Take one cop teetering on the edge between borderline sociopathic brute and agent of mercy, a blind woman isolated in the snowbound wilderness of upstate Colorado, and a hunted rapist on the lam and…well…you have the makings of Nicholas Ray’s exceptionally underrated noir, On Dangerous Ground, previewed in 1951, but given its ‘official’ wide release in 1952. Ray’s penchant for extracting from this luxuriant unease the aggrieved psyche of a thoroughly flawed protagonist is working overtime here; the sadly undervalued Robert Ryan, the conduit of this anguished human opus, told in two movements with an almost symphonic arc for operatic tragedy, effectively leading to the redemption of the human heart. Ryan’s tightly wound Jim Wilson is a good cop; or rather, could be – if only he was not suffering from some fitful lack of appreciation – his reasons for being good dwindling, as he flies off the handle to give murderers, winos, crooks and stoolies a going over at the least provocation. It does not matter the goons he pummels are as rotten to the core as humanity can get. The devil, as they say, is in the details. But the last man to tangle with Jim ended up with a ruptured bladder; the precinct, in for a tussle with attorneys and Jim, ordered by his superior Capt. Brawley (Ed Begley) to take it easy or else face sanctions and possibly even get kicked off the force.
At 82 minutes, On Dangerous Ground is a far more invested and prolonged exploration into the fragility of one man’s decaying soul, miraculously given a reprieve in the eleventh hour by an unforeseen ‘understanding’. Borrowing from Kahlil Gibran, that “the most massive characters are seared with scars” the film’s screenwriter, Albert Isaac Bezzerides, and actor, Robert Ryan, have concocted a compelling spectacle out of Jim Wilson’s migration of consciousness from one state to another. “When a character does not suffer,” Bezzerides once offered, “…there is no drama.” On Dangerous Ground tests this theory to its utmost, Jim Wilson’s struggle from within brought forth as a festering lesion, desperately in need of some miraculous healing powers. He discovers these in the unlikeliest of women: Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), a martyred shut-in who has sacrificed even her sight to remain vigilant over a wayward younger brother, Danny (Sumner Williams). Alas, without her watchful eyes to keep tabs, Danny has transgressed against Mary’s altruism; raped and murdered a local teenage girl whose father, Walter Brent (Ward Bond) now vows bloody vengeance at the point of his double-barreled shotgun. When it was released, On Dangerous Ground was not profitable; the story, perhaps, too grim and realistic for audiences to digest. Even today, the picture packs a deflating wallop. However, it equally lacks from an acute disconnect; Bezzerides’ screenplay incongruously departing the claustrophobic inner city cesspool for the even more stark and dingy wide open spaces; the Colorado landscape creating a natural barrier: Jim and Walter’s trek across the frozen wilderness, trudging through ankle and sometimes knee-deep drifts, their car skidding off a slick embankment and rolling over several times.
On Dangerous Ground is perhaps the most curious adaptation in noir history. Certainly, there remains very little of Gerard Butler’s English-themed novel, Mad With Much Heart (published in 1946); the entire first act concocted by Bezzerides and Nicholas Ray as back story; the book’s Jim Wilson, neither suffering from urban isolationism or a slow, sad decline to a speedy mental breakdown. In its entirety, the novel’s crime-solving milieu is told from Jim’s first person account. But Bezzerides’ adaptation adds unexpected texture and that all essential and flavorful noir mood to the straight-forwardness of the book; ably abetted by Bernard Herrmann’s underscore, uncharacteristically, both forceful and haunting. Herrmann had come to the project at the behest of producer, John Houseman; a major proponent of his skills since Herrmann’s days as a conductor on CBS’s symphonic radio program. When CBS decided to disband the series, as well as the musicians in 1946, Houseman encouraged Herrmann to consider RKO as his fallback. Alas, by the time On Dangerous Ground began to shoot, Houseman had departed the studio; Herrmann holding tight to the reins of a contract already agreed upon under RKO’s new management team of Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna. This gave Herrmann unprecedented creative control over the final edit. It also allowed him to conduct the scoring sessions, a luxury not readily afforded at this time. There are whole portions of On Dangerous Ground devoted to extolling the virtues of Herrmann’s viscerally alarming, dark and sinister themes. Indeed, most of the tension achieved between Jim and Walter during their perilous trek across the frozen wilderness is generated by Herrmann’s string-based ‘chase’ themes; his even more unsettling ‘love theme’ recorded with virtuoso, Virginia Majusky plying her talents to a viola d’amore.
