On Dangerous Ground
Warners knocks us out with a beautifully remastered RKO noir. Nicholas Ray’s crime tale is like no other, a meditation on human need and loneliness. It’s a noir with a cautiously positive, hopeful twist.
On Dangerous Ground
Warner Archive Collection
1952 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 82 min. / Street Date October 11, 2016 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Ward Bond, Charles Kemper, Anthony Ross, Ed Begley, Ian Wolfe, Sumner Williams.
Cinematography George E. Diskant
Art Direction Ralph Berger, Albert S. D’Agostino
Film Editor Roland Gross
Original Music Bernard Herrmann
Written by A.I. Bezzerides, Nicholas Ray from the novel Mad with Much Heart by Gerald Butler
Produced by John Houseman, Sid Rogell
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Warner Archive is known for pleasant surprises, but this one is a real thrill — one of the very best RKO films noir, reissued in a much-needed beautiful restoration. A movie that’s always been marginal in quality now looks and sounds picture-perfect.
On Dangerous Ground is just one of many productions battered about by RKO’s wildcat mogul Howard Hughes. It languished on the shelf for almost two years, was partly re-shot and was certainly changed from Nicholas Ray’s original continuity, with an entirely different ending. Yet the result is an exceedingly memorable picture that shifts tone from the darkest noir to a reaffirmation of romantic values.
The film’s high quality can be directly attributed to a confluence of powerful talents: John Houseman produced and director Nicholas Ray is in top form, as are actors Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan, whose best film this just might be. The picture is also galvanized by Bernard Herrmann’s impressive music. His score veers from frantic action to deeply sentimental love themes that would probably sound great against a silent picture.
The ‘rogue cop’ subgenre was just getting underway in 1950. On Dangerous Ground is about a good policeman trapped in a vicious cycle of brutality, the source of which is a deep personal frustration. Honest cop Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) has a serious problem with rage. It results in frequent beatings of suspects, and gets him in hot water with Captain Brawley (Ed Begley). Bitter that society doesn’t respect police work, Jim almost beats a murder suspect to death and callously allows a woman (Cleo Moore) to face the revenge of the suspect’s partners. To cool Wilson off, Brawley sends him to handle a sex murder in a remote mountain village. The idea is to allow him to unwind, but that’s not what happens. Jim joins a posse led by the manic Walter Brent (Ward Bond), the father of the murdered child. Tracking the killer in deep snow, Jim realizes that things have reversed. He is the representative of law and sanity, who must somehow stop Brent from going berserk. Wilson and Brent meet Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), a blind woman who says she lives alone. The men find evidence that Mary is hiding somebody… the killer, perhaps.
It’s lucky that Nicholas Ray’s film wasn’t completely ruined by Howard Hughes. By the time On Dangerous Ground was finally finished, William Wyler’s similarly themed Detective Story had come out, making the RKO picture seem like a copycat.
Hughes’ changes cleaned up the original script’s vague acknowledgement of police brutality, adding a new scene in which Ed Begley’s authority figure condemns Jim Wilson’s violent tactics. But the re-cut also streamlined what seems to have been a lumpy and somewhat depressing story. A big posse subplot was dropped from the snow sequences, and the director’s ending was lopped off in favor of a highly sentimental romantic finish. Many noir adepts deplore this finish, as did Nicholas Ray. Yet it has to be admitted that with it On Dangerous Ground becomes a highly satisfying drama about isolation and alienation. Jim Wilson is sort of a Travis Bickle character, but one who is fortunate enough to be able to withdraw from the brink of doom at the last minute. Despair and disillusion aren’t unavoidable. The brutal Jim Wilson learns that kindness, love and redemption are there if he seeks them out.
