On Dangerous Ground December 14, 2006Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1950s, Nicholas Ray , trackback
If asked to pick only one actor who most personified film noir, most people would probably choose either Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum. However, after watching many of these films on DVD over the past few years, I’d be inclined to pick Robert Ryan. My rationale is fairly simple. Bogart, with few exceptions, is much more charismatic and charming than Ryan, who would certainly never have been cast in any of the likeable anti-hero roles (think Sam Spade, Rick Blaine and Philip Marlowe) with which we associate Bogart. Ryan’s formidable 6′4″ frame negated the need to smart-talk his way out of jams like Bogart often did. Instead, we often see Ryan as a lit fuse, pounding his fists into whatever has the misfortune of getting in his way.
Mitchum, in contrast to Bogart, was adept at playing it cool or nasty (see Out of the Past and The Night of the Hunter), but, probably as a result of both his popularity and longevity, also frequently got shoved into romantic roles (often with some adventure thrown in as well) before finally settling into several television miniseries parts and reminding people that beef was what’s for dinner. In a sense, Ryan’s versatility was never really tested and that’s precisely why he’s the perfect noir actor. The first images that come to mind of Ryan are most likely to be from one of his many noir roles. Even in films not strictly adhering to noir aesthetics, such as The Naked Spur or Bad Day at Black Rock, Ryan’s characters often remain entrenched in the noir mold, mysteriously flawed or even downright cruel.
Aside from being noir icons, all three men also worked with director Nicholas Ray. Bogart gave arguably his best performance as screenwriter Dixon Steele in Ray’s In a Lonely Place, while Mitchum’s time at RKO coincided with Ray’s uncredited contributions to Macao and The Racket, as well as The Lusty Men, a Ray-helmed western co-starring Susan Hayward that’s curiously still unavailable on DVD. Robert Ryan appeared prominently in five films that Ray worked on, including On Dangerous Ground (released only in the Film Noir Collection, Vol. 3) , a wonderful noir from 1952. Though he often played villainous characters, Ryan’s two most impressive roles are as damaged heroes in the boxing noir The Set-Up and his role here as intensely tormented cop Jim Wilson.
Wilson is a police officer troubled by the constant crime and corruption in the city and questioning whether his dedication has gotten him anywhere. His way of coping includes violent interrogation of suspects and using whatever means necessary to catch criminals. These methods, along with his own loneliness, are starting to catch up with him when his superior sends him upstate to investigate the murder of a young girl. Once there, he reluctantly partners with the girl’s father (Ward Bond), who’s looking only for revenge, and finally finds an emotional connection, in the unlikely form of the killer’s blind sister, played by Ida Lupino (who is inexplicably given top billing - and featured in the poster’s absurd tagline - despite only appearing in the final half of the film).
Clocking in at a brisk 82 minutes, On Dangerous Ground really manages to use the most of its short running time. The film’s first third or so, taking place in the city, is filled with dark shadows and shiny urban streets that have become hallmarks of the noir genre. Especially striking is the innovative use of a hand-held camera. Scenes such as a chase into an alleyway become jarringly realistic, an unexpected touch for a film well over fifty years old. When the setting shifts upstate, the darkness (both externally and internally for the protagonist) transforms into snowy white vistas that are photographed impressively, if not breathtakingly (albeit made less so by the muddy and disappointing R1 DVD transfer). The bleak, bright landscape, as well as certain elements of the story, is reminiscent of the modern anti-noir Insomnia.
Bernard Herrmann’s score provides a unique aural burst in the action scenes of On Dangerous Ground. Sounding sort of like a dry run for his memorable Vertigo score, Herrmann’s instrumentation is strikingly effective and a vast improvement over the scores usually found in similar films, which often seem to serve as the orchestral version of a laughtrack by instructing viewers when to feel particular emotions. While I can understand how some might find it distracting, Herrmann’s work here is nearly impossible to ignore or forget and provides an added dimension to the film experience.
When I watch the films of Nicholas Ray, I’m consistently amazed at what he was able to accomplish while working for studios in an era of such heavy censorship. The 1950s were not kind to many visionary filmmakers, who were often forced to water down their ideas or removed entirely from a production. Yet, Ray was able to make films that are like almost nothing else produced during that time. He explored the themes of alienation and loneliness, topics rarely broached by his American contemporaries, with keen awareness and without judging his characters. His frequent refusal to tack on happy endings (notwithstanding the final redemption, ordered by RKO head Howard Hughes, found in On Dangerous Ground) is especially refreshing in light of seeing so many inane finales where everything is wrapped up with a shiny red bow.
On Dangerous Ground, armed with Ray’s superb direction and Ryan’s archetypal performance, is a classic of its genre. It builds an atmosphere of uneasy intensity, flaunting its emotionally wounded hero in search of his ultimate redemption. The film is one of Ray’s best and proudly ranks alongside other first-rate examples of film noir. Even though I was disappointed in both the R1 DVD transfer and the decision by Warner Bros. to not offer the DVD separately from its box set, there’s little reason not to own such a fine film.