Rebel Without A Cause

rebel without a cause chickie race

One of the most striking things about the notions of masculinity invoked in Rebel Without A Cause is the extent to which it is established in contrast and antagonism to femininity/females.  Jim desperately wishes for his father, his male role model, or at least the male role model prescribed to him by American society, to embody traditionally glorified active definitions of masculinity.  He repeatedly tells his father, begs him to “stand up,” a figurative cry given literal embodiment in Ray’s blocking and staging; often, Jim, on the verge of tears, pulls his stooping or kneeling father up from his knees or his static sitting position, as if to simultaneously pull him up into the more active, dominant form of masculinity espoused by American society.

However, what makes the wish for such idealized notions of masculinity interesting is the way it is here constructed almost wholly in relation to the female, specifically in the figures of Jim’s paternal grandmother and his mother.  I am reminded of the notoriously troubling figure of The Mother in many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films: grown men, like the Claude Raines character in Notorious or the worst-case-of-all Norman Bates in Psycho, are shown to be compromised in their masculinity and their adult maturity by the continuing presence (which is often overbearing and excessive) of their mother.  These men fail to live up to notions of what it is to be a “man” by living in houses and families still ruled by the matriarch rather than the masculine patriarch.  Here, too, Jim’s father Frank is completely dominated not only by his nagging wife, who “eats away at him” as Jim says, but also by his mother.  When the female-dominated trio go to collect Jim from the police station, it is not only Jim’s mother but also his grandmother who forcibly make themselves heard, who drown out his father (and Jim) and perpetuate the boundless, cyclical chatter which so sickens Jim and which emasculates his father.  Furthermore, Frank’s mother joins the family at the breakfast table on Jim’s first day of school, inserting her (female) presence into a family already strained with tension and overburdened with the weight of the male-suppressing and -dominating female.

What really bothers Jim is not merely that his mother is a (vocally, among other things) strong female presence or that his dad is a rather “weak” masculine one, but that one is seen to be a cause of the other; in Rebel Without A Cause, the weak man who cannot literally or figuratively stand up for himself or his teenage son, who cannot stand or speak against the woman, is cast in a directly causal relation with the mother (female).  Jim’s father fails to meet his and the film’s definition of a “man,” donning the apron that reveals his feminized role in the household, (to Jim) his lack of masculine pride and self-respect, and the “whipped” nature of his inactive, bent-over masculinity in relation to the more masculinely dominant female character of Carol Stark.  It is not surprising that Frank has no answer to Jim’s question of “what can you do when you have to be a man?,” or proposes the ineffectual pro-con list which amounts to about the same thing for Jim, for Frank has never asserted himself as “a man” to either his wife or his son.  It is this which Jim finds so difficult to forgive, and which causes him to fight and participate in deadly “chickie runs,” in town after town, in an over-earnest, desperate attempt to prove himself the active, upstanding “man” his father has never been.

However, such personal complaints and textual discourses against this supposed feminization in relation to the proverbial-pants-wearing wife (the man wears his wife’s frilly yellow apron and Jim actually “thought [he] was mom”!) are interestingly complicated when compared to Jim himself, played to charismatic delight by the moody and shy Method-acting James Dean.  The line between character and actor blur slightly and Jim, while acting the traditional active man by defending his honor (violently) against accusations of “chicken” and by racing Buzz towards the end of a cliff, also embodies an emotionality which the film admiringly supports but which is also traditionally associated with the female.  Jim is revered by both Plato and Judy for his “sincerity” and it is his ability to actually talk with the unpopular and otherwise-unseen Plato, to cry and to rage, to connect with Judy on a level beyond physicality which define his masculinity.  In the end, he is able to do what his father never could, to “stand up” for Plato and to assert his voice, literally; he is the one who peaceably convinces Plato to give up his gun and to come out of the observatory, through his words, his paternal strength and his proactivity, before it all ends violently, while still advocating the general emotiveness which Judy “so easily” fell in love with.  Just as Frank’s passive masculinity is linked with Carol, so too is Jim’s particular embodiment of masculinity set up in contrast to the destructive group violence of the gang of teenagers and to the parents’ inability to provide a supportive home.  Of course, though, Rebel ultimately covers it all over in the vanilla-sweet ending which kills off the renegade figure of Plato and re-asserts the successful heterosexual couple and the “correct” formulation of the American family, as well as the traditional active and female-dominating definitions of masculinity despite much of the tension and contradiction which came before.