A claustrophobic urban opening enmeshes us in Jim Wilson’s world of vice and venality. Jim doesn’t feel a kinship with anyone. He deals only with snitches and sneering bar owners who attempt to bribe him, like Gatos, played by screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides. Even the attractive soda clerk (Joan Taylor) laughs at the idea of dating a cop, and Jim must spin around to hide his humiliation and anger. Jim’s partners just think he should change his attitude. They prescribe marriage and a home life but Jim is far too hostile to meet any woman on a fair basis. The great Robert Ryan internalizes all of these feelings, not by gnashing his teeth, but through subtle signs, like the way he sets his jaw, or just stares.
The interesting thing is that Jim is an idealist, yet he expresses his disgust by becoming an unfeeling monster. He delights in pummeling uncooperative thugs and must be restrained from attacking a man on the street. He’s manipulative and callous when dealing with the obviously disturbed Myrna (Cleo Moore). Jim leads Myrna on with a cheap tease to get her to reveal key information — knowing that it may well put her life in jeopardy.
About a half hour in, the movie undergoes a startling gear-change that likely confused the critics and audiences of 1952, the ones that expect no surprises in form or storytelling style. A few point-of-view shots through an auto windshield take us to the high mountains and open spaces, the ‘dangerous ground’ where the suspicious, violent locals hate outsiders. He’s partnered with a bloodthirsty farmer waving a literal loose cannon — a shotgun — in his face. Jim’s urban tricks don’t work with this hick, and he finds it impossible to stay in control. When they find a lead on the suspect, Nicholas Ray plays games with an ecological theme: the mad sex killer has become kind of a wild and instinctual animal. I’ve read a classic treatise of On Dangerous Ground that links the film to Henry David Thoreau because the killer’s name is Walden, as in Walden Pond. Well, even Sight and Sound mistook the name as Walden, but in the movie it’s said twice, and it’s Malden, the same as the book. That doesn’t quash the Thoreau association, however. [Video availability has really changed film criticism. Misread a picture or get an important detail wrong, and one’s critical goose is cooked.]
The tone change in the country brings in a deliberate, cautious romanticism that recalls silent movie melodramas. Ida Lupino’s blind Mary Malden stops Jim Wilson in his tracks, as if vulnerable and spiritually minded women simply didn’t exist in the city. She’s definitely hiding something, and at first Jim maneuvers to coax the truth from her, with the same seductive tactics that worked on Myrna. But it’s Jim who ends up being seduced, when he realizes that he’s found somebody in the world that needs him, somebody he can care about more than he does his job or his personal bitterness. Mary Malden literally redeems Wilson’s spirit, something that rarely happens with any conviction in dramas of any stripe. The notion of redemption might seem contrary to the hardboiled ethos of film noir… but any artist knows that the best way to bring attention to a contradiction is to use extreme contrasts. Although it appears that Nicholas Ray didn’t intend this to be the film’s ending, On Dangerous Ground finishes by transcending noir values. And who better to see spiritually transformed than Robert Ryan, the patron saint of internal suffering and external hostility?
Filmed in Los Angeles and on location in Colorado, Nicholas Ray’s movie is also an impressive technical achievement. A couple of scenes in the city make fine use of a hand-held camera, while the sequences on the icy roads and in the deep snow achieve a convincing realism. There is no fake snow — we feel like we’re in a blizzard, plain and simple. A few matte paintings are the only optical effects. When the filmmakers do go for tricks, they’re almost imperceptible. Ward Bond enters a house on a sound stage set. He is first seen through a window running to the front door. The window view is a rear projection plate filmed weeks or months earlier, a thousand miles away.
Despite its shaky production history, the film has a superb sense of mood, of contrast between city chaos and a natural, but equally treacherous countryside. The Bernard Herrmann score binds the episodes together as if they were movements in a symphony. The continuity becomes choppy at the end, with Lupino and Ryan walking in front of some shaky back projection, a shoehorned-in prayer scene, and rather jarring dissolves from the country to the city and back again. Herrmann’s score holds it all together in an unbroken emotional progression. Robert Ryan doesn’t have to express Wilson’s epiphany with exaggerated mannerisms — his transformed face and Herrmann’s music do much more than dialogue could.
