Wilder Times & Dangerous Noir November 16, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, Billy Wilder, Nicholas Ray , 3 comments
I’ve given the day to Billy Wilder at DVD Times. A privilege, I’m sure. Sabrina isn’t one of my most preferred Wilder films, but I do find it supremely entertaining. Hopefully I’ve conveyed that appreciation sufficiently. Sunset Blvd., on the other hand, is most likely my second favorite of his pictures (and it’s my 100th review for the site). The film is incredibly nasty without being obviously so porcupine-y. In that spirit, I think my review may be somewhat bristling to the reader who isn’t a Wilder fanatic. It wasn’t intentional, but it is perhaps a happy coincidence. Nothing personal, I assure you. I’ll acknowledge that both reviews are as imperfect as always, but they’re sincere and, I hope, passionate.
I’ve now been able to review four Wilder films at DVD Times and a few more here. If I ever find the time, I want to put together a comprehensive listing of his work and the DVD status of everything. For now, I’m as surprised as anyone that there have been those four new re-issues this year in R1 alone, plus R2 got a standalone release of A Foreign Affair, which I recently picked up. Only Five Graves to Cairo (available in Australia), Fedora (available in Spain) and Buddy, Buddy remain without an edition either here or in the UK. His very first effort behind the camera, Mauvaise Graine, is also due at some point from Criterion. I’m still anxiously awaiting a few of his films where he served as screenwriter, including Hold Back the Dawn and Arise, My Love, which I’ve not seen.
The other filmmaker who gets me through the night is Nicholas Ray and I’m very proud of a piece I did about his On Dangerous Ground for the wonderfully dark and gloomy site Noir of the Week. I had written about it before, but I’ve become less and less pleased with that and a few other reviews here. It’s a constant learning process.
They Live by Night August 13, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1940s, Nicholas Ray , 8 comments
“This boy…and this girl…were never properly introduced to the world we live in…”
Two weeks ago, the director Nicholas Ray had a very good couple of days on DVD. July 30 saw one of his finest films, Bigger Than Life, released in the UK by the BFI, a superb edition highlighted by Ed Buscombe’s commentary and a conversation between film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and director Jim Jarmusch, who served as Ray’s teaching assistant in Jarmusch’s last year at NYU. The following day, July 31, Ray’s debut feature They Live by Night hit the market as part of Warner Bros.’ fourth Film Noir collection in R1. It also featured a commentary, this time by film noir aficionado Eddie Muller and star Farley Granger. It’s been a long time coming for Ray, the most under appreciated of the great American auteurs, and, make no mistake, Ray is indeed a great director in the pantheon of the best English language filmmakers despite remaining woefully underrepresented on DVD in the United States. Still waiting for a release in R1: Bigger Than Life, The Lusty Men, Party Girl, The Savage Innocents, Born to Be Bad, A Woman’s Secret, Hot Blood, Wind Across the Everglades, Knock on Any Door, Run for Cover, 55 Days at Peking, and, most frustratingly, Johnny Guitar.
Ray’s tenure making pictures for Hollywood was fairly short-lived, from They Live by Night until Samuel Bronston’s 55 Days at Peking in 1962, during which Ray collapsed with a stress-induced heart attack, was replaced, and ultimately barred from the set. Despite being “interrupted,” as he would later classify his stint directing film, Nicholas Ray made several essential pictures of the 1950s, as well as one each from the preceding and following decades. Lost promises and squandered talent are unimportant when a filmography manages to still include legacy-defining movies like In a Lonely Place and Johnny Guitar. There’s never quite been a director like Nick Ray and his legacy is all the better for it. By my count, Ray made five borderline masterpieces and four nearly great films in a period of only twelve years. I’m not sure any other American director can claim such lofty accomplishments.
One of those nearly great pictures was his debut feature They Live by Night, starring Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell as doomed lovers unable to combat their production code destinies. When filming ended in October 1947, Ray called the movie Your Red Wagon, from the performance of a song by that name in the picture, but as RKO struggled and Howard Hughes took the reins, the film was rechristened They Live by Night and entered theaters in the fall of 1949 with little fanfare. Initially perceived as another run-of-the-mill gangster movie, critics and audiences alike apparently shared a collective shrug of the shoulders. The often-maligned New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther derided the film for its “sympathies for a youthful crook,” though he still seemed to like it well enough and praised Ray’s “eye for action details” and Granger’s “genuine sense of nervous strain.” Even the critics in France, who would later, through the writings of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, come to appreciate Ray much more than those in his native country, seemed unimpressed.
