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Nicholas Ray was never the sort of filmmaker to pull punches, even if itwould help him at the box office, so the uncompromising power of hisrenegade cop picture, On Dangerous Ground (1952), shouldn't come as much ofa surprise. However, audiences in the early 1950s weren't prepared forRay's plot, which features a sadistic detective trying to track down amentally-defective killer. Even a near-miraculous finale featuring asaintly blind girl couldn't lure them into the theater. RKO lost $450,000when they released the movie, a pretty substantial sum in thosedays.
Robert Ryan stars as Jim Wilson, a New York City Police detective who's beentransformed into a raging brute by the "human garbage" he's cleaning fromthe streets. (Taxi Driver's  Travis Bickle would have loved thisguy.) Wilson, who continually seems on the verge of popping his cork, hasdeveloped a tendency to beat his suspects to a pulp rather than simplyinterrogating them. His captain (Ed Begley) tries to give Jim somebreathing room by, rather misguidedly, assigning him to a rural murderinvestigation.
Once released from his steel and cement hell, Jim promptly meets WalterBrent (Ward Bond), the vengeful father of a young girl who was murdered. Itturns out that Jim and shotgun-toting Walter have a great deal in common,but Jim's world is further upended when he falls in love with Mary Malden(Ida Lupino), the sister of the killer. Mary begs Jim to capture herfleeing brother (played by Ray's nephew, Sumner Williams) before Brent findshim, knowing full-well that the other man will kill him in cold blood if hegets there first.
Ray stumbled across Gerald Butler's novel, Mad with Much Heart, whilepreparing a fittingly-titled soap opera called Born to Be Bad. Thestory of a cop who searches for a retarded killer and falls in love with theboy's sister, Mad with Much Heart was submitted to RKO Pictures as apossible future project for Ray. The studio's readers, however, felt it wasunsuitable for filming.
Enter RKO producer John Houseman, who badly wanted to fulfill his contractwith the studio and get away from its wildly erratic owner, Howard Hughes.Houseman managed to secure the rights to the novel when Ryan showed interestin the lead role. With three "name" talents attached, RKO grudgingly agreedto proceed with the movie...although not before issuing a memo saying thatthey might pull the plug at any time. Houseman later described his time atRKO as "among the darkest and most arid of my life." He labored in "adistasteful and unproductive atmosphere" that couldn't have been furtherremoved from his creative (if highly combative) days with Orson Welles andThe Mercury Theater.
Luckily, Houseman got along very well with Ray. Though he openly questionedOn Dangerous Ground's storyline, he must have recognized that thepicture benefited from Ray's hands-off approach to directing good actors."I hate filmmakers who want long discussions with actors over a scene," Ryanlater said. "An actor who doesn't know what a scene he's going to play isall about is in the wrong profession. Nick had, I think, great respect forme. Right from the start of our collaboration, he only offered me a veryfew suggestions."
The key unsung member of On Dangerous Ground's production team wasscreenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, who fleshed out the novel to Ray'sspecifications while injecting the scenes with memorably tough dialogue.Still, Houseman never warmed to the movie: "The character played by BobRyan was really essentially Nick's creation. So we had two pictures. Wehad the business of a good cop given to violence, and then we had theperfectly ridiculous plot about the blind girl and the boy, and allthat...Al Bezzerides is a good writer, but I think he was always a littlebewildered by that picture, as indeed I was. I just wanted Nick to get whathe wanted and to do what he wanted, but I never quite understood what thehell he was doing."
That, however, is what many people like about the movie. The two distinctstory lines play off of each other to peculiar effect, throwing off sparkswhen you're least expecting them. This off-kilter picture wasgroundbreaking in its own way, and has fully earned its status as a minorclassic.
Producer: John Houseman
Director: Nicholas Ray
Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides and Nicholas Ray (based on the novel Mad withMuch Heart by Gerald Butler)
Editing: Roland Gross
Cinematography: George E. Diskant
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Art Design: Albert S. D'Agostino
Principal Cast: Robert Ryan (Jim Wilson), Ida Lupino (Mary Malden), WardBond (Walter Brent), Charles Kemper (Bill Daly), Anthony Ross (Pete Santos),Ed Begley (Capt. Brawley), Ian Wolfe (Carrey), Sumner Williams (DannyMalden), Gus Schilling (Lucky), Frank Ferguson (Willows), Cleo Moore(Myrna), Olive Carey (Mrs. Brent).
BW-82m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara