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On Dangerous Ground

On Dangerous Ground(1952)

Remind Me

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One of the beauties of director Nicholas Ray's great film noir On Dangerous Ground (1952) is also the thing that sets it apart from many other noirs: its contrast between the dark, violent city and the wide-open, brighter countryside. After 20 or so minutes of the former, the picture moves to the latter and stays there. The urban and rural landscapes are so atmospherically conveyed that they seem to wield a power over Robert Ryan's anguished cop, Jim Wilson, who like many other Nicholas Ray movie characters is a social outsider. In this case, he's overly brutal on his job, to put it mildly. He can barely hide his disgust at all the petty criminals, prostitutes and assorted lowlifes he must deal with every night, and that disgust is ultimately turned on himself. Finally he goes overboard, beating a man too savagely for his superior's liking. Fed up, Capt. Brawley (Ed Begley) sends him upstate to assist a small-town sheriff in a local murder investigation. Director Ray takes some important time in this compact (82-minute) movie to show us Wilson's journey into literal whiteness (the ground is snow-covered), and Bernard Herrmann's exceptional score seems to indicate that this strange new space will cast a spell on the character.

When he arrives in the town, Wilson is still the same man, but as time passes something changes inside, ever so slowly, in a way which is difficult to put into words. It's not so much that Wilson is "softened"; it's more that he becomes aware that there are positive things to live for. The murder investigation leads to a teenager (played by Nicholas Ray's nephew) and his blind older sister, played by Ida Lupino in the first of two pairings with Ryan. (Beware, My Lovely, 1952, would come next.) Ward Bond co-stars as the slain woman's father, who is out for quick, violent retribution by means of his rifle. He and Ryan spend a fair chunk of time chasing the teenager, with Ryan trying to prevent Bond from killing him - trying, in other words, to prevent violence. It's not hard to see Bond as Ryan's alter ego, in effect.

There are other films noirs that use rural landscapes as a contrast to the hard-boiled city, including one of the greatest of all, Out of the Past (1947), but it's hard to think of another which uses the contrast as emotionally and movingly as On Dangerous Ground. And for that matter, the contrast heightens the emotional effect of each world, not just the rural one. The opening section of On Dangerous Ground is as powerful and brutal an urban landscape as any in film noir.

On Dangerous Ground is available on DVD from Warner Home Video by itself or as part of the excellent box set The Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 3. Warners has put together another winner with this set. The print quality of On Dangerous Ground is quite good overall, though some shots look a bit murky. There are two extras - a commentary track and a trailer. Other extras this time around have been placed on a separate disc entirely: several Crime Does Not Pay short subjects (a couple of them quite brilliant), and a new documentary on the film noir style.

The commentary is delivered by Glenn Erickson, who reviews DVDs on his own website as well as for Erickson's verbal style is fast and dense, and he offers many interesting observations and a thorough recounting of the movie's production. A.I. Bezzerides adapted the screenplay from Gerald Butler's novel Mad With Much Heart, which was set in the English countryside and had neither a city sequence nor an internal struggle in the cop character. Erickson compares the book and movie well, and explains how the rest of the movie's story came together. He's also good on the differences between the screenplay and the final film, as there was a period of re-shooting and re-editing that went on for many months. Erickson even relates a few comments from Bezzerides himself; the two had some phone conversations in the years before Bezzerides died.

The trailer is worth watching, too. It's not only in great shape technically but is vividly produced: "Take a good, hard look at this man," intones a narrator. "Don't blame him if his face is hard, tough. If his eyes are cold and cruel. If his fists talk, and make talk... Only the worst can he see in people. And only violence can satisfy the hate inside him."

For more information about On Dangerous Ground, visit Warner Video.

by Jeremy Arnold