herself) and why.  There’s no “Rosebud” here, just a lot of pent-up irritation, serene bafflement, and misdirected desires.  The film is almost a screwball drama pivoting around a crime that is less important than the story behind it, the amorphous desires and motivations that spin around the gunshot, half-formed, wry and playful, forming the focus.  Never has a screenwriter’s hand been more felt in a film, with a supreme emphasis on wordplay, each line throw back in the face of another with more irony and bantering cleverness—one can almost feel Mankiewicz on the set making sure every written line is spoken aloud.  The tone is uncertain, the drama constantly misdirected, the emotions, the psychic energy—two Ray staples—thwarted and distracted.  Every scene has its pleasure, and the gestalt of these scenes is the essence of unevenness and unease—a delight in the moment, in the undefined pursuit.  Gloria Grahame singing “Paradise” so seductively her voice seems to drip off the screen, or Jay C. Flippen given the character actor role of a lifetime, a sorry listener in the drama granted nobility and wise humanity by Ray.

What alighted Ray and Hitchcock from their industrial brethren, what excited the critics jumping on these filmmakers and those like Rossellini and Bergman in the 1950s was that they all suggested an interiority to their characters, an inner life of thoughts, desires, psychology, morality, turmoil.  If Ray’s most noted films are taut and twisted by the interiority of its characters—and that’s something notably missing from the supremely cold-blooded Born to Be BadA Woman’s Secret has a unique structural interiority: a story and a style that spins forever around an empty center, a black hole that the light of the cinema forever tries to shine into but can never reach.

One might think that Joan Fontaine, the star of Born to Be Bad, would be her own kind of black hole—frigid and pure—but this movie’s profound secret is her horniness.  Ray gets Fontaine in a way I’ve never seen the star—her black hole qualities, associated with her coy courtship of rich Zachary Scott is juxtaposed radically with her hot-blooded “sex attraction” to Robert Ryan, whose brute physicality, like Sterling Hayden’s in Johnny Guitar, heightens to a nearly stylistically untenable degree the implication of sex in a story that tells us it’s about love and romance.

One could talk, with this film, simply about its San Francisco-ness, or Ray’s complex, brilliant use of space in the upstairs apartment Fontaine stays at, but instead let’s bring up the rich expressionism of the filmmaker of Bigger Than Life and Rebel With a Cause—films, like Ray’s other famed ones, that crank up the heat and the neurosis and blow it out to the spaces and the colors and the compositions.  But Born to Be Bad is cold to the bone, even key noir definer Nicholas Musuraca’s photography is of the temperature of those lavish, wealthy, vacant MGM melodramas drained of every ounce of real blood.  This comes from Fontaine, cold and calculating, sexless and scheming.  Yet deep deep inside she’s as sexy as James Dean, as Gloria Grahame, as all of the filmmaker’s fiery spirits, and Robert Ryan drags it from her kicking and screaming, nearly beating the sexuality out of Joan.  Talk about a termite film—one needs to burrow into this character, into this actress, into this film to find its kindle, its meager sexual, human warmth.

Even I can’t avoid talking about Nicholas Ray in regard to these films; knowing his work a bit can help see something special of him in them—a bit.  But the issue isn’t about divorcing a filmmaker or a personality from a film but making sure the filmmaker and his personality aren’t the film, and that, not finding enough of a trace of the artistry and the artist one loves in a given movie, that movie should be tossed off as a curiosity, a minor work, a side note.  These two films are none of these things, they are great works in their own right and in their own way.  Taking a movie on its own terms can be the first step to discovering its pleasures and its own kind of majesty.

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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.

Is there really any value to the void at the center of “A Woman’s Secret,” or is it just Mankiewicz being lazy? Marian desires to recapture something of her former self, does it through Susan, but Susan is painted as the callous, hypocritical, ambitious one. Yet onscreen, she’s merely a dizzy dame who wants her own life. Why, then, is she demonized? The film identifies with Marian and Luke, but no explanation is actually given to Marian’s martyr act. Susan tells the truth, and that’s that. No concrete data given to why Marian would want to take the fall for Susan. Luke keeps insisting that Marian couldn’t have killed Susan, but other than the moment where we see the hope in her eyes as Susan sings “Paradise,” we only see evidence of Marian trying to live vicariously through Susan. Susan’s threat to quit music would, in fact, give Marian every reason to try and shoot her. Mankiewicz chases his tail, but unlike Robson’s take on Satanism in the Village, the “void” only appears thanks to the script’s holes, rather than growing out of the images themselves. Indeed, if Ray appears in the film at all, it is in the sporadic imagery which can be described as signature visual motifs. Is Fontaine’s unconscious sexuality one of the central preoccupations of the film? After all, she almost schizophrenically flips between her “sex attraction” to Nick and her avaricious one to Curtis. What’s more, she learns nothing from her experiences by the film’s conclusion, returning to her conniving ways. She’s the center around which she demands everything must spin, but the film does not allow for anything but this schizophrenia. No inner life, no depth. Is that appropriate given the context of the film? Maybe. The cavernous scariness of that apartment takes the idea of Christabel’s repressions a bit further than the script lets on. But even so, Fontaine’s stiffness holds back from any of those inner conflicts from really surfacing. If we don’t see “A Woman’s Secret” or “Born to Be Bad” as only Ray films, then where do their pleasures and interests lie? What’s more, would we even bother to dig up those pleasures if we disregarded the fact that they were made by Ray? They are of Ray, but they are not only Ray, and that seems to be part of the problem. Taking the films are on their own terms, they just don’t feel that great.
Valid, in-depth points Evan! I dunno though, I think with certain movies, I tend to “write-off” elements of plot or thematic inconsistencies once I realize either the films aren’t doing them so well or, more rewardingly, when I realize the films have other pleasures to offer.

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