AMERICANS never fully understood the films of Nicholas Ray. In the New York Times' review of Wim Wenders' Lightning Over Water, a 1980 documentary about the maverick director's final days, Vincent Canby wrote, "Perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to Nicholas Ray... was when, in the late 1950s, he began to hear himself acclaimed as 'an artist,' and attempted to live up to the reputation that had been imposed on him, initially by European critics and filmmakers."
Ouch. Perhaps Canby was thinking of Ray's most famous film, 1955's Rebel Without a Cause. Have you seen it lately? Have you seen it as a grownup? It's... not very good. Sure, it's the definitive movie about teenage angst, but—like the Red Hot Chili Peppers—years of imitators have rendered the original not just irrelevant, but unbearable.
Ray's other big-name production, 1961's King of Kings, is a very odd epic about the life of Jesus—one in which Jesus is relegated to a supporting role behind the Judean and Roman politicians and priests who plot his downfall. The requisite Christian message is tangled up in all the subterfuge, and the result is a movie that's... not very good.
So when Jean-Luc Godard wrote, "cinema is Nicholas Ray," he was thinking of films such as 1956's Bigger Than Life, in which James Mason's mild-mannered schoolteacher becomes addicted to cortisone. Like Rebel and Kings, it's a hand-wringing melodrama on the surface, but there's a ton of other stuff to look at: the repeated imagery of milk, the lighting that makes Mason's shadow look like a grotesque. Some of this may be giving the film the Room 237 treatment, but it generally holds up.
These films and more screen as part of the NW Film Center's Bigger Than Life: The Films of Nicholas Ray series—including the hard-to-watch Lightning Over Water, a film so intimate and unflinching about Ray's ugly death from cancer, it's a miracle it exists.