In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nicholas Ray

  • Introduction
  • Biographies and Career Retrospectives
  • Archives and Reference Works
  • Ray on Ray
  • Cahiers du Cinéma and French Auteurism
  • Interpretation of Style in Individual Film Texts
  • Ideological Critique and the Politics of Aesthetics
  • Production Histories and the Study of Culture
  • Ray as Documentary Subject in Lightning Over Water and We Can’t Go Home Again
  • Cinema Studies in the Twenty-First Century Reconsiders Ray
  • Film Criticism and Cinephilia in the Twenty-First Century Reconsiders Ray

Cinema and Media Studies Nicholas Ray
Steven Rybin, Will Scheibel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0233


Nicholas Ray (b. 1911–d. 1979), the director of Rebel Without a Cause, Johnny Guitar, In a Lonely Place, and other Hollywood films from 1947 to 1958, came to filmmaking with a diverse artistic background from the 1930s. As a student of architecture, he was an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, and, as an actor, he was a member of the socialist-leaning New York City acting company the Theatre of Action, which associated with the Group Theatre. He also served in various New Deal agencies—the Works Progress Administration, the US Department of Agriculture’s Resettlement Administration, and the Office of War Information—that immersed him in American folk culture before moving to Hollywood. In cinema studies, he is best known as the American test case for auteurist film criticism. Discovered by the French critics at Cahiers du Cinéma after World War II, Ray was celebrated as an auteur, a director with a consistent signature style and personal vision who (like an author) is understood to be the single force of control that structures the entire film. Yet, at the mercy of producers and executives, he also worked within classical studio and genre systems and was generally unknown or ignored in the United States at this time. After directing his final studio film, Party Girl, in 1958, Ray spent the late 1950s and 1960s outside of Hollywood, helming a series of international co-productions. Throughout the 1960s, he would struggle to finance projects independently; his unrealized efforts during this period include an adaptation of the Dylan Thomas story The Doctor and the Devils and a film about the trial of the Chicago Seven. Ray spent much of the 1960s outside of the United States, attending retrospectives of his work, living in Paris during the student protests of 1968 and attempting to put together production deals. In the 1970s, Ray returned to America, eventually taking a job as a film professor at Harpur College at Binghamton University, State University of New York. With his students, Ray would embark on his ambitious final project, a multi-image experimental film entitled We Can’t Go Home Again. The film would remain unfinished at the time of the director’s death, but, in 2011, it was restored by his widow, Susan Ray. While underappreciated by critics in America during his career in the 1950s, the critical studies referenced below demonstrate the ongoing importance of Ray’s films to cinema scholars.

Biographies and Career Retrospectives

Ray did not write an autobiography. Rosenbaum 1981 discusses many myths and legends about Ray that circulated upon his departure from the mainstream film industry after 55 Days in Peking in 1963. Ensuing career retrospectives and biographical overviews, such as Thomson 1979 and Allan 1984, attempt to separate the myth from the man and connect aspects of biography to themes in the films. Other retrospectives, such as Rosenbaum 2002, Thomson 2010, and Wollen 1994, offer more recent assessments of the man, the legend, and the films. The definitive biographical work on Ray, however, is provided in Eisenschitz 2011 (a translation of the original 1990 French edition Roman américain, les vies de Nicholas Ray, and a reprint of the original English-language edition initially published in 1993 by Faber & Faber). Eisenschitz’s portrait is later complemented in McGilligan 2011. Both of these biographies use interviews, primary research, and production background to offer a full view of Ray’s life and career.

  • Allan, Blaine. “Bitter Victories, Dangerous Ground, and the Films of Nicholas Ray.” In Nicholas Ray: A Guide to References and Resources. Edited by Blaine Allan, 13–40. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

    From contract work at RKO to his final appearance in Lightning Over Water, Allan explores Ray’s use of folklore, genre, and acting styles. Allan engages with Ray criticism, as it had existed up to 1984, conversing with earlier essays by Robin Wood, Thomas Elsaesser, and V. F. Perkins.

  • Eisenschitz, Bernard. Nicholas Ray: An American Journey. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

    The first major work in this category, and still the most lovingly detailed portrait of Ray. Explores Ray’s early years and his work in theater and radio; offers production information on Ray’s career in Hollywood and later work as a teacher and experimental filmmaker. Also includes Eisenschitz’s own vivid descriptions and thoughtful interpretations of Ray’s films.

  • McGilligan, Patrick. Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director. New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

    The second major biographical work on Ray. Drawing, in part, from the original 1993 Eisenschitz, and also including new primary research, McGilligan paints a picture of Ray as a talented filmmaker whose turbulent personal life led to a professional downfall. Skeptical of Ray’s auteurist mystique, McGilligan nevertheless offers an evocative account of Ray’s personal struggles and “searching visual style.”

  • Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Looking for Nicholas Ray.” American Film 7.3 (December 1981): 55–56.

    See also pp. 71–76. This piece, a reflection on the director’s career written shortly after his death, recounts the first meeting between Rosenbaum and Ray in Paris and discusses several of the myths and legends surrounding the director during his post-Hollywood career. Reprinted in Rybin and Scheibel 2014, cited under Cinema Studies in the Twenty-First Century Reconsiders Ray.

  • Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Great Directors: Nicholas Ray.” Senses of Cinema 21 (July 2002).

    In this useful career summary, Rosenbaum proposes that Ray’s films, and his life, are the outgrowth of his early experiences in architecture, the left-wing Theatre of Action, and the Great Depression. Rosenbaum emphasizes Ray’s sensitive depiction of alternative lifestyles in his later films.

  • Thomson, David. “In a Lonely Place.” Sight and Sound 48.4 (Autumn 1979): 215–220.

    Written shortly after Ray died, this article encapsulates the reception of Nicholas Ray in early 1960s British film criticism. Thomson also recounts his July 1978 meeting with the director and reports his thoughts on the theme of loneliness in Ray’s cinema.

  • Thomson, David. “Nicholas Ray.” In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Updated and expanded ed. By David Thomson, 795–797. New York: Knopf, 2010.

    Begins with a memorable inventory of cinematic epiphanies from five of Ray’s films and proceeds to argue that Ray’s films are valuable for their “intense visual emotion,” sensitive handling of adolescence, and unique ability to coax memorable performances from a range of Hollywood actors.

  • Wollen, Peter. “Never at Home.” Sight and Sound 4.5 (May 1994): 12–15.

    Suggests that the “fascination with the impossibility of going home” is the thematic signature of Ray’s films. Arguing that Cahiers critics mistakenly read purely formal values into Ray’s work, Wollen restores a sense of Ray’s political background and the larger industrial, historical, and social contexts of his filmmaking.

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