Why Howard Hughes backed the Roosevelt WPA veteran Nick Ray is still a mystery. Ray was never blacklisted nor forced to prove his loyalty, although he did somehow dodge taking Hughes’ ‘litmus test’ anti-Commie movie, The Woman on Pier 13 (I Married a Communist), a movie that actor Robert Ryan couldn’t avoid. Nor do we understand what the unsubtle Hughes liked in a director who favored delicate screen relationships over macho posing. Ray’s direction of actors and camera in On Dangerous Ground is uniformly excellent, even if he lost control of the film in Howard Hughes’ screwy post-production process. We’re told that the film played off quickly and then dropped out of sight. Only later did it become a late-night television staple. Along with Richard Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin, On Dangerous Ground is an ideal film to interest people in old B&W thriller fare.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of On Dangerous Ground came as a happy surprise; I was actually expecting a different noir to be announced. I immediately thanked WB VP George Feltenstein and got back this response:
“Hi Glenn! I know you love the film, and I was looking forward to hearing your reaction to this news. No one had gone back to the negative in decades. The last master was made over 25 years ago from a fourth-generation Fine Grain. This HAD to be done, and I am so grateful that my pleas to bring the nitrate in from the Library of Congress were heard. I hope you will like the new master. I found it to be revelatory. There are more exciting things on the horizon, and our commitment to highest quality on BD remains top priority.”
Feltenstein does care strongly about doing the right thing, especially with important pictures. I knew this was the case at MGM twenty years ago, when he quietly sourced an English film element for the original The Quatermass Xperiment, rather than just run United Artist’s dupe The Creeping Unknown version through a film chain.
Unless you’re hiding an original print of On Dangerous Ground in your attic, this new transfer will indeed be a revelation. Back in the 1970s, when RKO did a big retrospective at the L.A. County Museum of Art, all THEY could find were 16mm prints. The film was always murky on TV, a little better on VHS, and a bit improved on DVD, but it still looked worse than most of Warners’ noir revivals. The contrast is now improved along with the detail. We see more in the cityscapes and are more impressed by the deep-snow sequences. The close-ups really receive a boost — Ida Lupino, Cleo Moore and Nita Talbot are knockouts, while the chiseled portraits of Robert Ryan really grab us.
The soundtrack, with what amounts to a symphonic suite by Bernard Herrmann, is clearer and brighter than ever before, as good as the original soundtrack on CD that was issued a few years back.
RKO routinely made their stone litho posters into works of art. On Dangerous Ground must have been a rush job, because the original artwork used for the cover is pretty weak. The disc contains a good quality transfer of a trailer that also might explain why the movie didn’t do well — it meanders, the music doesn’t fit what we’re seeing, and after two minutes we still don’t know what the movie is about.
Most gratifying is the repeat of an audio commentary I recorded back in 2006, at P.O.P. Sound. It’s one of my better jobs, helped by good information from biographers of John Houseman and Nicholas Ray, and a close reading of Gerald Butler’s source novel Mad with Much Heart. Thanks to my involvement in the restoration of the original ending to writer A.I. Bezzerides’ Kiss Me Deadly, I was able to have several long phone calls with Bezzerides in the late 1990s. He talked at length, I took notes, and I was able to integrate them into the commentary as well. Although not as academically rigorous as some noir commentaries, I make a point of defending the film’s emotionalism — it really is a tough noir that becomes a Clarence Brown- like silent romance, with an operatic backing by Bernard Herrmann.
But the WB legal department had to get involved: for this repeat performance, a ten-second audio hole follows my self-introduction, eliminating my identifying myself and my website DVD Savant. God forbid that a media corporation should allow so much as a mention of something that doesn’t profit them.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
On Dangerous Ground Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Audio commentary by ‘Film Historian’ Glenn Erickson, original trailer.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 6, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson