Produced by Howard Welsch and Harry Tatelman; directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by Jesse Lasky, Jr., based upon a story by Jean Evans; cinematography by Ray June; art direction by Robert Peterson; edited by Otto Ludwig; music by Leo Baxter; starring Jane Russell, Cornel Wilde, Luther Adler, and Joseph Calleia. CinemaScope and Technicolor, 85 min., 1956. A Columbia Pictures release, www.Columbia-Classics.com.
Back in the 1960s, even in provincial outposts like Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I lived, auteurism was transforming how cinephiles viewed Hollywood movies, from cynical disdain to an initial uninformed curiosity (Cinephiles, to that point in time, were concerned chiefly if not exclusively with European and Japanese cinema.). At the wondrous Blue Front store you could pick up TheVillage Voice and read Andrew Sarris’s weekly polemics and, by edging quietly past the guys studying porn magazines, find his auteurist proselytizing in Film Culture and the short-lived Cahiers du Cinema in English. The plucky programmers at the university’s Cinema Guild brought in titles like Douglas Sirk’s Week-End with Father and Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl so that we could contemplate the politique des auteur dictum, broadly paraphrased, that any work by a so-designated auteur, no matter how inconsequential, deserves more serious attention than a successful film made by a director excluded from the pantheon.
Those days and that Cahiers maxim returned to memory as I perused Sony’s online catalog (at Columbia-Classics.com) of titles newly available as DVDs on demand. There was Nicholas Ray’s Hot Blood (1956). Though I’ve taught courses on Ray and written an entry about him for a director’s dictionary, my viewing of his films fell short of completeness, and here was a work that I had never been able to screen. Soon it was in my hands, and I rectified that omission. Now, what kind of serious attention does it deserve?
Let’s take a cue from Jean-Luc Godard’s nuanced Cahiers review from 1957 (reprinted in Jim Hillier, ed., Cahiers du Cinéma, The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave). If Ray was “probably the most important auteur in the American cinema for Cahiers,” as Hillier asserts, he was by no means beyond criticism. Noting that Hot Blood was made between two major works—Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life—Godard suggests that Ray may have regarded the film merely as a diversion, but nevertheless comments, “One may well regret that Nicholas Ray did not feel called upon to deal more trenchantly with a situation and characters which might have made Hot Blood a less anodyne work.” He points out further that the project offered Ray “a chance to tackle a subject which on his own admission is dear to him—the ethnic minority….”
The ethnic minority in question is Gypsies. Watching Hot Blood today will make you acutely aware that its mode of “ethnic” representation adheres more to typical forms of stereotyping than may have been the case even a few years later. It’s completely missing from online lists of “Gypsies in movies” that I consulted, perhaps because of prior unavailability, and it will be interesting to see where it will be slotted on those lists that divide films into “positive” and “negative” categories.
The project began with field research by Ray’s first wife, Jean Evans, among gypsies on New York’s Lower East Side, and led to a screenplay for RKO that drew the interest of Jane Russell (details from Bernard Eisenschitz’s indispensable biography, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey). By 1955 it had become an independent production still spearheaded by Russell’s commitment, to be made at and distributed by Columbia, with a new setting, Los Angeles, and a new screenplay by Jesse Lasky, Jr. During production Ray was distracted while putting the last touches on Rebel, and probably also exhausted from that demanding and more significant project. Apparently he left editing and postproduction on Hot Blood completely in other hands, and took off for Europe.
What compels a viewing of Hot Blood is its extravagantly colorful mise-en-scène, among the era’s most brightly variegated CinemaScope and Technicolor productions (and gorgeously reproduced on the Columbia Classics DVD). “No reservations are necessary,” Godard writes, “in praising the deliberate and systematic use of the gaudiest colours to be seen in the cinema: barley-sugar orange shirts, acid-green dresses, violet cars, blue and pink carpets.” And that only begins to enumerate the variety of color schemes and patterns, based mainly in shades of red. If authorship is the issue, it could be claimed by the collaboration of cinematographer Ray June, Technicolor color consultant Henri Jaffa, art director Robert Peterson, and set decorator Frank Tuttle.
The film presents a portrait—authentic or not—of an “ethnic” community and its marriage mores. Russell’s character Annie arrives from out of town for an arranged wedding with the reluctant Stefano (Cornel Wilde), a gadabout dancer and younger brother of Marco, King of the Gypsies (Luther Adler); the latter, unbeknownst to others, is terminally ill and looking for his brother to settle down and succeed him. Complications ensue. When gypsy crowds gather it’s a Hollywood oddity, a sea of black hair except for older folks with streaks of white. The only blonde in the film is a “gaja” (non-gypsy) who vamps Stefano and drives a baby blue Thunderbird, although Russell’s Annie, as the temporarily spurned wife, threatens to reveal the blonde’s dark hair roots. It’s not exactly screwball comedy, but it ends up, pace Stanley Cavell, a tale of remarriage.
Robert Sklar is author of Movie-Made America and many other books on film.