Saturday Editor’s Pick: On Dangerous Ground (1952)

by on August 14, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Aug 20 at 1:30, 4:40, 7:50 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
*Double Feature with Act of Violence (1948)


Heavens to betsy, Film Forum rolls out yet another underdog classic for their Robert Ryan series. If you haven’t yet, make sure to read Imogen Smith’s profile of Ryan for Alt Screen — it’s a keeper.


Kevin Thomas for the Los Angeles Times:

Ray’s On Dangerous Ground, is a revelation, an unjustly neglected stunner. Considering Ray’s cult status, it is mystifying that On Dangerous Ground, which he and A. I. Bezzerides adapted from Gerald Butler’s novel Mad With Much Heart, is not as well-known as such other Ray films noir as They Live by Night (1948) and In a Lonely Place (1950). Working with two virtuosos, cinematographer George E. Diskant and the great film composer Bernard Herrmann, Ray hurtles us into the alienated world of a big-city police detective (Robert Ryan), a loner so embittered by 11 years on the force that he’s beginning to undermine his effectiveness by his increasingly violent physical abuse of suspects. Eager to get him out of town for awhile, his chief (Ed Begley) gives him a lecture and sends him to the snowy countryside to help track down the unknown killer of a young girl.


On Dangerous Ground develops into a confrontation, as unexpected for us as it is for the detective himself, between two very different kinds of lonely people: a rage-filled city man who trusts no one and a gentle country woman (Ida Lupino) who, because of her near-total blindness, feels she must trust everyone. The impact of Lupino upon Ryan is dizzying, and because Ray is working with people as talented as he is, he manages a shift from violence and anger to love and tenderness with an effect that is at once convincing and profoundly romantic. From start to finish, the film is breathtakingly dynamic, so much so that it seems amazingly fresh for all its genre conventions. The subtlety, richness and poignancy of Herrmann’s score makes it easy to understand why it is said that he considered it his favorite.



James Harvey, in Movie Love in the Fifties:

Robert Ryan is Ray’s kind of movie star, specializing in anguish and self-disgust in film after film. With his desolate, black-current eyes, his tightly drawn mouth and strangled voice, he is usually someone divided and conscience-riven. Nick and he were also friends, and of the three movies they made together at RKO, On Dangeous Ground is the most ambitious. It’s a classic noir in part (the best part) — until it shifts styles and plots at the middle, following the original novel, and moves to the country, where the blind girl heroine (Ida Lupino) lives. But what comes before is pure Nicholas Ray (with no precedent in the novel), devised by him and and his screenwriter (A.I. Bezzerides, who also wrote Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly), and taking place in the kind of nightmare city setting that seems to promise sudden fissures of sanity in its inhabitants. And especially in Ryan’s cop hero, eaten up and unmoored by the daily bitterness of his work, subject to pathological outbursts of violence that leave him undone by self-loathing. The crooks and hoods he deals with seem almost to know about this — and so to invite, in their creepy, insinuating ways, the violence that provokes it: as if they knew that whatever he could do to them, they could do worse to him.Is he going to “get rough” with her? a blowsy hooker and potential informer asks him – hopefully. and he certainly looks like he is – but the scene fades out on his troubled face. A wiseguy little crook he’s chased and cornered, now immobilized in a chair but refusing to talk, smiles up at him suggestively, in a sweaty, seductive close-up that seems more sexual than defiant. “Why do you make me do it?” cries Ryan, in agony — no doubt he is going to beat this one up too, and badly — “Why do you always make me do it?!” And another fadeout.


Violence in Ray’s movies (he was noted for it at the time) is not simply sensational, good for a jolt or a shock, but obscene, insidious, queasily alluring – finally more a temptation than love or larceny. That’s why, understated and discreet as his rough stuff now may seem (it’s often offscreen altogether, as in the two fade-outs above), it still feels so disturbing to an audience, and why the final revulsion from it his movies express seems so real and so seriously meant.

Ian Johnston for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

For many, audiences and critics alike, On Dangerous Ground is a problematic movie. The sticking point is its split structure, the first third in the familiar setting of the rain-slicked streets of the film noir city, the rest in the wide snowy expanses of the countryside. Audiences and reviewers of the day were disconcerted by the way the change in setting was also reflected in how the very nature of the story changes. What starts out as a hard-edged crime thriller, centred on the violent personality of detective Jim Wilson (a superb performance by the ever—reliable Robert Ryan—why wasn’t he ever a greater star?), turns into something gentler and more introspective, namely the theme of how a violent, self-loathing man can be redeemed.


