Wednesday, February 3, 2010

#77: On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, 1952)

Released: February 12, 1952

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.


  1. Dave, Wilson's change isn't abrupt, it is perhaps more a discarding of the rusted casing that he has erected around his true persona. As he says early on: “You get so you don’t trust anybody”.

    This is a classic noir that merits a much higher ranking. The story and its resolution traverse a dramatic arc that moves from the blackness and confinement of city streets and tenements to the expansive whiteness of the snow country. The noir motif of stark chiaroscuro lighting is transformed into a metaphor for a liberation from confinement to openness; from personal isolation and distrust to reaching out to the other with trust; from despair, hatred, and self-loathing to hope, compassion and love.

    Legand has it Lupino took over the direction at some point for a few days while Ray was ill, and that producer John Houseman pushed for the up-beat ending against a downbeat ending from Bezzeridis. Rumour also has it that Ray resisted the Houseman ending.

    This background from the entry for On Dangerous Ground in The Rough Guide to Film Noir (Ballinger & Garydon, 2007) is very interesting:

    “Throwing himself into the film’s pre-production, Ray spent weeks being driven out with police squad cars in the toughest district of Boston in order to study police psychopathology [sic!]… The film suffered two years in limbo before a lacklustre release and a [US]$425,000 loss for RKO. Contemporary reviewers were puzzled and unready for such a raw and bizarrely structured film… Legend has it that Lupino and Ryan self-directed [the last] scene rather than an uninterested Ray.”

    I don’t have any trouble at all with the up-beat ending as it does not feel imposed and is a natural outcome for the two protagonists.

    For noir enthusiasts: Bezzeridis in cameo appears as the bar-owner who attempts to bribe Ryan early in the film.

  2. Tony - I would counter that your argument with that statement concerning the abruptness of his change reinforces my point, but no sense arguing the point. It's still a very good film, one that I could see myself continuing to appreciate even more with further viewing. Like I say, though, it still feels like it just lacks something to put it into company with my all-time favorite noirs.

    Great response though and I really like the historical background you give.

  3. Dave, I think you are going to be in the minority here with your placement. I too believe this deserves a higher ranking. The film is a bit idiosyncratic but then most of Ray’s best films are. Lupino is more subdued in this film; however, Ryan gets to play another of his “crazed” characters. The music by Hermann, as you rightly point out, is excellent.

  4. Dave, great post! I imagine it's hard to rank the top 100 noirs. I've seen well over that number, and I certainly don't think I could do it. I like this film a great deal. It wouldn't be in my top ten. But it would probably be #2 or #3 on my list of Ray films (after IN A LONELY PLACE and maybe THE LUSTY MEN). I'm particularly fond of its transition from urban to rural and that latter location was always very powerful for me.

  5. Robert Ryan is, along with Warren Oates and John Wayne, one of my absolute favorite actors, and I think this is a great film. It's worth mentioning, however, that it is unclear whether it strangeness and unconventionality is more rooted in Ray's direction or the fact that Hughes apparently messed with it quite a bit.

  6. Dave, I have to take your side on this one, which I found well done but somewhat overrated. My reservations are pretty much the same as yours, but there is something to be said for Tony's reading of the film as a thematic exercise in cinematic landscape. If anything, maybe the point is made too obviously, whoever's fault that may be.

  7. I also feel this should be ranked higher. Like Jeffrey I consider this to be one of Ray's top 3 films ( with In a lonely Place and They Live By Night). I have always loved the second half of this film and find the snowy rural scenes to be so unique and original for a noir. Its greatness was further enhanced for me when I purchased the Film Noir Classic Collection 3 and compared this film with the other noirs included. It clearly stuck out to me as a classic while the rest were routine and generic. It has some real poetry and rewards multiple viewings.......M.Roca

  8. BERNARD HERRMANN'S SCORE FOR 'ON DANGEROUS GROUND' IS ONE OF THE GREATEST IN THE HISTORY OF THE CINEMA!!!! (I see you have noted this position neat the end of your review)

    I must agree with Tony, Jeffrey and "Anonymous" that this underrated, atmospheric film is one of Ray's greatest, as on balance I find this myself to be one of the greatest film noirs by anyone. It would place in my own Top Ten in fact. This of course is one of the most oppresively gloomy of films, (I note that you rightly refer to it here as gloomy and lonely) and it's visual textures bely it's thematic essence. Ryan and Lupino are exceptional as is Ward Bond, and the stark, chiaroscuro black and white cinematography by George Diskant is superbly negotiated. The film is practical existential in it's nihilist underpinnings, and coupled with one of the greatest and most beautiful score's in cinema history by Bernard Herrmann, it's an unforgettable film, and one of the greatest of all noirs. I would even go as far as to say that this is actually Herrmann's masterpiece among some of the greatest scores, and that it's piercing and elegiac beauty speaks a language all it's own in this cinematic masterpiece.

    Again, you pen an unforgettable essay here!

  9. BTW, as you noted yourself here Dave, Tony d'Ambra's extended comment is truly brilliant. I got goosebumps reading it, as I did when I read your review. This film really gets me excited.

  10. How did I forget to mention our very good friend John Greco, who speaks out forecefully here for Ray. Sorry John, I am rushing here.

  11. Wow, I come home from work and see some great responses! At least in Samuel, I have someone siding with me on this one... he seems to have a similar opinion of liking and appreciating this one, but stopping short of top the list status.

    Everybody's responses here are great - John, Jeffrey, Doniphon, M.Roca, Sam, Tony, everybody. Sam, your response is as impressive as Tony's and full of passion.

    I kind of excited to see that so many rank this one much higher, as it will be interesting to see the responses to the films placed ahead of it!