On Dangerous Ground
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Nicholas Ray was never the sort of filmmaker to pull punches, even if it would help him at the box office, so the uncompromising power of his renegade cop picture, On Dangerous Ground (1952), shouldn't come as much of a surprise. However, audiences in the early 1950s weren't prepared for Ray's plot, which features a sadistic detective trying to track down a mentally-defective killer. Even a near-miraculous finale featuring a saintly blind girl couldn't lure them into the theater. RKO lost $450,000 when they released the movie, a pretty substantial sum in those days.
Robert Ryan stars as Jim Wilson, a New York City Police detective who's been transformed into a raging brute by the "human garbage" he's cleaning from the streets. (Taxi Driver's  Travis Bickle would have loved this guy.) Wilson, who continually seems on the verge of popping his cork, has developed a tendency to beat his suspects to a pulp rather than simply interrogating them. His captain (Ed Begley) tries to give Jim some breathing room by, rather misguidedly, assigning him to a rural murder investigation.
Once released from his steel and cement hell, Jim promptly meets Walter Brent (Ward Bond), the vengeful father of a young girl who was murdered. It turns 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 her fleeing brother (played by Ray's nephew, Sumner Williams) before Brent finds him, knowing full-well that the other man will kill him in cold blood if he gets there first.
Ray stumbled across Gerald Butler's novel, Mad with Much Heart, while preparing a fittingly-titled soap opera called Born to Be Bad. The story of a cop who searches for a retarded killer and falls in love with the boy's sister, Mad with Much Heart was submitted to RKO Pictures as a possible future project for Ray. The studio's readers, however, felt it was unsuitable for filming.
Enter RKO producer John Houseman, who badly wanted to fulfill his contract with the studio and get away from its wildly erratic owner, Howard Hughes. Houseman managed to secure the rights to the novel when Ryan showed interest in the lead role. With three "name" talents attached, RKO grudgingly agreed to proceed with the movie...although not before issuing a memo saying that they might pull the plug at any time. Houseman later described his time at RKO as "among the darkest and most arid of my life." He labored in "a distasteful and unproductive atmosphere" that couldn't have been further removed from his creative (if highly combative) days with Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater.
Luckily, Houseman got along very well with Ray. Though he openly questioned On Dangerous Ground's storyline, he must have recognized that the picture benefited from Ray's hands-off approach to directing good actors. "I hate filmmakers who want long discussions with actors over a scene," Ryan later said. "An actor who doesn't know what a scene he's going to play is all about is in the wrong profession. Nick had, I think, great respect for me. Right from the start of our collaboration, he only offered me a very few suggestions."
The key unsung member of On Dangerous Ground's production team was screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, who fleshed out the novel to Ray's specifications while injecting the scenes with memorably tough dialogue. Still, Houseman never warmed to the movie: "The character played by Bob Ryan was really essentially Nick's creation. So we had two pictures. We had the business of a good cop given to violence, and then we had the perfectly ridiculous plot about the blind girl and the boy, and all that...Al Bezzerides is a good writer, but I think he was always a little bewildered by that picture, as indeed I was. I just wanted Nick to get what he wanted and to do what he wanted, but I never quite understood what the hell he was doing."
That, however, is what many people like about the movie. The two distinct story lines play off of each other to peculiar effect, throwing off sparks when you're least expecting them. This off-kilter picture was groundbreaking in its own way, and has fully earned its status as a minor classic.
Producer: John Houseman
Director: Nicholas Ray
Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides and Nicholas Ray (based on the novel Mad with Much 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), Ward Bond (Walter Brent), Charles Kemper (Bill Daly), Anthony Ross (Pete Santos), Ed Begley (Capt. Brawley), Ian Wolfe (Carrey), Sumner Williams (Danny Malden), Gus Schilling (Lucky), Frank Ferguson (Willows), Cleo Moore (Myrna), Olive Carey (Mrs. Brent).
BW-82m. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara