Director: Nicholas Ray; Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides and Nicholas Ray based on the novel Mad With Much Heart by Gerald Butler; Cinematography: George E. Diskant; Music: Bernard Hermann, Paul Sawtell (uncredited); Producer: John Houseman; Studio: RKO
Cast: Ida Lupino (Mary Malden), Robert Ryan (Jim Wilson), Ward Bond (Walter Brent), Charles Kemper (Pop Daly), Anthony Ross (Pete Santos), Ed Begley (Capt. Brawley), Ian Wolfe (Sheriff Carey), Sumner Williams (Danny Malden), Gus Schilling (Lucky), Frank Ferguson (Willows), Cleo Moore (Myrna Bowers), Olive Carey (Mrs. Brent), Richard Irving (Bernie Tucker), Patricia Prest (Julie Brent)
- "You get so you don't trust anybody..."
OK, if the placement of Stray Dog failed to produce dismay, perhaps this one will? (BIG GRIN, particularly toward Sam, who I know is a champion of this one)
This Nicholas Ray film is an interesting entry in the countdown for me. When I originally sat down and made a tentative Top 100, trying to roughly map out the films that I would include, On Dangerous Ground was a borderline selection. Depending on how some recently acquired movies went over, there was at least the possibility that it would not even make the countdown at all. It was one that I knew that I needed to revisit, as it had been some time since my only viewing. The result should be pretty obvious, as it is here in the countdown and is nowhere near being borderline. It still likely remains much lower than a lot of readers will rank it, but in re-watching it I realized that it truly is another outstanding movie from Nick Ray.
Even more importantly for me as a noir fan, watching it for a second time made me realize something about my own appreciation of a particular actor – Robert Ryan. Earlier in the countdown, I had mentioned that I’ve never considered myself a big fan of Ryan’s. I still wouldn’t cite him as a personal favorite. But I did have an epiphany of sorts while watching him as hardened, bitter cop Jim Wilson. I realized that perhaps this is precisely the type of reaction that a lot of his roles are meant to elicit. While Ryan is usually the nominal hero of his films, he tends to play characters that are not very pleasant. So it would only be natural that Ryan and his characters do not have the same sort of restrained cool of Bogart or the casualness of Mitchum. Maybe his performances are actually so good that my leeriness of his characters is actually high praise? I’m still not completely certain where I come down in answering this question, but it’s an interesting thought that came to me about midway through this film.
Ryan’s Jim Wilson is an embittered officer who has been reprimanded by the department on a number of occasions for excessive use of force. After yet another incident of beating a confession out of a prisoner, his superiors decide to get him out of the city to assist on a murder investigation in a nearby rural town. It is a striking change of scenery, as the early parts of the film have a gritty, realistic feel of patrolmen on the beat, cruising the crime-ridden streets of the big city. Wilson is then sent to a snow-covered countryside, hunting a killer that could be roaming any of the nearby farms. Wilson goes on the hunt, alongside the shotgun carrying father of the slain girl (Ward Bond), and eventually follows the killer’s trail to a house inhabited only the blind Mary Malden (Ida Lupino). Mary is the killer’s sister, and after first trying to cover for her brother, she slowly begins to give up key details. Falling for the beautiful lady, Wilson becomes torn between ruthlessly hunting down the killer, as he normally would, and protecting the interests of Mary.
This is a gloomy, lonely film the entire way through. Even in the early scenes, when the camaraderie displayed by the three cops working together is obvious, Wilson makes sure to keep his friends at arm’s length. The second half gives the comparison between the loneliness of Wilson, brought on by psychological pressures, with the loneliness felt by Mary due to her physical ailments. While Mary doesn't display the bitterness always shown by Wilson, it is still obvious that she too is restless about the situation she finds herself in – fending for herself on a remote farm, trying to manage a mentally unstable brother. Ward Bond gives an admirable performance as well, but the chemistry between Ryan and Lupino that works best.
Well, that works best as far as acting goes. The greatest achievement of the film is actually Bernard Hermann’s score. Many consider it his greatest work. I don’t go that far, as he has other classics to his credit, but he provides stirring music throughout.
After singing its praises during this write-up, why then is this one ranked at #77 and not much higher? I can’t exactly put my finger on it. It just lacked a small something to enter the category of “great” for me. I still am somewhat given pause by Wilson’s abrupt change of personality upon meeting Mary, without any real progression toward his new, understanding way of thinking. But it’s a far better film that I originally judged it and reinforces my admiration for Nicholas Ray.