On Dangerous Ground was not just another B-noir thriller in RKO’s hopper. Indeed, Nicholas Ray was given unusual permissions to photograph a goodly percentage of the picture on location. Yet, even the studio-bound process work possesses Ray’s dash for achieving a grittier verisimilitude from this high key lit scenery, lensed to perfection by cinematographer, George E. Diskant, who relies on a veritable basket of visual clichés from the noir movement (high contrast chiaroscuro lighting - heavy on the shadows - and perpetually rain-soaked and glistening wet pavement), nevertheless, seamlessly blended into the bleak realism achieved beyond the relative safety of the studio’s walls. And another plus to consider: the killer cast of notably hard-edged reprobates, including Nita Talbot’s simpering and smoky-eyed barroom B-girl (a sort of Veronica Lake gone to seed); also, Cleo Moore’s finger-pointing moll, Myrna Bowers. From these cameos it is very easy to see why Jim Wilson harbors a homogenized contempt for all humanity, and women in particular. Even the relatively congenial soda hostess, Hazel (Joan Taylor) shuns him. And Jim is frankly tired of being considered the pariah; bad for the criminal element, but not nearly good enough to meet the high standards of the forthright he is committed to serve and protect.
On Dangerous Ground’s other depictions of mankind are as nefarious and unpleasant: Nestor Paiva’s paper-deliveryman cum snitch, Bagganierri, or the leering four-eyed pimp, Gatos (played with oily offensiveness by A.I. Bezzerides), offering Jim a bribe and/or the opportunity to abuse one of his ‘girls’ for the night - for a fee. Yet, unlike other movies depicting country folk as corn-fed, pure-of-heart Bible-thumpers in stark contrast to these city-dwelling bottom feeders, the isolated inhabitants who populate the second act in On Dangerous Ground offer mere continuity of this moral corruption; Olive Carey’s Mrs. Brent, a steely-eyed matriarch with dagger-loaded accusatory glances cast upon Sheriff Carrey (Ian Wolfe) for bringing this stranger into their midst; the only eye-witness to the crime, the Brent’s teenage daughter, Julie (Patricia Prest) stifled in her shell-shocked confession, coached by familial skepticism and grotesquely warped anxiety; first, for uncovering, then obfuscating the truth.
On Dangerous Ground is often erroneously and unfairly referenced as a copycat of 1951’s Detective Story; despite Sidney Kingley’s play (on which the latter film is based) being more maudlin and theatrical. Ironically, On Dangerous Ground has also been accused of this, particularly during the penultimate speech delivered by Jim’s partner, Pop Daly (Charles Kemper) after Jim corners a goon in a dark alley, responsible for the near-fatal assault on Myrna. The dialogue bears repeating, Pop bluntly expounding the good cop’s credo; “I live with other people. This is just a job, like any other. I do it the best I can. It’s never enough, but I do it. When I go home I don’t take this stuff with me. I leave it outside. But you…the way you carry it around inside – you must like it! Maybe you think that’s what makes you a good cop. The way you’re going you won’t be good to anybody…not even yourself. Somebody had to tell you. You wanna get something out a this life…you gotta put something in it – from the heart!” The sentiments of this confrontation will continue to echo in Jim’s head. Yet, this is precisely the point to be made; Jim Wilson wholly lacks this necessary appendage – and understanding heart - generally associated with compassion. There is no distinction for Jim between the people he serves and the ones he more transparently identifies as the filth of the city. Jim’s inability to get close to anyone, except when pulverizing a suspect into submission with his fists, is a devastating blow to his own moral welfare; particularly as the forthright protector toting the badge.