Party Girl

party girl

Well, I must say that I really enjoyed this delightful, quirky little film.  Though Ray had very little personal control on the project, having not written the script and been denied any influence in post-production, Party Girl immediately struck me as “a Nicholas Ray movie.”  It addresses many of the themes and preoccupations which recur throughout his films and it involves his characteristic play with, or hybridization of genre.  Most centrally, in terms of Nicholas Ray, this movie is about two people looking for a “home,” for both a physical world or place as well as an ideally-suited person, which will make them feel as though they belong, that they won’t have to fight or hustle men or defend sleazy criminals for, but which can just be their’s and can let them be their best selves.  Our titular character, Vicki Gaye, begins the film as a cynical “dancer” who has been forced into “show-dancing” at the Golden Rooster, slinking around in skimpy costumes and decorating gangsters’ arms at expensive dinner parties in order to make a living.  Like some of Ray’s earlier young characters, such as Nick Romano and even Bowie and Keechie, Vicki becomes a mouthpiece for the niceties of morals and principles and standards, which all fall apart when you can’t afford to eat, as she matter-of-factly tells Tommy during their initial cocoa-sipping conversation.  She is characterized by her independence, her aloofness, and her own past which has made her jaded in the ways of love and men and which has compelled her to let no one “get too close” or to “back her into a corner.”  Of course, the “crooked” Tommy will change all of this, will offer her the husband, in action if not in legal name, that she has needed to tame her independence, to cure her past wrongs, and to bring her salvation through love, or rather, through her intense devotion to the Hollywood couple and her man.  Vicki maintains her independence (her own apartment and her job at the club, which Tommy got for her) only in name, effectively living as Tommy’s dutiful wife, a change solidified when he collars her with an expensive diamond choker necklace.  After this, her dialogue is restricted things like her telling him she’ll wait for him while he leaves their anniversary dinner to attend to mobster business and that even if he’s in danger, her place is with him.

Tommy too finds redemption and salvation in love, in the formation of the couple with Vicki, a theme which permeates much of Ray’s work.  After first judging Vicki for her lifestyle, pretending towards understanding when he tells her that “a girl’s entitled to what she can get” before condemning her for “selling her pride” not only in taking Louie’s gambling money but also in his insinuations that her “dancer” past has been more sordid than her elegant red gown would imply, that she has sold more than her company or her “dances” to the many men willing to pay.  However, after she watches his infamous “watch routine” in court, she realizes his own hypocrisy and confronts him in the male-dominated, gangster-inhabited speak-easy where he goes to celebrate his victory.  Here, this “chick,” turns his own moral judgment back on him, revealing to him that his pride simply sells for a higher price than hers (men vs. women and the money-making possibilities and social positions open to each of them).  This immediately kicks him off of his high horse (sort of) and reveals Vicki to be his equal, in contrast to the scum he has to defend in the courtroom and the mob boss Rico who is emotional, irrational, and sentimental, and who “needs” Tommy to tell him the hard truth about himself (such as when he stops Rico beating a man to death and when he scolds him for being sloppily drunk and foolish after shooting a portrait of Jean Harlowe because the movie actress married someone else).  Oddly, after he comes to see her dance three times in a single week, Vicki only decides to accept Tommy, to go to him, after he starts drinking, which perhaps hints to her that he has loosened his own moral pretensions, but is still a rather odd choice.  He explains his own troubled past to her, his current hang-ups, which come from being a man who is physically, and ultimately morally (or at least reputationally), “crooked.”  Like the rodeo-riders in The Lusty Men, Tommy got his injury through a performance of machismo bravura and daring, hanging onto the Chicago bridge as it rose into the air, trying to impress and best the other kids but ultimately getting his bones crushed in the “meat grinder” of the gears.  In classic definitions of masculinity, American masculinity at that, Tommy explains that he didn’t mind his limp, for it gave him character and attested to his boyhood glory, at least until the other boys started going out with girls; it was only then that he started to notice his difference, his inferiority (as based on performability in relation to ‘the fairer sex’).  This was then compounded by the fact that his show-girl wife made him leave her because she couldn’t stand the sight of his physical “crookedness,” adding insult to injury by continuing to live off of his money, his jewels and the apartment he paid for, but denying him, a physically imperfect man, the pleasures of the marriage bed.

Tommy not only escapes his physical limitations while in love with Vicki (he gets his hip fixed at an exotic clinic in Sweden, where Vicki later joins him to celebrate his new life by riding in freedom-connoting convertibles and picnicking by the seaside) but he also begins to seek a way out of his gangster life, a way to find respectability.  Presumably, in Hollywood when we have two “good” people in love, and they want to get married, they must both become respectable: Vicki moves into the more prestigious, higher-paying, yet connotationally more savory job of Headlining Dancer as opposed to Show Girl, and Tommy attempts to move away from the fear- and respect-inspiring position as “crooked” lawyer to the mob, though it was the “quickest way” for him to get the kind of authoritarian, powerful masculinity he desperately sought.  Like the magical hide-away that Jim, Judy, and Plato escape to in Rebel, where they can forget the realities and disappointments and dangers of their lives to live momentarily in a dreamy utopia, and like Bowie and Keechie’s ramshackle shed-turned honeymoon Home, Tommy and Vicki dream of “the coast” as the magical land that will save them from their lives, that will let them live together in all the unbridled happiness of love.   Though I assumed they had meant the East Coast because of geographic proximity, Vicki’s attempted train ride reveals their dreamed-of destination to be the West Coast, Los Angeles, the city of angels and lovers, land of sunshine and happiness; there the couple could experience a life-long version of their Swedish vacation, on the beach, in the land where Hollywood romances and movie magic would reflect and encourage the escapist, blissful nature of their relationship.

