Along with Elia Kazan's East of Eden, which was released six months earlier, Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause is best known for forging James Dean's legacy as a screen icon. Dean, Ray, writer Irving Shulman, and a cast of committed young stars...
Nicholas Ray was a mid-century Hollywood director from Galesville, Wisconsin, who began his career as an employee of the Federal Theater Project, an initiative founded by the Works Progress Administration. In his early years as a director, Ray became known for his contributions to film noir, a postwar genre that emphasized criminal violence, social underworlds, and sexual deviance. His first film was They Live By Night (1946), a film noir that asked audiences to sympathize with two young criminals on the run, a theme that would recur over the course of Ray's filmmaking career. Over the next five years Ray made four more noir films—Knock On Any Door (1949), A Woman's Secret (1949), In A Lonely Place (1950), and Born to be Bad (1950).
Many critics consider Ray's "major" period as a filmmaker to be the mid-1950s, during which he made what are probably the three most praised films of his career: Johnny Guitar (1954), Rebel Without A Cause (1955), and Bigger Than Life (1956). Johnny Guitar, Ray's take on the Western, starred Joan Crawford as the swaggering saloon owner Vienna, dead-set on protecting her estate and legacy against a local mob led by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). The film reversed the gender roles of the traditional Western, staging an Old West rivalry with two women as the gang-leaders, and relegating the titular character Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) to the sidelines as Vienna's "lover." Johnny Guitar showcased one of Ray's signature qualities as a director: his ability to work within and playfully subvert the conventions of pre-established genres.
Rebel Without A Cause remains the film for which Ray is best known. It is at once an apotheosis of his directorial style, the most profitable film of his career, and a timeless artifact of American cinema and culture. Rumors abound about the film's production, with some accounts linking Ray romantically to both James Dean and Natalie Wood, who was only sixteen years old at the time of shooting. The film Ray made the following year, Bigger Than Life, tells the story of a normal suburban father (James Mason) who becomes addicted to cortisone. Like Rebel Without A Cause, Bigger Than Life couches itself in the conventional forms of domestic drama, filled with subversive and taboo content. In the late 1950s, Ray gradually succumbed to alcoholism, which made it increasingly difficult for him to find work in the industry after 1960. He died of lung cancer on June 16th, 1979.