Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Archive for July, 2011

Nicholas Ray — Rebel With A Cause

Monday, July 25th, 2011

Nick Ray and James Dean on the set of Rebel Without A Cause.

Originally published in 1990 in French, and superbly translated into English for publication in Britain by the late Tom Milne in 1993, Bernard Eisenschitz’s Nicholas Ray: An American Journey finally makes its US appearance in an excellent edition from the University of  Minnesota Press, available in paperback or hardcover — the paperback especially is an outstanding value for less than $17 on Amazon.

Eisenschitz’s book is one of the finest biographies I have ever read of a film director, or of anyone else, for that matter; meticulous in detail, elegant in its prose, perceptive in its readings of Ray’s films, and brilliantly researched, rich with the detail without becoming overstuffed with trivia. Nicholas Ray (or Nick Ray, as he preferred to be called) was an artist in a business that then as now was primarily interested in the bottom line – something ray really wasn’t interested in at all.

Ray’s films as director include the legendary Rebel Without A Cause, Johnny Guitar, In A Lonely Place, Bigger Than Life, On Dangerous Ground and numerous other films for a variety of Hollywood studios, until the system finally crushed him with endless rewrites, front office interference and a lack of compassion for someone who clearly was making films as a personal statement, rather than simply to make films for cash.

Nicholas Ray: An American Journey spans Ray’s entire career, from his boyhood in Wisconsin to his final work as a teacher at Harpur College in Binghamton, New York, where the students lucky enough to work with him completed an experimental feature film which was written, directed, and edited as a communal effort by the entire class.

Never a robust man, Ray also abused his body with drugs and alcohol, and took his work very personally; not a company man by any means, Ray used the studios to make films that identified with the lonely, the lost, the marginalized in society, to rip away the façade that covers up the bleakness of mainstream society. No wonder that James Dean, Dennis Hopper and other Hollywood “outlaws” were so eager to work with him; Ray changed the rules of American cinema.

Everything Ray directed took a toll on him, and yet he pressed on, creating work of brilliance and depth right up the end of his life. Eisenschitz’s biography is a superlative achievement; whether you’re interested in film or not, this is a book you should read. It’s a testament to an artist working within a system that often didn’t understand what he was up to, and was often hostile and unsympathetic to his work.

Yet Ray ultimately triumphed over all who opposed him, although in the end, as F. Scott Fitzgerald might have put it, “the price was high.” This is a compelling, mesmerizing biography, clocking in at nearly 600 pages, and yet a book that is absolutely impossible to put down once you dive into it. In fact, you’ll probably finish it  in one sitting. Open it anywhere; you’ll be hooked. Ray was a one-of-a-kind visionary, and Nicholas Ray: An American Journey is the best book about him in English, available at last in the US  – don’t miss it.

This is the essential book on Nicholas Ray.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at for more details.

RSS Recent Frame by Frame Videos