Early in Nicholas Ray’s career, he almost exclusively directed film noir. While some of his early efforts are true classics, particularly In A Lonely Place (1950), there’s a case to be made that On Dangerous Ground (1951) is the first true “Nick Ray movie.” It’s a film about two troubled characters who shouldn’t even be in the same sphere, much like Natalie Wood and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause or Robert Mitchum and Arthur Kennedy in The Lusty Men. On Dangerous Ground has much in common with Ray’s more famous work, filled with the kind of angst only he could bring to life.
Despite running just 82 minutes, On Dangerous Ground, based on the novel Mad with Much Heart by Gerald Butler, is like two different movies. The first act, a complete creation by A.I Bezzerides and Ray, follows the disenchanted Detective Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) as he tries to find a cop killer with his fellow embittered cops. But while they get to come home to wives and families, Jim is detached from all human contact outside his job. It has shaped his world into a twisted, me-against-them vision.
One day, his captain (Ed Begley) has had enough of his behavior and sends him out of the city to help find the murder of a young girl in snow-covered country. There, he meets the victim’s father, Walter Brent (Ward Bond), who refuses to let Jim investigate himself. When they spot the suspect, the chase takes them to the home of Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), who is the suspect’s sister.
At this point, audiences should just watch in awe as Ray completely transforms the movie. Mary is blind and also lives an isolated life. But where Jim’s isolated life is purely his creation, Mary is a victim of circumstance. The two characters create such a remarkable connection and On Dangerous Ground becomes a character study, not a police drama at this point. Ray has made us completely forget about the murder case.
The film’s split-personality reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, in which we learn about how a character survives in one environment before he is thrust into a completely different one.
On Dangerous Ground also features one of Robert Ryan’s great performances, if not his best. Lupino melts the heart in this role, to the point that it seems impossible to believe that she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. (As hard as it is to believe, Lupino never received an Oscar nomination or any special recognition for her life as a trailblazer in the industry. She did earn three Emmy nominations for her TV work in the 1950s.) Bernard Hermann also contributed one of his most striking scores.
On Dangerous Ground was released on Blu-ray through the Warner Archive Collection on October 11. There are just two bonus features:
- Commentary by Film Historian Glenn Erickson – This is a particularly fascinating commentary, originally recorded for the DVD. Erickson does a thorough job of explaining how the film came to be and the differences from the book. It’s always fascinating to hear about the often troubled production behind RKO films of the early 1950s, when Howard Hughes had so much control over the studio’s output.
- Theatrical Trailer – The trailer promises a “strange love story,” which is an apt way to describe the film.
On Dangerous Ground is a unique noir, in that the first part is a traditional example of the style, while the second half is a complete departure. Ray truly becomes his own artist with this film, showing more interest in exploring characters than telling a straight story. If you’ve never seen this and are looking for something new this Noirvember, check it out.
Thanks to Warner Archive for this Blu-ray to review!