One of America’s most influential filmmakers died 31 years ago today, but you’d be forgiven for never having heard of him. Despite being cited by international directors like Martin Scorsese, Jean-Luc Goddard, Francois Truffaut and Wim Wenders, Nicholas Ray remains at best a cult figure in the United States, a favorite of film noir aficionados and lovers of weird cinema but a director who remains on the fringes of cinematic history.
Born in Wisconsin as Raymond Nicholas Kienzle, Ray was an early student of Frank Lloyd Wright before he moved to New York and became involved with the Theatre of Action in the 1930s.
Ray’s greatest commercial success came with 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, which, among other things, is remembered for its excellent use of color. His vivid palette is best displayed in what was arguably his strangest film, the bizarre Johhny Guitar. The western was shot in Trucolor, a cheap, shortlived two-color process used in many Roy Rogers films.
Never a feel-good director, of Ray New Yorker critic Anthony Lane wrote that one emerges from his films "with the dizzying suspicion that men and women are like planets and moons, each following a predestined curve, repeatedly tugged or slung away by the gravity of other bodies."
"I’m a stranger here myself," announces Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar. Thirty one years after his death, Ray remains one of cinema’s most enigmatic strangers.