I also want to discuss the film’s interesting use of genre and its relationship to masculinity.  This is indeed an odd little film in terms of genre, for it starts out as the story of the “party girl” of the title, initially focusing on the spectacle-giving showgirls (of this gangster town’s night club AND of Hollywood cinema itself) before following them into the female-dominated world of backstage, to listen to the romantic drama of Vicki (or lack thereof) and her poor roommate, whose affair with a married man is not going very well.  But after that roommate kills herself in tragic (and pregnant) desperation, the movie becomes a man’s movie, focused almost entirely around the character of Tommy and his development, for Vicki is wooed over to the romantic relationship very quickly and after that loses all of her personality, her experienced independence and charisma, and becomes a typical wife figure to Tommy.  This shift in protagonists (and a “taming of the shrew” motif) is accompanied by a shift in genre, for the film here settles into its gangster/crime generic convention, though it still retains its romance plot, which indeed is a blending that is almost ubiquitous with Nicholas Ray (see On Dangerous Ground, They Live By Night, Knock On Any Door, etc.).

But despite this shift to a masculine genre, the film is interrupted by two of Vicki’s musical dance numbers, which stand out blaringly from the style of the rest of the film, and indeed from anything Nicholas Ray has ever done (it is very clear that with such camera work, Ray could not have been personally responsible for them).  They are quintessential Hollywood musical numbers, with a dream-world type of closed set space that contains and intensely abstracts the dance from any type of real world space, with stylized colors and lights, elaborate costumes, the dancer’s direct look at the camera/spectator, and sweeping camera movements to catch and to enhance the woman’s movements.  These are moments of pure spectacle, which stand out blaringly from the narrative, and do extraordinarily little to advance either plot or characterization.  They become the only “active” thing Vicki can do after she becomes involved with Tommy and passively clings to his side despite the danger, after the film shifts its focus to the male worlds of gangsters and lawyers.

These sequences seem to perfectly epitomize Laura Mulvey’s conjecture about women in Classical cinema, who are positioned as bearers of the male (spectators’ and diegetic characters’) look and who exist as visual spectacle, shown off in moments of pure spectacle which halt or freeze the narrative.  Party Girl’s musical numbers do just that, in outlandishly obvious fashion (perhaps another play with Hollywood genre and convention in this luridly-colored, highly stylized film), highlighting the woman’s body and the (male/camera) gaze at it.  Furthermore, the opening credits sequence perfectly epitomizes the objectification of the woman that Mulvey discusses, for the camera breaks up the female body into abstracted, impersonal parts: legs, midriffs, arms, heads and headdresses.  This scene, besides closely adhering to the model of gender difference in classical cinema laid out by Mulvey fifteen years after Party Girl’s release, also reflexively comments on this very spectacle-creating and spectacle-needing element of Hollywood cinema and of cinematic spectatorship.  It is not only in the night clubs of Chicago, for rich men and gangsters, that women show off their bodies, sell their image for personal gain, and it is not only the clubs or the mobs that benefit from such sales. Hollywood too, indeed our culture as a whole, profits from the sale of spectacularized, eroticized women and it is Hollywood itself which offers this same type of spectacle to men and audiences, a fact made outlandishly plain in this opening number of Ray’s last studio film.  But then, the film turns its reflexive and playful glance at other genres, directs it gaze away from women towards men to explore notions of performance, violent machismo, and the importance of appearance and reputation for men who  are similarly spectacularized (though in less objectified, body-focused ways) through the explosively-violent, Tommy gun-blaring genre of the gangster film.


They Live By Night

They Live By Night lovers on lambThe dichotomy, or at least the dual characterizations, of both an active, “lusty” masculinity and a more sensitive, emotional masculinity is starkly illustrated in Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night, his first film (though released after he completed his fourth).  Much of the writing on Nicholas Ray and Professor Polan’s lectures point to the simultaneous presence of these two separate notions of masculinity in both Nicholas Ray’s own life and in his films, both the active Man’s Man type of masculinity as well as the counterpoint gentle poet-type of masculinity.

These two manifestations of masculinity, seemingly characteristic of Nicholas Ray and his films, are clearly articulated in They Live By Night through the rather overtly foiled characters of young Bowie on the one hand, and aged, rugged TW and one-eyed Chickamaw on the other.  The two types of men share a common denominator of crime and jail time, and yet, though Bowie is initiated into the two older men’s jail-breaking and bank-robbing plans, from the very beginning he is markedly different from them.  The opening scene shows the two experienced criminals angrily threatening and beating a man to steal his car, while in the back seat Bowie shies away from the violence.  This distinction is carried through the whole film, with Bowie proclaiming to have joined up with these two hardened criminals in order to secure enough money to get a lawyer to clear his record, and is ultimately manifested in his love (and his ability to love) Keechie.