On Dangerous Ground opens with a thumbnail sketch of Jim’s two partners; Pop Daly and Pete Santos (Anthony Ross); director, Nicholas Ray and A.I. Bezzerides illustrating the careworn, thick-skinned, matter-of-fact resolve men in blue must possess to endure the psychological severity of their chosen profession. In many ways the complicity shared by each man’s wife acts as a buffer or cushion against emotional responses – or lack thereof, when dealing with the criminal element. Jim Wilson, by direct comparison, is a lone wolf, meticulously – and almost maniacally searing the police circular into his subconscious; on the prowl to identify a pair of cop killers he aims to bring to justice, whatever the consequences. Capt. Brawley is breathing hard down his department for some speedy results; and not just to look good in the papers. Alas, the search does not progress smoothly, chiefly because Jim sees evil around every corner; in the eye of every man and women he passes, even going so far as to roust an undesirable, while a crowd of pedestrians looks on. Fundamentally, On Dangerous Ground is not about police brutality, despite Jim’s gruff man-handling. This lands him in hot water with Brawley. However, there is evidence to suggest RKO was sincerely worried about its implication. A scene was added almost a year after production wrapped to depict Jim given a dressing down by Capt. Brawley, before being exiled to the sticks to investigate the Brent murder; perceived as both a punishment and a way for Brawley to relocated Jim far away from the considerable heat the department is presently taken for some of his other indiscretions.
Jim retreats from the city, driving his car to the snowy enclave of Weston Junction, met at the station by Sheriff Carrey and almost immediately taken to the Brent farm to make their inquiries. Mrs. Brent is overly protective of her daughter, Julie’s haunted remembrances. These are cut short by Walter’s arrival, shotgun in clenched fist, vowing there will be no trial for the man who raped and murdered his child because he intends to shoot him dead first. Alerted to the assailant’s nearby presence, Jim chases after Walter through ankle-deep drifts. Unlike the novel, the identity of the rapist is delayed in the movie; a fleeting glimpse of someone (or something) tumbling out of a pine-needled treetop adding to the suspense of what director, Nicholas Ray has graphically conceived as more the blood-thirsty ‘animal’, rather than a ‘manhunt’. Jim and Walter pick up the scent in a nearby town; commandeering one of the local’s cars to make chase. Alas, the winding roads are slippery with freshly packed snow. Jim loses control and the car plummets down a steep ravine, becoming lodged between several trees. Now, Jim and Walter follow freshly made footsteps in the snow to an isolated farmhouse owned by Mary Malden.
Given Ida Lupino’s name gets top billing, it is more than a little disheartening she only occupies the last twenty-eight minutes of our story. As it turns out, Mary Malden is the elder sister of the accused, Danny. Though blinded in more recent years by an undisclosed affliction, Mary initially lies to Walter and Jim about having seen anyone matching the description of the man they are searching for, and, whose footsteps they have managed to track back to her farmhouse. Knowing Danny is not on the farm at present, Mary allows Jim and Walter to search the house and grounds; a rather idiotic disclosure since it does not take very long for Walter to discover Danny’s boots and other clothes belonging to a man kept in an upstairs bedroom. Mary suggests Danny has gone away to a neighboring county. Although neither Jim nor Walter believes her story, Jim is at least – and rather uncommonly – sympathetic. As night falls, Mary offers Jim and Walter to spend the night warming by the fireplace in her living room. They gratefully accept and, weary from their day-long trek across the frozen wilderness, easily succumb to the sway of a good night’s sleep. However, by the steely grey break of dawn, Mary quietly dresses and sneaks out of the house undetected to a nearby barn with a hidden storm cellar, forewarning her brother he must turn himself in to the police. While Mary fears for Danny’s safety, she instinctually believes Jim will not harm him. In fact, Mary had Jim give his word of honor to protect Danny from Walter.