I suppose this shouldn’t be entirely surprising, what with Ray’s lack of any real notoriety or Hollywood experience. They Live by Night was actually released after both A Woman’s Secret and the Bogart-starrer Knock on Any Door played in U.S. theaters, a couple of films which do little to establish much of a reputation. There’s also the fairly pedestrian plot, something which Ray clearly saw past enough to transform into one of his signature works. The film begins with Granger as one of three men who break out of prison, an event not seen, but the aftermath of which is shown in exhilarating detail via helicopter camera shots of the getaway car, and almost immediately plot to rob a bank. His character, Bowie, had served seven years in the joint for murder, since he was only sixteen, and seems content to follow around his escape buddies. When he meets O’Donnell’s Keechie, Bowie is immediately interested despite her somewhat plain looks and lack of romantic experience. As we see during the course of They Live by Night, these are two lonely creatures in the midst of trying to figure out the vast expanse of life and adulthood, with the additional element of one being a fugitive and criminal.
Though Ray’s film is frequently classified as a film noir, it’s really more of a love story set against the backdrop of a life of crime. Bowie and Keechie find each other after short lives without emotional affection. Ray crafts a beautifully moving romance between his two lost souls, as he would frequently do throughout his career, even if the viewer knows things will end tragically. They marry on a whim, during a bus stop at a place that both rents ($1) and sells ($5) wedding rings, and forge a bond of defiant loneliness, the first love of each. It’s really quite impressive how Ray and his actors manage to forge such a sympathetic relationship between a violent criminal and his accomplice. Just look at the many, many other examples of this kind of lovers on the run type of film to see how difficult it can be to establish a fully fleshed out romance between two lawless characters.
These type of films would become quite popular over the thirty or so years following They Live by Night (itself made a decade after the similarly themed Fritz Lang film You Only Live Once). Ray’s film was based on the novel Thieves Like Us, written by Edward Anderson and made again by Robert Altman in 1974 using the book’s title, an apparent invitation or glamorization of crime and deemed inappropriate by the strict production code in effect for the earlier version. In the interim, films like Gun Crazy, Badlands, The Honeymoon Killers, and, most famously, Bonnie and Clyde would repeat the same formula but never with as much soul and heart as Ray’s tragic love story. Ultimately, the audience cannot empathize with cold-blooded murderers unless we’re given some kind of common denominator in which we can relate. First love, perhaps the most emotional period of anyone’s life, is the perfect equalizer and Ray tapped into that here without flaw.
The director, also the sole credited screenwriter of the film, emphasized with notes in his final draft that the movie would be “tender, not cynical; tragic, not brutal” and a “Love Story,” comparing Bowie and Keechie’s plight and short time together to that experienced by Romeo and Juliet. Producer and future Oscar winner/nightmare of prospective law students John Houseman was under non-exclusive contract at RKO, the studio where he had worked at as an assistant on Citizen Kane, and his confidence in the first-time filmmaker can only be described as remarkable. Like his fellow Wisconsin native Orson Welles, Ray would struggle with artistic interference throughout his run in Hollywood, but he would never have as much creative freedom as he did while making his debut feature.
The characters portrayed by Granger and O’Donnell are unique even among Ray’s motley assortment of loners and misunderstood protagonists in that they are truly criminals, evading the law. Granger’s Bowie killed a man seven years previous, escaped from prison and then participated in a bank robbery. O’Donnell’s character is upset with Bowie when his criminal ways continue, but, realistically, what could she have expected? Bowie is certainly not portrayed as a bad man or someone unduly violent, but he nevertheless can’t exactly seek honest employment and make a good life for his new bride and unborn child. His and the film’s end are inevitable, the only way someone on the wrong side of the law can have their fate unfold in the cinema.
As Bowie, Granger is naively sympathetic, giving maybe his best performance on film. The actor would star in two of Hitchcock’s better films, Rope and Strangers on a Train, as well as re-teaming with Cathy O’Donnell for Anthony Mann’s Side Street (included on the WB disc with They Live by Night) before later appearing in Luchino Visconti’s Senso. Granger is not an especially versatile performer, but Ray really worked to his strengths with this role, allowing the actor to show his natural innocence and vulnerability as a young victim of circumstance lost in the frightening reality of the world. Granger recently published his autobiography and, while promoting the book, cited Ray as his personal favorite among directors he worked with, unsurprising praise when you look at the brilliant performances the director continually elicited from his actors. The freedom he gave stars like Bogart, Mitchum, Robert Ryan, and James Mason, among others, shines through in their acting, all arguably never better than when working with Ray.