Whereas TW and Chickamaw remain isolated in a criminal fraternity, first within prison and then outside of it, Bowie moves away from them towards Keechie, the rational, good-natured, more femininely emotional and caring niece of Chickamaw, who better fits his embodiment of masculinity.  However, their pairing quickly turns They Live By Night into a story of the young lovers against the external world, much like Romeo and Juliet and Tony and Maria after them, pursued by both the legal forces of law and order as well as Bowie’s abandoned partners-in-crime.

The film’s opening sequence frames the two young lovers and seems to formally shelter them from the outside world, their faces overlapped in intimate close-up.  However, disquieting subtitles are then projected over their loving faces, foreshadowing their dark fate: “This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in.”  Their idyllic moment of romantic abandon is then interrupted not only by these alarming words but by an unheard sound off screen, and both kids look up suddenly startled and afraid.  This opening foreshadows the way in which the external world and Bowie’s criminal past will continually chase them and break into the private spaces they have created for themselves.  This mirrors the way the film’s two notions of masculinity are counterposed and forced to interact with each other, as Bowie’s more innocent, naive, dreamy and gentle masculinity is constantly challenged by the more active, violent and controlling masculinities of not only TW and Chickamaw but also the stalwart policemen.

What is important is that Bowie, embodiment of the sensitive aspect of Ray-ean masculinity, is shown to be capable of love at all, linked with the two female characters Keechie and Mattie in contrast to the other men: TW’s mentioned-but-never-shown relationship disintegrates before the his violent death during a bank robbery and Chickamaw, who performs the most machismo of anyone and who takes definitions of active masculinity to their chaotically violent extremes, is not only incapable of getting a girl but also loses and destroys every relationship he has, male or female, romantic or not.  Mattie hates him as does Keechie, and Bowie too tries to leave him, eager to live a life “like real people” with his new wife.  Drunk and alone, an impossible form of active masculinity, Chickamaw rebels against those running away from him, yelling out into the night that “I’m better off alone, I always was,” before being killed trying to break into a liquor store.

What is so tragic, though, is that there is “no place for her and me” as Bowie sadly comes to realize, even though they have never embodied the violent, active machismo espoused by TW and Chickamaw and though they have done their best to outrun Bowie’s past and start anew, with a family built upon their combined sentimental and emotional integrity and love.  But here, both of Ray’s manifestations of masculinity come to the same violent end: like his older criminal pals, Bowie goes out in a reign of fiery violence, shot down in front of his pregnant wife by the uncompromising arm of the law.

This movie has made Nicholas Ray’s interest in both the active and the sentimental forms of masculinity more clear to me, and such understanding offers some possible elucidation on Jim Stark’s more emotional masculinity in Rebel Without A Cause.  Last week I wrote that it was somewhat confusing or at least complicating that though Jim fights for an active, erect, stand-up type of masculinity, he himself is capable of crying, of emoting, of loving, and is in fact praised for this.  But now I can see this in the larger scope of Ray’s other films and his own life, in which he the creative, intense, emotional artist was also influenced by the drinking, whoring, reticent, authoritative German masculinity of his father, among others.  Like the men in his movies, Ray himself defies any single notion of masculinity, oscillating instead between active machismo and emotional sentimentality.

The Lusty Men

the lusty men lonely walk

I must first admit that I very much enjoyed this movie; it is definitely one of my favorite Nicholas Ray films so far.  It has many traditional Ray elements such as two men confronting each other, sizing each other up and taking stock of the other.  Also, it is a male-male relationship which, though it ultimately descends into masculinity-testing contests and challenges and stand-offs, begins as Ray’s much loved mentor-mentee relationship between and older and younger man.  Here, however, the particular valence becomes one of a seasoned, experienced professional, renowned and famous with a reputation that precedes him (people know/assume his name by sight, before being introduced to him) versus the young ingénue, a rookie with promise who we will see “get his feet wet” in the rodeo circuit, mentored by the older, more broken Jeff.

The film’s male relationships themselves are rather less interesting than the dynamic which exists between them and women, something which hasn’t really been  true for most of the Ray films we have watched so far (except In A Lonely Place).  Here, it is immediately very clear and expertly depicted in Ray’s literal framing and fragmenting of space that the male bonding and the formation of a buddy male couple is a direct threat to the wife Louise and her American notion of “home” (which is often merely a literal house) and thus “marriage.” From the first moment we see Louise and her husband, united in the front seat of their car and in their desperate eagerness to acquire the Jenkins/previously-McCloud farm, Jeff’s presence disrupts their unity and their established relationship.  The two men are instantly coupled together, reflected off in the distance through the windshield, as Louise is left alone in the car, instantly suspicious and worried.  Her husband darts off to talk to the famous Jeff McCloud, and this childlike eagerness towards his masculine idol and star of the dangerous rodeos should prepare us for his very quick seduction into rodeo-ing, his decision to leave “home” for the glory and prize money of the arena.  This first shot of the burgeoning triangular relationship also shows the way in which Louise is always being left “at home,” in some type of domestic/domesticated space, confined indoors while her men go off into the world and perform daring actions (and drink and party, too).  For instance, she is left in the kitchen doing dishes while the two men go outside to have their first after-dinner chat; she interrupts their conversation (about youthful macho ambition) to call them back into the confines of the house and the figurative confines of a full-time job, telling them to go to bed because they are both “working men” now (including the lone wanderer Jeff).