In many ways On Dangerous Ground is a companion-piece to In A Lonely Place, the film that preceded it. In both films the male protagonist’s propensity to violence verges on the psychopathic and a romantic relationship offers a way out of his psychological impasse. Perhaps we’re more convinced by the downbeat ending to In A Lonely Place where, even though Dixon Steele is proven innocent of the suspicions of murder that the noir plot has cast on him, the violent side to his nature that he has revealed in the process destroys his relationship with Laurel and condemns him to loneliness. Still, there’s a pleasing symmetry to the way On Dangerous Ground now takes a similar character and offers a very different outcome.



Ray himself expressed some discomfort with the film’s second half in his book I Was Interrupted:

For On Dangerous Ground, shot in black-and-white, I wanted the warmth that color could have provided so much that I let both Ward Bond and Ryan and Lupino overplay at times: the emotion was not properly controlled by the aesthetic. Had the film been made in color I think I would not have stretched so much in creating the contrast of the violence and the wet, dirt, sleet, slush, and mess of Boston, with the sheen of the snow, the starkness, the pastoral quality.


But plenty critics treasure the film’s dramatic shift in tone. Fernando F. Croce for Slant:

Perched between late-’40s noir and mid-’50s crime drama, this is one of the great, forgotten works of the genre. Robert Ryan is a time-bomb of a New York cop, tormented by the urban squalor he sees around him; after roughing up one too many crooks, he’s assigned to track down a killer in wintry upstate, where he falls for Ida Lupino, the main suspect’s blind sister. Easily mushy, the material achieves a nearly transcendental beauty in the hands of Ray, a poet of anguished expression: The urban harshness of the city is contrasted with the austere snowy countryside for some of the most disconcertingly moving effects in all film noir. Despite the violence and the steady intensity, a remarkably pure film.


Tony D’Ambra for

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.


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.



Nick Schager for Lessons of Darkness:

One of noir’s most soulful and poetic expressions of hope and redemption – two commodities usually in short supply in the fatalistic genre – Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground begins hard and bitter, only to slowly transform into something gentle and poignant. Detective Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is so repulsed by the seedy urban underworld he’s forced to inhabit that, his face frozen in a disgusted grimace, he seems ready to explode – until, that is, he does, using clenched fists to beat a confession out of an uncooperative crook. Sent north to help investigate the murder of a local man’s (Ward Bond) son, Wilson instead finds therapeutic help himself, which comes in the compassionate guise of the suspect’s blind sister Mary (the always radiant Ida Lupino). It’s an exceedingly melodramatic turn of events, and yet Ray’s graceful handling of the material turns potential schmaltz into blissful sentimentality, the director beautifully juxtaposing the dark, gritty shadows of his opening’s metropolitan streets with the soft white snow of the countryside. Vividly visualizing inner torment is Ray’s specialty, and the early encounters between Wilson and Mary, as well as a series of climactic close-ups, prove so moving that, even when the plotting eventually becomes a tad creaky, the outpouring of pained, plaintive emotion is nothing short of overpowering.


David Denby for the New Yorker:

Robert Ryan gives a frighteningly ambiguous performance as a neurotic big-city policeman in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952). Ryan was tall and lanky, with a high forehead, thick dark hair, and a coldly objective way of speaking that bordered on intimidation. In the early stages of the movie, as he prowls the desolate streets and seedy bars at night, Ryan is relentless—a lonely man ravaged by the urban squalor he knows all too well. But the nastiness that he turns loose on scared punks and sultry sluts is mixed with intimations of haughty intelligence and obscure suffering. The movie then shifts to the mountains, where Ryan, investigating a crime, gets into a complicated emotional struggle with Ida Lupino, who plays a blind woman protecting a crazed younger brother. The elements of bathos and obviousness are there, but Ryan, working under Ray’s emotionally sensitive direction, keeps the movie on edge right to the end.


Guy Maddin, transcribed from a 2009 introduction of the film at IFC Center:

Has there ever been a face—rugged and manfully handsome yet fragile with inner agonies promising to explode into volcanic rage—like Robert Ryan’s? Nick Ray harnesses the violent force of this face as Ryan pounds his beat, and every face on it, to Bernard Hermann’s greatest score. Ward Bond has never been more precipitous or more startling—his grief and stupidity as powerful and natural as a mountain cataract.