Meanwhile, Jim and Walter stir inside the house. As Danny makes a break to escape over a nearby mountain range of craggy boulders, Walter makes chase, followed by Jim. All three begin to scale a very steep incline; Walter repeatedly thwarted from blasting Danny with his shotgun. Nevertheless, tragedy strikes. Danny loses his footing near the top and plunges from a rugged precipice to his death; his bloodied body recovered by Walter who, seemingly with all venom departed him, now carries Danny’s lifeless body back to Mary’s farm. Initially holding Jim responsible for Danny’s death, Mary cannot surrender her feelings for Jim entirely. He, in turn, finds it increasingly impossible to forget her once he has returned to his old inner city beat. Mary’s words about loneliness echo from within. Indeed, Jim’s punishment has proven a cathartic experiences on several levels; chiefly, in being able to recognize his own pitilessness as filtered through Walter Brent’s manic bloodlust for Danny Malden. Unexpectedly, Jim returns to the farm after only a few days. He finds Mary at home, forgiving and what is more, much yearning for his touch. The two embrace and share in a tear-stained kiss.
Despite this somewhat anticipated finale, On Dangerous Ground never unravels into the predictable ‘happy’ ending meant to satisfy the Hollywood tradition. Instead, it rather cautiously experiments with a somewhat restrained, if slightly more hopeful conclusion for these two protagonists we have come to, if not love, than intuitively recognize as perfectly paired soulmates. Part of this successful conveyance is owed to Ida Lupino’s staggering professionalism as an actress. Undeniably varied and intuitive, Lupino lends ballast to the story without fermenting stolidity. The Brit-born Lupino’s career as an actress has entered its third and final phase with this movie; moved away from the self-assured, tough-as-nails vixens, vamps and whisky-voiced/chain-smoking saloon singers to be found in films like High Sierra and Road House; hard dames, invariably clawing their way up the ladder in a man’s world. But as the blind girl Lupino has assuaged into an unusual and sustained martyrdom for which too many a great actresses of this period were increasingly brought to heel.
Yet, Lupino’s Mary Malden is not the put-upon victim or the innocent of this piece; rather, an intuitive and stabilizing voice of reason. Her initial deceptions are mired in bittersweet and thoroughly flawed nepotism; her resultant confession of love made to Jim not with teary-eyed gratitude, but level-headed appreciation for having found a man just as scarred as she; someone to take the place of her lost brother; someone she can ‘cure’ and look after, who in turn will look after her. While Mary initially senses ‘no pity’ in Jim’s voice she is nevertheless able to detect something of his internalized torment; offering a way out of this labyrinth on her own terms. Lupino, who would go on to establish her own production company – The Filmmakers – and have a rewarding career as both director and producer in television, does some of her best acting in On Dangerous Ground, and, such a genuine pity we do not get to see more of her. To be sure, Lupino was not pleased with On Dangerous Ground; a movie she regarded as rife with excellent production values but exceptionally weak and very uneven in its storytelling. There is something to this. For although the picture possesses some striking noir elements as well as salient departures from the formula, Bezzerides’ screenplay is a somewhat mangled affair; the inner city first act and penultimate cross country chase/finale, seemingly excised from two irreconcilable plots with only the aforementioned, abridged scene between Robert Ryan’s Jim and Ed Begley’s Capt. Brawley to explain away the abrupt disconnect.