This also brings up the issue of Mommying which seems to run through the film and which was a cultural concern in relation to masculinity in post-war America.  There is a clear comparison drawn between the role of wife as embodied by Louise and the role of mother, to the inhibition and detriment of “the man:” even as Louise proclaims not to want to mother her husband and even as the film and its characters, ironically or not, assert the fact the Wes is a “big boy,” a “grown man” who makes money and (therefore) can make his own decisions and be in charge of his own life.  This latter statement specifically links money-making and the role of breadwinner to active, dominant notions of masculinity, and further associates it with having achieved maturity (Steven Cohan discusses the issues of momism, maturity and the hegemonic role of breadwinner in the 1950’s at greater length in his Masked Men).  And yet, as Louise ultimately declares in her intense frustration at Wes’ regression to immature playboy, though he should be able to take charge of his life, “he isn’t.”  His final acceptance of the maturity prescribed for men of 1950’s America, the taking on of the role of breadwinner, loyal husband who comes home to his wife, and importantly also home/ property owner, comes only with the death of Jeff, his idolized hero, the embodiment of all his (boyish) dreams of fame, glory, and riches; ultimately it is the man who brings Wes back to traditional domesticity, not his home-championing wife.  Though this ending might fall into the more ironic category like that of Rebel Without A Cause, too rapid and with too-great reversals to be wholly believable or to sustain any notion of longevity, this man’s maturation process, his embracing (literally) of his wife and the conventional “home” she represents and asks for, and his Exiting the rodeo world for the American Dream idea of ownership of his own farm, working the land rather than playing at being a cowboy for a cheering crowd, remains the film’s final message.

As a sort of side note, I want to mention the many references made which equate women with horses, with particular implications for the way they are then treated and related to the men of this rodeo world.  Women, like horses, are to be appraised and picked up, bought for their (breeding and performance) potential and their beauty.  Just as Wes and Jeff peruse the pens of horses and cattle for sale, so too did Wes find his bride in a tamale shop, taking her home for her good cooking and her looks, making a sort of investment as you would with a horse.  The old rodeo-er’s daughter Rusty (which could also be a perfect name for a chestnut horse) and Louise, as she sleeps in the car, are both referred to as fillies, and the men ogling Louise describe her physical appearance in the appreciative yet demeaning terms of horses, finally saying that they would love to “jockey” for her.  Rusty’s father even tells Wes flat-out that “judging a horse is like judging a woman” and in the world of rodeo-ing, “there’s no ladies’ room, no ladies,” only the horse-like property of men (or independent trick riders like Rosemary, who ultimately succumbs to the confines of marriage too).  Indeed, the sparkly-dressed trollop who tries to seduce Wes is first seen being lassoed by drunk rodeo-ers at a party; the film seems here to be condemning her loose morals by portraying her as liking the game, but more importantly it is visualizing an all-pervasive theme and prevailing notion of women in this world, applicable whether they enjoy playing the role or not.  The innuendoes about “riding” continue in the verbal sparring between Louise and this woman (Louise tells her to “beat it, he’s got a horse”), and extend to “branding,” as they are appropriated by these two women and used to reference men, the men they “own” or seek to own.  For ultimately, this metaphoric rhetoric reinforces a relation of ownership and possession between men and women and men and their horses; both women and horses here serve to support these men in their rodeo performances, whether cheering in the bleachers and preparing dinner afterwards or racing after a calf and slamming to a halt while the cowboy ropes him.  And of course, this correlation between ownership and romantic relationships is further compounded by the excessive degree to which marriage in this film is equated with “owning” property, or some other financial compensation: Louise “got married for a home;” Wes sees himself as justified in dominating their relationship because he makes the money and she “didn’t have four quarters” when he “found” her; Jeff thinks he could have been more “productive” with his money if he’d had a woman/wife like Louise.

In A Lonely Place

in a lonely place car

         What initially struck me about In A Lonely Place, which I saw for the first time in our last class, in relation to the other Ray films we have seen so far, is the fact that we now have an older man as our primary source of identification and inquiry.  In Rebel Without a Cause, They Live by Night and Knock on Any Door, we had a young man as our central protagonist, and he was often set up in relation or contrast to an older man, a father or mentor figure who performed his job to varying degrees of success.

The interesting part of this dynamic which focuses on the younger man is that it tends to create a sort of microcosm for the relationship of the young man to the world as a whole; the older man comes to stand for dominant, authoritative society as a whole, along with its decrees and expectations.  For example, Jim reels against his impotent, emasculated father as one particular example of an entire type of masculinity he wishes to reform, or at the very least, to not witness in his own home.  Jim rejects the idea that men as a whole can or should act like his father, who is hen-pecked and talked-over and beaten down by his overbearing wife.  Or even TW and Chickamaw in Night, jail-fled criminals who admittedly don’t stand for dominant society per say, yet who represent a major element of the adult male world of crime and violence, a fast life spent on the run and an accompanying masculinity, which Bowie is trying to extricate himself from.

