(note: I started composing this brief essay well over a year ago, hence the references to Ray’s then current centenary celebration, as well as the just published biography that I still have yet to read. I dug this piece up and determined to finish it, partially due to the just released blu ray of the film, courtesy of Olive Films, but also as a kind of farewell to my friend Jake Barningham. We spent many an afternoon together discussing Ray (amongst many, many others), and ‘Run For Cover’ was something of a pet project for both of us, a kind of orphan film, with no reputation (that we were aware of) and no critical exploration. The time that it’s taken this piece to gestate also represents some kind of golden age for contemporary Ray fans: along with the new high def ‘Run For Cover’, Olive films is also releasing ‘Johnny Guitar’ for the first time in the U.S., and a restored version of Ray’s last film, ‘We Can’t Go Home Again’ has played the festival circuit courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures. Let’s hope that their impending DVD release also includes the recent documentary ‘Don’t Expect Too Much’, directed by Ray’s wife Susan.)
1955’s ‘Run For Cover’ contains a key Nick Ray image: it’s a static composition, with James Cagney slumped asleep in a rocking chair, an injured John Derek prone in a bed, reflected in a mirror to Cagney’s left, while a stoic Viveca Lindfors looks on, standing in a doorway frame right. It’s another makeshift Ray family, the young person isolated offscreen, existing only in a mirror-image, while Cagney and Lindfors have seemingly swapped gender roles – he is matronly, looking over the sick ‘child’; she stands alone, looming larger in the frame than both, almost as if standing guard, in the doorway. It’s surprising, with how much dysfunctional families play a part in Ray’s filmography (as well as its ironic counterpoint, the seeking out of non-traditional family roles), that any Ray biographer would skip over the film altogether. However, that would seem to be the case with Patrick McGilligan’s new ‘Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure Of An American Director’
Timed no doubt to coincide with Nick Ray’s recent centennial, McGilligan’s book marks what is, to the best of my knowledge, the first serious attempt at a Ray biography in English. Unfortunately, simply glancing at the title makes me cringe – ‘the glorious failure’ subtitle is an immediate red flag, stating at the outset a thesis that I simply can’t get behind – implicitly suggesting that the figure in question is worthy of study (‘glorious’) while McGilligan nonetheless hedges his bets with a pseudo-romantic notion of the neurotic, tragic artist. As Jonathan Rosenbaum and others have suggested regarding Orson Welles, the establishment has a vested interest in labeling mavericks ‘failures’, rather than suggesting that they are actually independents who only sometimes navigated the mainstream.
Having not actually read the book in question, it was a review in The AV Club that initially irked me. Vadim Rizov writes ‘for the most part, McGilligan’s book is strictly a biography, avoiding criticism or analysis, except when connecting Ray’s most wounded protagonists—most famously James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause—to events in the director’s life. The only implicit criticism occurs whenever McGilligan cursorily skips over what he considers a lesser title (Party Girl, Flying Leathernecks, Run For Cover).’
Never mind that ‘Party Girl’ is one of my favorite Ray films (or why one would bother to discuss a great artist without ‘criticism or analysis’); ignoring ‘Run For Cover’ strikes me as inexcusable. I’m not suggesting that it’s some kind of masterpiece, but it is a fascinating ‘in-between’ film, in this case, falling squarely between ‘Johnny Guitar’ and ‘Rebel Without a Cause’. ‘Run For Cover’ carries on Ray’s critique of the American mob-mentality started in ‘Guitar’, as a local posse targets Cagney and Derek, whom they believe to be train robbers; that they succeed in maiming Derek leads to the narrative proper. Cagney spends the better part of the film caring for the wounded Derek, then trying (and ultimately failing) to reinitiate him into masculine society. Derek’s ultimate betrayal of his surrogate father precedes the dysfunctional family of ‘Rebel’, as Derek repeatedly tries to wrest away from Cagney’s influence, crumpling under perceived pressures – he’s not as ‘manly’ as Cagney, and will lash out violently in retribution – although there is a tragic, stingingly bitter reunification at the film’s end. Derek redeems himself, at least in Cagney’s eyes, but too late to alter his doomed fate.
Ray carefully modulates genre expectations throughout the course of the film. Cagney and Derek ‘meet cute’ by almost shooting each other in a bit of macho posturing, and their subsequent discovery of a bag of money causes further pause – the audience waits as Derek contemplates shooting Cagney in the back and running off with the loot. Once he decides otherwise, and the pair set off to return the money, one assumes that their interpersonal conflict is over and that more conventional male, father/son bonding will take place. After Derek is shot by a bloodthirsty posse assuming them for thieves, Cagney begins the slow process of healing him, mentally and physically, with the help of Viveca Lindfors.
It’s here that Ray’s interest in psychodrama really takes hold, as Cagney first pushes too hard, then doubts if his course of tough love is actually working, while Derek preens and whines, his lack of courage and fortitude contrasted with Cagney’s quiet stoicism.
More plot unfolds that’s too dense to fully recount here, but sufficed it to say that Cagney’s mysterious past catches up with him, once again leading the town folk to attempt a lynching, and Derek’s status as inside-man on a town robbery reveals that his dubious character has fallen squarely on the side of outlaw. Some of Ray’s liberal leanings come in to play here, with the above mentioned condemnation of a small town mentality that jumps immediately to violent action, coupled with Cagney’s determination to convince them that he’s served his time (although Ray stacks the decks just a bit by suggesting that he was actually innocent and that his noble character didn’t necessarily need to be rehabilitated).
(side note: what a great triple feature this would make with Dwan’s ‘Silver Lode’ and de Toth’s ‘Riding Shotgun’, both from 1954, and both dealing with ‘ordinary’ citizens devolving into vicious lynch mobs; I’m no expert, but I think it’s safe to assume some undercurrent of cold war/blacklist era fatigue/critique.)
Run For Cover has one of the great tragic endings. After pursuing Derek and the gang across another deadly Ray landscape, there’s a final shoot out in an abandoned church. Derek gets gunned down, but not before saving Cagney with his dying breath. The redemption in a church nicely mirrors the previous betrayal set in a church, a nice bit of doubling that simultaneously invites a religious reading while suggesting the cruel vicissitudes of an uncaring universe (where’s the hand of God when you need it?).
Ray’s career has always attracted gawkers and gossip hounds, what with the drinking, drugs, infidelities, exile to Europe, the collapse of 55 Days at Peking and his possible bi-sexuality. Arguably, one doesn’t ultimately need an unsavory account of Ray’s tumultuous life – has any artist put so much naked emotion on the screen? His obsession with damaged, violent men, the women who (usually fail to) help them, familial betrayal, the dark underbelly of Eisenhower era prosperity, youth struggling against a society that doesn’t want them, or can’t understand them, ethnic outsiders and lynch mobs. Ray’s ultimate biography is in the film’s themselves, and we could all do well to watch more of them.