However, no picture with Ida Lupino or Robert Ryan is entirely a washout and certainly, with the two of them together, On Dangerous Ground is far from becoming an artistic failure. In fact, in more recent times, On Dangerous Ground has been ‘rediscovered’ by fans, increasingly come to regard it with considerable interest as a minor work by Nicholas Ray. This still doesn’t make it a classic in my opinion. But it does add badly needed cache to a storyline otherwise afflicted with some stifling inconsistencies, effectively assuaged by the Ryan/Lupino screen presence and chemistry, and, their performances given within. And Ryan, whose career thrived on variations of unrepentant bastards and bigots, gives an unlooked-for and affecting performance. He lets Jim Wilson’s extreme mental anguish show in an emotionally charged and frequently heartbreaking performance; panged, powerful and prophetic; a prelude, even, to all those anti-heroes to emerge decades later throughout the 1970’s. We get disturbing shades of a basically good man being pressed dangerously close to the edge of his abilities; someone for whom the fog of daily living has already begun to cloud his own moral clarity. Like so many crusaders, Ryan’s conflicted cop wants ‘justice for all’. Yet, increasingly he cannot discern between evenhandedness and one-man vigilantism. As with sanity and its counterpoint, there is a fine line of distinction between these polar opposites that Jim appears dangerously close to transgressing on more than one occasion.
Before embarking upon a critique of this Blu-ray, we must sincerely pause, doff our caps and give thanks to the Warner Archive (WAC) for performing what can only be described as a minor miracle. When On Dangerous Ground was released to DVD in 2004 as part of Warner Home Video’s noir box set the results left a good deal to be desired; chiefly, because the elements employed to master the DVD then were several generations removed from the original camera negative and suffered greatly from a barrage of built-in artifacts; flicker, exaggerated grain, low contrast, age-related dirt and scratches, some aggravated edge enhancement, and, a curious ‘greenish’ telecine tint. In short, the DVD was a mess and rightfully cause for considerable outrage among fans. Well, prepare for one of the biggest revelations you are ever likely to encounter in hi-def, because WAC’s newly remastered Blu-ray is, in a word, sumptuous; remastered in 4K from original nitrate elements. In the past, I have been glowing with compliments paid to WAC. And this disc, like virtually all others gone before it, unequivocally proves when it comes to very deep catalog releases in hi-def, there are really only two companies in competition: Warner Bros. and Sony/Columbia. Even more so, I have to give it to Warner in 2016 for mining their nuggets and hidden treasures with the due diligence we had once come to expect from every major studio in DVD’s glory days, but today, is as rare as finding four-leaf clovers a plenty, sprouting from the heads of unicorns.
WAC’s decision to return to an original camera negative housed at the Library of Congress is owed formidable kudos; first, because it was a costly endeavor for a movie, arguably, few outside the die-hard noir community have ever heard of (let us be blunt here – a commercial flop, long obscured by shoddy available prints, infrequently shown on late night television), and second, because of the time-consuming ‘restoration’ process required to resurrect this movie from its own very ‘dangerous ground’. The results speak for themselves: a simply gorgeous 1080p image, so richly detailed it easily extracts all of the well-dressed B&W imagery captured by cinematographer extraordinaire, George E. Diskant. Tonal balance in the grayscale is exquisite. I was stunned to see such minute textures, the crystalized snow trampled underfoot looking so distinct and real it might just as well have sent a chill to fill the room. The mono 2.0 DTS audio is another cause for cheer; Bernard Herrmann’s score full of unanticipated bombast; dialogue front and center, achieved with unexpected razor-sharp clarity.
This is what great Blu-ray mastering is all about, folks! Warner has also ported over an informative audio commentary by film historian and author, John Erickson. Bottom line: I don’t know how anyone cannot include this release as one of their top-tier pre-Christmas orders. In an era where far too many studios have discounted their illustrious past, licensing subpar 1080p dreck to third party distributors merely to make a quick buck, or virtually ignoring their past altogether, we must continue to praise, give thanks and encourage Warner Bros. to do more of the same. They have already proven they know better than their competition. Classics on physical media sell – period! Classics restored on Blu-ray sell even better. So, buy today and treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)