Reclaiming Causes of a Filmmaking Rebel
By Patricia Cohen
When Nicholas Ray, the pathbreaking filmmaker and director of “Rebel Without a Cause,” died from lung cancer in 1979, he left behind a substantial collection of artifacts that had never, or rarely, been seen. There is, for instance, the original typed treatment for “Rebel” with a bizarre twist that had Plato (played by Sal Mineo in the 1955 film) shoot Jim (James Dean) and commit suicide by falling on a live grenade, as well as an unfinished experimental movie, “We Can’t Go Home Again,” to which Ray devoted the last years of his life.
Now a new finished print of the film is being prepared by Ray’s widow, Susan, for a premiere at the Venice International Film Festival next year to celebrate the centenary of her husband’s birth.
“It was an experimental film, a difficult film and I think a visionary film that is particularly important today,” Ms. Ray said from her home in Saugerties, N.Y., where she has also been organizing the storehouse of original scripts, notes and movie storyboards for a sale. Ray worked on the project from 1972 to 1976 with students he taught at Harpur College at the State University of New York at Binghamton. An early version was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973, but Ray continued to revise, reshoot and re-edit it until his death. The film employs what Ray called “mimage” (short for multiple image), in which a number of camera images are simultaneously projected on the screen.
With this new showing cinephiles will finally get a chance to judge whether “We Can’t Go Home Again” was an innovative undertaking or a misbegotten enterprise, part of what one film historian has called “a mess of incoherent footage and abortive projects” that occupied Ray in his final years.
In certain respects his ideas were ahead of their time. On screen Ray and the students play versions of themselves, a conceit that smoothly fits into this era of reality television. Today’s digital techniques would also make it easy to create the effects Ray painstakingly tried to achieve on a shoestring budget.
Ray and his students, for example, used Super 8 millimeter and 16 millimeter formats and early video technology, projected the images onto a screen and then refilmed these multiple images using a 35 millimeter camera.
The directors Abel Gance, Jean-Luc Godard, Stephen Frears and Mike Figgis have all used fragmented screens, but, said Marco Müller, the director of the Venice festival, “the sophistication and emotional power of Ray’s multiple images have not yet been matched, even now that digital technology makes this technique immediately accessible.”
Ms. Ray has the original negatives and said she plans to incorporate some unused footage in a new print. Asked whether she feels confident that her changes would reflect Ray’s own judgments, she replied, “I worked on it with him from the beginning.”
She added: “I can’t say with complete honesty what his ultimate vision would have been. I’m not sure he knew. He was like Penelope at the loom: he would get something done during the day and then pull it apart at night.”
During his most productive years in Hollywood, during the 1950s, Ray deeply influenced a generation of filmmakers in the United States and Europe with his dark, emotionally extravagant films, which included “Rebel,” “Johnny Guitar,” “They Live by Night” and “In a Lonely Place.” (The Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, Mass., is holding a Nicholas Ray retrospective (which does not include “We Can’t Home Again”) from July 9 to Aug. 9.)
“Le cinéma, c’est Nicholas Ray,” Mr. Godard once declared.
“Rebel Without a Cause,” an emblem of adolescent disaffection, was his best known work. Though the grandiose ending in the treatment was scrapped, a series of 8 ½-by-11-inch storyboards — 53 of them — on which Ray scribbled notes in red ink about dialogue changes and camera positions reveal that his ideal finish was still different from the one that thrilled audiences.
Ray planned to have Plato shot by a sharpshooter from the roof of the planetarium. A close-up sketch of Dean’s face as he hangs onto a ladder and watches the body plummet head first shows the dramatic tension Ray sought to capture in the final frames.
Michael Chaiken, a film archivist, said this ending would have been much more expensive and difficult to shoot, and so Ray changed it at the last minute. Mr. Chaiken is working on the sale of the Ray material with the New York rare book dealer Glenn Horowitz.
There are also finely drawn charcoal storyboards from the last major film Ray directed, “55 Days at Peking” (1963), about the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China. A photograph from 1962 shows the boards tacked onto a wall and Ray sitting beneath them.
Ray was continually plagued by severe alcohol and drug addictions and was effectively banished from Hollywood. But he held on to papers from his glory days there, like his own brown, tattered and heavily annotated script for “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” a 1945 film directed by his friend and mentor Elia Kazan, for whom he served as an uncredited assistant.
Ms. Ray also has a collection of scripts and treatments for uncompleted projects, including designs for flowery, flowing costumes to go with a loose-leaf-bound typed script from 1976 that he wrote with Norman Mailer called “City Blues,” which was supposed to star Rip Torn and the porn star Marilyn Chambers; and material for a film about the Chicago Seven, the organizers of protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Their trial was where the defendants’ firebrand lawyer, William Kunstler, first introduced Ray to Susan.
Ms. Ray said she thinks the showing in Venice will cause a reappraisal of Ray’s later work. “In the years close to his death, he burnt a lot of burnt bridges,” she said. “I think enough time has passed, the damage has been forgotten, and people can appreciate more the prophetic strengths of the body of work.”