On Dangerous Ground (1951): “You get so you don’t trust anybody”

On Dangerous Ground (1951)

A city cop battling inner demons is sent up-state to ‘Siberia’
to assist in a man-hunt after bashing one too many suspects
(1952 RKO. Directed by Nicholas Ray 82 mins)

Cinematography by George E. Diskant
Screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides & Nicholas Ray from the
Gerald Butler novel ‘Mad with Much Heart”
Original Music by Bernard Herrmann
Art Direction by Albert S. D’Agostino and Ralph Berger

Starring Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino

On Dangerous Ground is visually stunning and without a wasted frame or line of dialog.  Director Nicholas Ray with the support of a talented team of film-makers has wrought a melodramatic noir with a dark beauty and haunting characterisations.  Leads Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino are so deeply immersed in their roles that they remain in your memory as real people inhabiting a white and craggy landscape steeped in a tragedy redeemed only by sacrifice and human compassion.

Ryan’s Jim Wilson is a cop, a sad loner with a seething anger that has it origins in loneliness and an existential despair that is directed against the low-lifes who inhabit the dark city streets he patrols nightly with his two partners.  Wilson is keen and tough, but is starting to lose control and his violent methods have got him into trouble. He is sent up-state to help out on a local murder investigation by his captain, and told to sort himself out. The action moves from the dark city streets to the high snow country where Wilson joins the man-hunt for the savage killer of a school-girl.   After a sighting of the suspect in the snow, Wilson and the girl’s enraged father give chase, and track the attacker to a lonely home in the mountains, where a young blind woman, Mary (Lupino), lives with her disturbed adolescent brother.

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.

On Dangerous Ground (1951)

12 Comments

  1. MY GOD TONY, NOW YOU ARE TALKING!!!!!

    I love this film deeply and passionately, I can’t tell you how much. I love it for the reasons you articulated above, the stark chiaroscuro photography, the set design by our friend Albert D’Agostino, Ray’s inspired direction, and the superb reasons you outlined in the final paragraph with the metaphorical undercurrent. But most of all Tony………
    The score by Bernard Herrmann, which is not only my favorite of all his masterpieces, but one of the most beautiful and poetic in the entire history of the cinema. I own the Film Score Monthly CD as as a big music fan, I hold this so dear to my heart! Thank you for revisiting this most special noir!

  2. I have nothing to say but, what Sam said, haha.

    Sincerely, though, this is a great noir, and I’ fascinated by the production issues Robert Osborne spoke of when this played on Turner Classic Movies. He said that Nicholas Ray was so ill at the time that for the last stretch of the production, Ida Lupino took over, and supposedly the ending was more to her and Robert Ryan’s liking than Ray’s. Very interesting, regardless. Great piece, Tony.

  3. Thanks Alexander and Sam.

    Sam, I had made a mental note to mention the wonderful Herrmannn score but missed it when writing the post – I’ll have to start using Post-its :) The music is brilliant and I particularly noticed it with the dramatic chase up the cliff-face and then the counterpoint of the descent.

    Alexander, I have a strict discipline of not reading anything about a movie between viewing it for a post and posting, as I am concerned my original response will be colored. This has its disadvantages and this is particularly evident here. I have since read that Lupino had taken 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 has it that Ray also resisted the Hollywood ending.

    Also after posting I cam across this background from the entry for On Dangerous Ground in The Rough Guide to Film Noir (Ballinger & Garydon, 2007), which 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.

  4. For Film Noir Fans (and Non Film Noir Viewers)…That have not watched this film (On Dangerous Ground) yet! (That would be me!) Please tune into TCM
    on October 29 2008.
    Tks, Tony as in D’Ambra, for the heads-up!

    dcd ;)

  5. It’s interesting you wrote about this because one of my good friends just lent me a copy on good ol’ VHS, and I loved the film–one of Ray’s best. One MVP of the film I wanted to chime in with is Ward Bond, who plays the vengeful father. He’s always a reliable supporting player, but I’m really more used to seeing him in westerns (even though I know he had a varied career). Anyway, it was fun to see him in something with a more contemporary setting. And, as always, Ryan is terrific. Great photography in ON DANGEROUS GROUND; the blacks are EXTRA black and the whites are blinding!

    My friend also lent me Fuller’s HOUSE OF BAMBOO (also with Ryan, and Robert Stack, too) and Sirk’s THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyk reunited, this time as a bored husband and his old flame. Good stuff!

  6. Thanks Dean for your comment, and sorry for the delay in getting your comment up. First comments are moderated and I forgot to check the moderation queue for a couple of days.

    Thanks for mentioning Ward Bond’s performance, as it was really solid. His sudden too late realisation that the target of his wrath is “just a kid” is one of the more powerful moments in the film.

  7. Lee

    What a terrific film! One of my very favorites that I’ve encountered on my journey through Noir. Film is raw, Ryan and Lupino are superlative, and the chase up the hill incredibly intense and powerful. As someone mentioned, the score is phenomenal particularly during the aforementioned scene. Top shelf.

  8. Superb film with a great cast.Its unfortunate that director Nicholas Rays film work dried up by the early 1970’s.Tremendous cast and the director showcases ALL the actor/actresses even in small bit parts. The films of the last 30 years just don’t do that anymore. Robert Ryan never walks through any role, a great actor and former boxer.The ’73″Executive Decision” opposite Burt Lancaster touches otno the insidious military-industrial complex(Freemasonry-Jesuit-illimunati) that behind a veil of DECEPTION organize conspired assassinations; against anyone that thwarts their evil.

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