Why was Nicholas Ray so admired by, and such an inspiration to, the French critics of the 1950s who later became the directors of la Nouvelle Vague? The answer lies, perhaps, both in Ray's own oft-quoted observation about the limited contribution made to a film by its script - "If it were all in the script, why make the film?" - and in the extreme sense of personal pain and angst evoked in a famous line from his best-known film, Rebel Without a Cause - "You're tearing me apart."
For Ray was something of a maverick in Hollywood, a man whose deeply felt disillusionment, both with American life in general and with the American movie establishment in particular, manifested itself not only in his perennially troubled relationship with the Hollywood studios, but also in the dramatic content and thrust of his work. His films were, for the most part, profoundly personal contributions to what was, and still is, something of a factory conveyor belt, specialising in the production of homogenised, undemanding mass entertainment; they expressed his awareness of inner torment, solitude and despair, conflict and confusion, and did so through entirely cinematic means.
For Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Rivette and others, Ray was the ultimate auteur, an admirable example of the film artist whose patent intelligence, intensity of feeling and sheer love of cinema ensured that his creative signature might be easily and vividly discerned. A Ray film, for these eager, iconoclastic enfants terribles, represented a triumph of the individual over the safe, bland conformity of the system; indeed, the director's often unhappy dealings with studio moguls, and the lack of critical enthusiasm that greeted much of his work in his own country, probably served to enhance his reputation as a beleaguered rebel. He seemed, no doubt, the successor to such neglected figures as von Stroheim, Keaton and Welles - talents of great ambition, originality and genius, crushed by a cautious, money-minded, philistine system.
In this respect, at least, Godard and friends were to be proved right: Ray's pessimistic vision of life, his general dissatisfaction with the methods and ideals of the Hollywood mainstream, were finally his professional undoing. In December 1962, 15 years after making his debut as director and with 20 movies to his name, he walked away from 55 Days at Peking (the second of two epics he made for the producer Samuel Bronston, which had given him the two biggest budgets of his career) and retired from the world of commercial film-making.
There were further projects, but few came to fruition, and by the time of his death in 1979, Ray had made only two more features, neither of which could possibly be considered as part of the commercial mainstream. We Can't Go Home Again was an experimental independent movie made in collaboration with his students while he was teaching film at the State University of New York in Binghamton; Lightning Over Water was a partly fictional, partly documentary account of his own last weeks, spent battling against the ravages of cancer, co-directed by the German director (and long-time Ray aficionado) Wim Wenders.
It was perhaps sadly appropriate that Ray, an admirer of European "art" cinema who frequently characterised his own predicament by quoting the line "I'm a stranger here myself" (spoken by Sterling Hayden in Johnny Guitar), should end his life working in close collaboration with a young foreigner who was both a leading figure in another New Wave and a film-maker whose special interest was the exploration and depiction of melancholy, angst and alienation. America never properly recognised or rewarded Ray's enormous gifts as a film-maker, and even now very few of his films (with the exception of Rebel Without a Cause, whose importance is widely attributed to James Dean rather than Ray) are shown as often as they deserve.
One reason for this may be a tendency of many English and American critics to approach film from a literary standpoint, thus rendering themselves at least partly insensitive to Ray's essentially cinematic means of expression. Perhaps, too, a large proportion of his output may be seen as somehow flawed - certainly, he himself tended in interviews to be severely self-critical - and this might account for the dearth of serious attention paid to his career; polished perfection is widely held as an ideal to which any proper artist should aspire. Ray's films rarely fulfil such expectations: some were studio chores for which he himself felt little affection (though these were his most conventionally craftsmanlike, professional films); others fell victim to producer interference; even his most satisfying works feature moments of baroque excess.
But immaculately polished works of art are not necessarily better than those whose imperfections exert their own peculiar power and interest. On Dangerous Ground, for example, may be perceived as flawed by an uneven and broken-backed narrative structure; yet it is that very same formal awkwardness that gives Ray's portrait of a violent man riven by conflicting, contradictory impulses its raw emotional force. Like a few other directors (Welles, Fuller, Powell) whose artistic personalities were so powerful that they could barely be contained by the constrictions of tastefulness and genre, Ray seems sometimes hardly to have concerned himself with notions of balance, restraint and other "respectable", more conventional modes of expression.
At the same time, however, he was not especially innovative, in terms either of technique or of form; for the most part, he worked in popular, traditional genres such as the western, the thriller, the war film and the melodrama. And it is precisely this tension between his private sensibility and the constraints of a largely formularised mainstream cinema that makes his work so interesting and so enduringly modern.
Not that Ray was not very much a product of his times; just as he himself appears to have been profoundly affected by the New Deal liberalism that swept America in the 1930s, so his work is a reflection of the postwar disillusionment felt by certain artists and intellectuals confronted by the bland optimism and inhibited conformism of the Eisenhower era. (It is perhaps not surprising, then, that he abandoned commercial film-making altogether in the 1960s, a decade when disillusionment with the American Way reached what may be seen as its zenith.) But the confusion, despair and sense of not belonging that mark much of his work are as relevant today as they were when he made the films.
Ray's continuing importance, moreover, stems not only from his influence on other film-makers; that millions of young people still attest to the power of Rebel Without a Cause is merely the most conspicuous example of the way in which Ray transcended his times with a vision of life that affects us all. Pain, anxiety, uncertainty, violence and loneliness are abiding elements of the human condition, and few directors, especially in Hollywood, have confronted them as directly, as uncompromisingly, as Ray. Even in his most conventional movies, his pessimistically troubled sensibility is an active force in the characterisation, both of individuals and of society at large.
The Films of Nicholas Ray by Geoff Andrew has just been republished by BFI Publishing (£15.99). Available from bookshops and online from www.bfi.org.uk/books or by telephoning 0845 458 9910
The National Film Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (020 7928 3232) is running a retrospective of Nicholas Ray's work throughout January