But In A Lonely Place focuses instead on the older man, the one who might still be struggling, like these boys, between the type of masculinity and human values he himself wants to embody and the ones society is telling him to, but who is not doing so during his formative years.  Thus his struggle is quieter than the younger boys’, and yet also more intense, for it has lived under pressures and trials and efforts and disappointments for much longer.  It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Dix Steele is the most violent main male character we have seen in Ray so far, though he is not involved in a “life of crime” like Bowie or Nick were.  Dix leads a respectable life as a Hollywood screenwriter and his history of violence and fighting seems to be somehow more accepted by society, seen as a more excusable manifestation of masculinity, than Nick’s life, for example.  Is violence acceptable in a man if it is limited to the bravado of street fighting in response to the slightest insult or macho confrontation??  Or if it involves breaking your girlfriend’s nose when she upsets you??  Somehow these acts of violence, which are seemingly always excused in Dix (and Humphrey Bogart?), appear rather more acceptable because they are linked the masculine traits of pride, power, and control.

Fortunately, ultimately Laurel protests against such violence and refuses to stay with Dix.  However, many people encouraged her to tough it out or to passively wait until a solution presented itself, and it was almost too late: Dix nearly strangles her to death, just like poor Mildred, another female victim of male possession and aggression.  And it is seemingly only chance that saves Laurel’s life, for the ringing telephone (ironically calling to deliver Dix’s innocent verdict) is what snaps him out of whatever has taken possession of him as he squeezes her neck.  In A Lonely Place makes a point to show its star’s efforts at contrition, silent and tongue-in-cheek though they may be: Dix pays a (black) man to deliver flowers to the murdered Mildred and sends enough money to pay for a new paint job on the UCLA jock’s car, singed “Squirrel.”  And yet, all of these are mere gestures, achieved through meaningless money and requiring very little apology and even less self-change on Dix’ part.  Flowers can’t save Mildred and money can’t fix that boy’s injuries.

What I did really like about the adaptation from Hughes’ novel to Ray’s film, which was pointed out in Dana Polan’s BFI book, is the fact that Bogart’s Dix is not a serial killer.  At first, this change made me upset, for I liked the close link between the reader and the distorted mind of a psychopath in Hughes’ novel.  And yet, the implications of this change are much more far-reaching: instead of presenting a lone killer, who may or may not signal a larger condition within society or within men and masculinity at this time, Ray explicitly shows male violence and the capacity to kill (especially women) to be a component of masculinity as a whole.  It is not only Dix who gets into stupid skirmishes over petty insults, but also the men who instigate the fights.  For instance, the husband driving the car at the start of the movie, who insults Dix and threatens to fight him just because his wife talked to him!  Or even Junior, who in a way has it coming, in his disrespectful “new generation” approach to human relations.  Even if Dix is shown to respond in a more extreme, and more actually violent way, his inclinations are clearly shared by many of the men around him.  The only non-violent men we see are definitely older: the always-drunk Shakespeare-quoting thespian and the almost-dried-up agent, both past their active, impassioned male primes.  So we can wonder, were they once violent too?  Will Dix grow out of his violence??  Of course, that is all too simple; I would refute such generalizations and the claim that all young men are violent.  Indeed, if Ray has taught us anything about masculinity, it is that it is always ambiguous, multiple and contradictory, often combing active and sensitive notions within a single person.  And yet, there is still the jealous boyfriend who murdered Mildred, a man who remains anonymous and thus stands for all (possible) men, for the all-too-ready-impulse to hurt and kill which lurks in Dix and other men.

Knock on Any Door

knock on any door courtroomKnock on Any Door’s notions of masculinity seem to be irretrievably enmeshed with ideas about “good” and “bad” men and to discourses about crime, violence, and the question of whether society or the individual should be blamed for how a person (a man) turns out.  The three Nicholas Ray films we have seen so far have shown an intense preoccupation with the life of crime and the influence of a person’s past on their present.  Ray seems to be advocating an ambiguous and dualistic stand on criminals, rather like his bi-fold notion of masculinity, which is split between an active and a gentle notion.  Furthermore, this sense of ambiguous doubling also manifests itself in the paralleling and contrasting figures of the young and the old man, another thematic and formal means of exploring and relating these two notions of masculinity and these two notions or treatments of criminality.

Though Rebel Without A Cause, They Live By Night, and now Knock On Any Door all deal with delinquents and criminals, Nicholas Ray makes a point to show these “criminals’” humanity; he forces the audience to enter these worlds of night, of shadow, of liminality and transience, of hiding from the law, thereby inviting identification and sympathy between audiences and these “bad” criminals condemned by society.  We see Nick Romano put into project housing with his newly fatherless family and we see him and his friends turn to stealing because, as they flatly say, “they’re poor.”  We also see him with his young wife Emma, earnestly trying to work and live straight and ultimately giving in to the life he knows, the life society offered him.