It’s that willingness on Ray’s part to allow his actors to express themselves without fear of embarrassment or Kazan-like belligerence, as well as the director’s unique penchant for disaffected characters at a time when cookie-cutter conformance was de rigueur in Hollywood movies, that make his films seem so fresh and removed from the standard melodramas and overblown exercises in method acting of the 1950s. Watching They Live by Night, I was reminded of the music of Bruce Springsteen and, specifically, the song “Atlantic City” off his Nebraska album. Both artists were able to locate the pulse of the outsider, someone not particularly special in any way but undeniably American in spirit and attitude. The idea of bettering one’s self and family, even if it means turning to crime or working outside the margins, is a recurring theme in both men’s work. Of course, Ray put his finger on this pursuit some twenty and thirty years before Springsteen.
The newly released DVD of They Live by Night is quite outstanding in picture quality, especially for an RKO film, and it looks noticeably better than Warner’s release of On Dangerous Ground just last year. The more I delve into the Film Noir V.4 set, the more I think it’s truly one of the best DVD releases we’ve had. The special features are a little on the superficial side, with each film sporting a highly condensed short featurette running about five minutes and consisting of talking heads saying little of interest, as well as a commentary. These ridiculously truncated programs seem edited within a millimeter of their lives and leave this viewer wondering how knowledgeable persons like Molly Haskell, Oliver Stone, Alain Silver, and James Ursini could be restricted to such a short amount of time to speak about one of the truly great debut features of the 1940s. The bonus disc included in the Vol. 3 collection was much more interesting and meaty than these little trifles Warner Bros. has given us here. That’s a minor complaint though, and absolutely not intended to dissuade anyone remotely interested in film noir from paying roughly $4 per film for this wonderful set.
In a Lonely Place May 1, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1950s, Nicholas Ray, Gloria Grahame , 6 comments
I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.
I can’t even pretend to feign objectivity when discussing Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place. I think it’s one of the most exquisite, fascinating films to ever come from Hollywood. Humphrey Bogart’s Dixon Steele is in a class by himself, a truly extraordinary, atypical film protagonist. He’s anything but heroic, a violently troubled man who finally finds love at the same time he’s suspected of murder. I’m afraid I can’t begin to do the movie justice. Rather than read anything written by anyone about Ray’s film, it’s best to just watch it until you become hopelessly absorbed by Bogart, Gloria Grahame and Ray. It’s not possible to accurately capture its brilliance in mere words. At best, I can only touch on why I hold it so dear and the spell it weaves on me.
Ray’s best and most characteristic film (edging out Johnny Guitar by a small margin) begins with Bogart as Dixon Steele driving through the Los Angeles area, his reflection captured in the car’s rearview mirror. When he comes to a stop, a female passenger of another car begins talking to him about a movie he had written, but he doesn’t recognize her, the film’s leading actress, because he’s never seen the filmed version of what he wrote. Steele is ready to erupt after the actress’s male companion chides him for harassing his lady even though she had begun the conversation, but the car drives away. We soon learn Steele is a screenwriter of dwindling commercial success and attempting to retain his creative integrity. His new project is to adapt a bestseller, one that’s destined to become an epic - “a picture that’s real long and has lots of things going on,” according to Mildred Atkinson, the ill-fated hat-check girl who’s read the book. Since Dix doesn’t seem too interested in reading his source material, he persuades the girl to relay the story at his apartment. Mildred initially balks because she has a date, but the lure of celebrity is overwhelming and she relents.
When Dix is bringing Mildred into his apartment he runs into Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), his new neighbor. Instantly, Dix seems more interested in her than Mildred, but he sticks with the latter. At his apartment, the hat-check girl enthusiastically tells Dix the novel’s plot, but he’s turned off by her childishness. He sends her on her way with two ten dollar bills for cab fare, not even walking her to the nearby taxi stand. Ray then cuts to police Det. Brub Nicolai knocking on Steele’s door at five o’clock in the morning. Dix had served as the cop’s commanding officer during the war, but he soon realizes it’s not a social visit. Mildred was found dead on the side of the road, “in a lonely place,” and Dix was the last known person to see her alive. He’s taken into questioning, but released when Laurel provides his alibi. She thinks Dix has an interesting face and he’s intrigued.