Clydefro for Noir of the Week:

Made (reluctantly) by RKO and produced (reluctantly) by John Houseman, who had a relationship with Ray that preceded the director’s time in Hollywood, On Dangerous Ground found life with the support of star Robert Ryan and a script Ray wrote with A.I. Bezzerides, whose novels had earlier served the bases for the films They Drive by Night and Thieves’ Highway. The result was a quintessential Nicholas Ray film, one that allows for playing within the margins while still doing so at his own rhythms. It’s structured into two entirely different story segments and comes complete with a bold score by Bernard Herrmann that disorients as much as it thrills. The film’s top-billed lead, Ida Lupino, doesn’t appear until over half an hour has passed, and that initial portion has no determinate structure or plot. Lean yet unhurried at just under 82 minutes, the film noir doesn’t always adhere to convention, doesn’t worry itself with backstory, and can’t be bothered to explain much. And we should be thankful.


In many ways, the entire mood of Ray’s noir is altered in this transition from the dark, shiny streets of the metropolis to a palpably cold and snowy countryside. The grit and the rawness disappear. A handheld camera we’d seen used in Wilson’s last straw display of violence against a suspect becomes almost unthinkable in the comparatively placid landscape of emptiness. The color white is used to establish purity and cleansing of the soul from the grimy alleys of the city. Ray brilliantly conveys the secluded openness of the new environment by blanketing everything in snow. The depth of uniformity seems to spread as far as the eye can see. Ray had actually studied under Frank Lloyd Wright and was greatly concerned with the architecture of his films. This interest is on display in the utter vastness of how lonely the single house where Ida Lupino’s character Mary, the blind sister of suspected killer Danny, resides. The modest home seems to be located in the middle of nowhere, covered in darkness and infected by the cold. The metaphor both for Wilson and Mary, two lonely souls that fit so well in the Nick Ray firmament, doesn’t go unnoticed.


John Greco for Twenty Four Frames:

In the hands of another director, this film could have turned in a sloppy melodrama. With Nick Ray in control, we get a post-modernist edgy film noir contrasting the dark harsh crime filled streets of the city against the clean stark cold wintry beauty of the country. Like many of Ray’s films, there is a sense of loneliness and sadness in the characters. Similar lost characters fill the screen in other Ray works like Rebel without a Cause and The Lusty Men. With On Dangerous Ground Ray again transcends the genre he is working in creating a personal vision fueled by outsiders and non-conformist structuring their own moral code to live by.
On Dangerous Ground is a melancholy work of dark beauty that should not be missed.



The blog Film is Love:

The cineaste’s inherent need to categorize is masterfully exposed by Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952). With Bernard Herrmann’s dynamically sinister score providing a serrated edge to the murky cityscapes of the opening credits, one could be forgiven for assuming that this is a film that will conform to the conventions of the urban noir. And indeed, for almost half an hour the director revels in the seedy underbelly of his dystopia, where perversity and profanity collide in a flurry of violence amidst the shadows. Credit the ominously restrained (for the most part) fervour of Robert Ryan’s tortured police officer for grounding this segment with a psychological quandary that demands a resolution: how is it possible to survive in the gutters of society without losing one’s humanity? In pursuit of those depths, Ray sends his cop on an ontological odyssey into the wilderness, via the morbid conceit of a manhunt for a murderer. Although the stylistic values of the noir appear to have evaporated, in the snow-covered desolation of the countryside the director locates the same crisis of morality that plagues the city. Accordingly, the film becomes a study of man in relation to his environment: in both locations, Ray follows his low-angle shots of the inhumanly tall Ryan with long-shots where the actor seems dwarfed by his ultimately empty surroundings. But all is not lost – without the neverending activity of urbania to shield him, Ryan’s cop is at his most vulnerable. And then… he discovers Ida Lupino, blind yet resilient, and readily capable of empathising with his spiritual isolation. With a series of penetrating close-ups, Ray breaks down the defences that the pair have constructed against the world, and thereby emancipates their wounded souls. In mutual heartbreak and weariness, the duo enact a filmic ballad of loneliness that redefine the once unnerving snowy exteriors as a poetic source of revitalization. Ray has deceived the viewer: this is about the environment in relation to man, and the latter’s potential to change it for the better. But this is no Hollywood ending: in both reality and fantasy, the audacity of Nicholas Ray’s filmmaking makes for nothing less than scintillating viewing.


Robin Wood in Film Comment (Sept/Oct 1972):

If there is a single recurrent image that seems to express the whole spirit of Ray’s art, it is probably that of hands reaching out to touch-from the close-up of the hand of the blind Ida Lupino stretching down to meet the outstretched hand of Robert Ryan at the end of on  (situated, what is more, half-way up a staircase), to the hand of Christ reaching down through the prison bars to touch that of John the Baptist (Ryan again) as he strains upward.


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