Just as Nicholas Ray refuses to draw black-and-white distinctions between good and evil, between criminal and citizen, so too does he fail to privilege one form of masculinity over the other.  Here, violence can affect and infect anyone and everyone, and though one may not deserve to die for his violent past, such a violent end often meets them anyway, like Nick and Bowie.  At times Nick Romano embodies the values of caring, love, and emotion which make him a good husband to Emma, and yet the violent side of him, the lure of his past on the streets, pulls him back.  Ultimately, he is put to death by the system which feels sorry for him, which even perhaps shares some of the blame for his fate (as Bogart’s closing monologue makes gharishly clear), and yet which cannot grant such begged-for mercy.

Knock On Any Door productively uses the two main male characters Morton and Nick as foils: old versus young, father figure versus mentored child, professional lawyer versus jobless hoodlum.  But despite such contradictions, importantly, these two men share a common delinquent past, youths spent on the streets and in the traumatizing, violent-making reform schools, as well as the same sort of active type of masculinity.  Therefore, what distinguishes these two “lusty” type of men is the way in which they respond to and take responsibility for their past, which ultimately becomes associated with their own brand of masculinity and Ray’s ambiguity.

Morton, played by the brusque and grumbling, yet eloquent, no-nonsense Humphrey Bogart, espouses the idea, from his own personal background, that a man should be able to pull himself up by his own bootstraps, so to speak.  He has to inherently be the “type of man” who would want to get himself out of his situation, who is personally capable of changing his life of crime.  If he did it, then why can’t Nick?  As he says of Nick in the beginning of the film, “That guy’s a hoodlum who doesn’t want to be anything else,” believing such a man to be undeserving of further help, and even believing such things to be wholly a matter of choice.  Even after he takes Nick fishing as a too-little-too-late kind of therapy, Morton’s worst suspicions are confirmed when Nick steals from him: “You’re just a tin-horned thug and you always will be. You haven’t got the guts to be anything else!” he tells him.

And yet, as the film makes very clear and as Morton himself comes to realize in defending Nick, a man is not only individually accountable for his past and his life; the social structure which raises and creates a man is also responsible, and such influence is not always possible to overcome by sheer willpower or “courage.”  Nick’s father was killed by the system (which failed) and he was left to be raised by the street, to find criminal friends who were his only companionship, his only male role models, and who provided the only way of surviving.  For as Sunshine poignantly asks, “how can a guy be happy and poor at the same time?”  This system then sent Nick and his pals to a reform school “based on fear,” which killed Jimmy and created violent, hateful men out of the small-time delinquent kids who went in, only exacerbating the problem and ensuring these boys’ continuing criminal future.

So just as there are not only the good lawyers and the bad criminals, the guilty people of the streets and the innocent people in nice houses, in Nicholas Ray films the dualistic notion of masculinity as both active and emotional coexist and conflict within a man.  So too, is a man both accountable for his past and its influence on his present as well as victim to the forces of society and fate, which can push his destiny towards positive “creation,” or towards a “life like Nick’s.”  For indeed, knock on any door and you may find Nick Romano.

Additional Note: The film makes a point to tell audiences that Nick Romano, played by John Derick, is “pretty,” a description which goes hand in hand with his youth, “baby face” also characterizing him throughout the film.  These two traits define both his masculinity and the way he is seen by men and women.  The film, with absolute bluntness, shows Nick’s romantic effect on women, and the way his looks can make men uneasy.  The prosecutor especially not only wants to prove Nick guilty and win his case, but also to defeat the young kid who is more handsome and presumably better liked by the ladies.  Regardless of how true this actually is, the man’s own awareness of the issue, which is what really matters anyway, becomes most apparent when he covers the scar on his face with his hand while contemptuously asking Nick from his authoritative position of power whether he is “the pretty one,” telling him not to look at the female jury, but right at him, making it a fight between men.  What is also noteworthy and potentially alarming about Nick’s well-established good looks is the way that it makes him, along with his youth, even more of a media sensation; people are scandalized and interested in not only the possibility of an execution, but the alluring life of crime and violence that this pretty young boy has been leading.  But it is not only the readers of the film’s newspapers who are guilty of such sensationalism and macabre interests, but director Nicholas Ray himself as well as all of the spectators of the Hollywood movies which also sold sensational stories of youth, crime and passion embodied by attractive studio actors.

Johnny Guitar

johnny guitar joan crawford

For this week’s film, it seems like I am focusing on the wrong gender; for clearly, it is the women of Johnny Guitar who take center stage (making the title and its male hero-focus somewhat ironic), with no little thanks to the mercurial Joan Crawford, who had the script and her character radically altered (and whose own star image and reputation make this film very interesting), and to the absolutely diabolical Emma, played by Mercedes McCambridge.