The burgeoning love story between these two lost souls is cinema of the highest level. Bogart somehow abandons any lingering artifacts of Sam Spade, Rick Blaine or Philip Marlowe. He is Dixon Steele, one of the essential characters in film history. I’m always impressed by Bogart’s performance each time I see it. The frighteningly real and dangerous portrait of a man constantly on the brink of unbridled violence was a daring choice for Bogart at this stage of his career. It came not long after he left Warner Bros. and formed his own production company, Santana, which produced In a Lonely Place and the Ray-directed Knock on Any Door. Bogart deserves credit for taking risky, unsympathetic roles which often yielded his best performances like Dixon Steele, Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and the demented Queeg in The Caine Mutiny.
Certainly even Bogart’s signature roles, such as Blaine or Spade, were unconventional heroes, but they’re still undeniably heroes. Their flaws are movie character flaws. Dixon Steele, by contrast, is a controlling, unstable man whose problems are fleshed out or alluded to without apology. While Cooper, Wayne, Grant, Tracy, etc. were, for the most part, retreading their personas in film after film, Bogart was inhabiting these flawed men who often bordered on madness. If pressed on his best performance, I might give the edge to Dobbs, but Dix Steele is a much more complex, difficult character and Bogart makes you think he’s not acting. Just watch the scene where he’s describing how Mildred may have been killed as he insists Det. Nicolai and his wife re-create the killing (in their own home) to be convinced of Bogart’s brilliance.
Steele starts off the film as a cynical, extremely bitter man who seems completely unfazed to learn that the young woman who had been at his apartment the night before has been brutally murdered. Even photographs of the corpse stir no emotion. The question is not whether he committed this unspeakable act, only whether he was capable of it. His guardian angel is Laurel Gray (whose last name surely represents the purgatory she treads between Steele’s violent aggression and her own empathetic curiosity), a new neighbor who happened to see Steele when Mildred was still at his apartment. She lies and tells the police she saw Steele after Mildred left to provide him with an alibi. He then pursues her romantically, resulting in a fruitful relationship eventually tainted by the screenwriter’s inability to overcome his unchained violent behavior.
It’s not the plot, though, that makes In a Lonely Place so hypnotically mesmerizing. The characters Ray and screenwriter Andrew Solt give us are terrifically flawed individuals doomed by their own fates. Steele is controlling, paranoid and unabashedly vicious, but Grahame’s character somehow tames him for a brief period. As the line that Dix wants to work into his screenplay goes, quoted here at the beginning, Laurel has given him new reason to live and work and blossom. His creativity peaks when she enters his life, even if it’s while working on a script he’s not incredibly proud of writing. She’s the best thing to ever happen to him and he likewise becomes a source for her happiness during their few weeks together. The stars only briefly align though, and he manages to sabotage their relationship through his savage violence while driving home on a road similar to the one where Mildred Atkinson was murdered. Suddenly, Laurel is no longer sure if Dix is innocent and it becomes clear that he was capable of the crime regardless of whether he actually did it.
Like other films directed by Nicholas Ray, In a Lonely Place works on many different levels. There’s the romance between Dix and Laurel, ill-fated but fleetingly happy prior to Steele’s inevitable self-destruction. We also have a scathing look at the superficiality of Hollywood, exemplified by Mildred’s mothlike attraction to Steele’s “fame” that directly leads to her murder. It’s also frequently categorized as film noir, and the murder investigation, with Dix remaining a prime candidate despite Laurel’s alibi, is constantly lingering in the background. Laurel’s confidence in Dix steadily erodes and she begins to fear what he’s capable of and what he might do to her. Like other great noir protagonists, Dix Steele is unable to overcome his fatal flaw and adapt to the outside world. More atypical is that it’s not death or imprisonment that Steele must face, but loneliness after knowing and feeling the happiness that a change of temperament could have yielded.