However, the men have their interesting points too, though what remains most exciting to me is the way in which the women, the female characters, take on and act out the traditional iconography, dialogue, and exchanges expected of a Western: the stand-offs, the shoot-outs, the white- and black-dressed confrontation between the diametrically opposed Good versus Bad.  It is Emma who seeks revenge and personal gain, who rallies up the mob and literally leads the posse, who even has to whip the horse to hang Emma when all the men bow out around her.

And in one last comment about the women of Johnny Guitar, which will serve as a nice segue into masculinity, I want to look at Vienna’s devolution into wife from sexually-free, independent, man-paying and –controlling boss of her own saloon and house (which would normally be owned by a man), once Johnny comes back into the picture.  She is all too eager to build a conventional life with him and to let him save her; she even changes from wearing the literal pants to wearing a long, lady-like skirt and more feminine necktie after her “wedding night” romance with Johnny.  This scene is incredibly interesting, for it utilizes the Ray theme of enacting (fictional) roles so as to appear like “normal” American families or so as to embody “normal” relationships, like Jim and Judy and Plato playing House in Rebel.  Here, the play-acting viscerally outlines the fiction inherent in (cinematic) romances, the role and personality demanded of both the man and the woman if they are to be united into that all-desirable couple: The man just has to have his pride, as Vienna says in her condemnation of the drinking, whoring, violent male types who dominate Westerns (and much of Hollywood cinema in general); the man just has to care about the purity of his woman (which somehow becomes a reflection of him) and the woman has to remain sexually pure while waiting for her man, end of story.  Of course, neither Johnny nor Vienna have upheld the required fictions, and so they cannot reunite on a more even, a more realist, a new common ground after their five year separation, a common ground which incorporates and recognizes the struggles each have gone through in those five years, the people they have become because of their break up.  Instead, they must “lie” as Johnny as Vienna to do to him; they must dream into reality a future for themselves, a scenario for their romance which they act out in fantasy, with Vienna’s final cries of “I waited for you” ringing with her desperation for them to be true before she “weds” Johnny and seals the dream with a honeymoon-starting kiss in her own saloon which has magically been renamed and thus transformed into the hotel of their past romance.

Ultimately, this is a particularly disappointing progression for Vienna because of the way she was characterized as masculine, strong, and independent in the beginning of the film, in the way that she, more than any of the men around (below, underneath) her, embodied many of the Western values of masculinity.  She stood in the apex of her home, framed by the roof’s Heaven-reaching peak, a God in her own dominion, lording over all she had built, over the men working for her (including Johnny), and the men who come to enjoy her establishment.  Though her miniscule feminine waistline is accented by the slantedly-slung belt of her holster, it is immediately apparent that she is wearing pants and that all-important phallic symbol of masculine, patriarchal authority, the gun.  She orders one man to light a lantern and another to spin the roulette wheel, despite the absolute lack of customers, just because she “likes to hear it spin.”  This is her world, and she is master (or mistress) of it.  Indeed, the film makes this masculine characterization and its impression on these men quite plain: one employee explains to the newly-arrived Johnny Guitar, though he addresses us, the spectators, through a direct gaze into the camera as he talks, that he’s “never seen a woman who was more of a man; she looks like one, talks like one, more than me.”  Of course also referencing Crawford’s own rather “masculine” star text, this overt characterization shows not only the particular notions of masculinity in Johnny Guitar generally, but also those circulating around and within the Western genre as a whole tradition, which the film is directly acknowledging, playing with, and somewhat deconstructing, especially in filling such traditionally-male roles with women.

Finally, I would like to point out that it is not necessarily anti-feminist to have your main female (masculine, independent) character get married or to form a couple, especially if the man and the woman can come together on somewhat equal footing, which Johnny Guitar strives towards; yet it ultimately fails at this, and returns the power and prowess of traditional norms of heroic, active masculinity (as epitomized especially in the Western genre and ideal) to Johnny, the man and now pseudo-husband.  Though it is indeed Vienna who fatally shoots Emma, that does not seem to redeem her much, for Johnny is still there trying to save her, as he did from the hanging, and because, as Emma’s partner McIvers says, “its been their fight all along,” referring to the two women, the fight which all the men have been co-opted and dragged into.  But coupled with Vienna’s willing, sacrificial, passive yielding to Turkey’s incrimination of her and to the mob’s noose, Vienna returns to the role of cared-for woman that the Western has been known for: the triumphant couple kiss under the waterfall, and the final song’s lyrics play over their dual image and undo much of the agency she might have shown in this final shoot-out (especially considering Vienna was always anti-gun and anti-killing): “There was never a man like my Johnny, the man they call Johnny Guitar.”  These lyrics might be left over from the original man-privileging story line, and yet now, given the focus on Crawford/Vienna and the fact that it really is the story of a fight/struggle between two women, these final words reflexively and ironically comment on the legend of the male gunslinger which persists and which is traditionally formed (like around Jesse James and Ray’s gangster characters like Bowie and Keechie) in light of this female-centered action.