It’s that reason, through the film’s brilliant portrayal of the pangs of loneliness, that the relationship between Dix and Laurel surfaces as the most compelling aspect of Ray’s film. Rarely has Hollywood been able to expose with such painful truth the rollercoaster realities of finding someone to heal our innermost pain. As Dix slices open a grapefruit and tenderly exposes part of his soul to Laurel, whose own feelings have begun to ebb, his words about how Hollywood is always getting love wrong become poignantly ironic. The film’s title thus works simultaneously as a literal description of the place where Mildred Atkinson’s body was discarded and the painful, metaphoric emotional state shared by the two main characters. The common denominator, since Dix is a screenwriter and Laurel a struggling actress, is the equally lonely setting of Hollywood.
Early on, Dix accuses studio men of being “popcorn salesmen,” a brilliantly denigrating truism. Even by 1950 (or 1949, when the film was shot), it’s reasonable to assume that Nicholas Ray didn’t have too fond of an opinion of Hollywood. This was only his fifth film, but the director had already suffered through RKO forcing him to make A Woman’s Secret, a forgettable melodrama that has hardly any of Ray’s fingerprints. He was then eager to work with Bogart and Columbia on Knock on Any Door and the partnership flourished with In a Lonely Place. Given his political persuasion, there’s also little doubt that Ray was very much against the burgeoning Hollywood witch hunt at the time. (Art Smith, who played Steele’s loyal agent Mel Lippman, would soon be blacklisted as one of the names given by his former Group Theatre collaborator Elia Kazan.) Surely it was more than coincidence that Ray modeled the apartment complex where Dix and Laurel live after his own first home in Hollywood.
Regarding the director’s personal life at the time, there’s no indication that any tension stemming from the collapse of Nicholas Ray’s marriage to Gloria Grahame hurt the film. After meeting on the set of A Woman’s Secret, Grahame married her director, but their relationship was, privately, over during the filming of In a Lonely Place. Columbia head Harry Cohn had originally slotted Ginger Rogers to play Laurel, but Ray’s insistence on his then-wife proved right. This might be Grahame’s most accomplished role, an emotionally scarred woman who’s run away from a wealthy lover and finds refuge with a man completely unequipped to protect her. Grahame had a tendency to play less-refined, pouty females, which she did to great effect. Here, though, she’s much more restrained and Laurel is a mature, confident woman who’s still not afraid to make her intentions known. Grahame’s unique speaking voice and habit of raising her right eyebrow are mostly reined in as well, giving the character a natural, reserved effect.
Though Ray is uncredited with the screenplay, and the opening titles list Edmund H. North for the adaptation despite his questionable involvement in the final effort, his stamp is all over the film. The book by Dorothy B. Hughes (who also wrote the source novel for Robert Montgomery’s Ride the Pink Horse) shows Dixon Steele as a serial killer who repeatedly murders and rapes women in a psychosexual rampage. The first-person narrative of the novel differs significantly from Andrew Solt’s screenplay. In Bernard Eisenschitz’s Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, Ray’s personal script notes illustrate his substantial contribution to the finished film and make clear that the director’s impact was critical in turning the writing of Hughes and Solt into what would become the archetypal Nicholas Ray movie.
The poster tagline (”with the surprise finish!”) is nearly laughable for its unintentional accuracy. The real surprise is not what the poster is most likely referring to, Steele’s innocence confirmed by Sgt. Lochner over the telephone, but the utter disintegration of the relationship between Dix and Laurel. Movies are supposed to end happily (or they were in 1950, at least), failed romances conclude on good terms and the characters learn something in the process to make them better persons. Nothing even close to that happens here. Dix is only prevented from probably murdering Laurel when the phone rings. His exit is painful, pronounced and final. He walks out of Laurel’s apartment, not headed for his own home, and the audience is left with no indication of happiness, learning or redemption. It’s over between Laurel and Dix and we’re given no hint as to the future.
The original ending had Grahame’s character, Laurel Gray, not being saved by the telephone and Dixon Steele murdering her. Returning to his script to type out the lines quoted here at the top of the page, Dix was then arrested by Det. Nicolai for the murder. Ray was unhappy with the conclusion that violence was the only way out for the characters and quietly set up the final scene on his own. He cleared the set except for the principal actors and claimed to have improvised what eventually became the ending in the film. It would prove to be much more powerful and sad than the scripted version. An ambiguity now hovers over Dix and Laurel. Instead of a physical prison, Dix is relegated to a lifetime of loneliness. The great, emotionally devastating ending that remains is unrelenting and unsparing.
On Dangerous Ground December 14, 2006Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1950s, Nicholas Ray , 3 comments
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.