On Dangerous Ground (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Darragh O'Donoghue
Produced by John Houseman; directed by Nicholas Ray; screenplay by A. I. Bezzerides and Nicholas Ray, based on the novel Mad with Much Heart by Gerald Butler; cinematography by George E. Diskant; music by Bernard Herrmann; edited by Roland Gross; starring Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, and Ward Bond. Blu-ray, B&W, 82 min., 1951. A Warner Archive Collection release.
On Dangerous Ground opens like Nicholas Ray’s previous masterpiece In a Lonely Place, with credits playing over the view through a car window hurtling into nighttime city streets. In the earlier film, the driver was shown to be Dixon Steele, a screenwriter “mad with much heart,” a man whose wit and integrity coexists with depression and a potentially murderous temper. The viewpoint in On Dangerous Ground is never claimed—Ray cuts to short sequences introducing the domestic circumstances and contrasting temperaments of three policemen, each arming themselves for their ritual night-battle with crime—but is usually assumed to belong to Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), the film’s antihero, frequently shown locked into his car, protecting himself from the bewildering corruption that surrounds him. Like Dix, Wilson has a brutal temper, lashing out physically at any lowlife that obstructs his pursuit of “justice,” or verbally at father figures who try to help him.
In the first “noir” half of the film, Wilson’s moral sense has so degenerated that he is merely mad, with any heart long brutalized. His tragic flaw is a lack of empathy, while the sexual malaise at the root of his “madness”—while his older partners are married, he is introduced as a loner either rejected or used by women—explodes in the extraordinary homoerotic and sadomasochistic confrontation with Bernie Tucker (Richard Irving), as Wilson cries, “Why do you make me do it?” with self-loathing and delirious arousal.
Wilson’s redemption in the film’s second section is marked by a restoration of empathy. He is sent by his boss to “cool off” in the snows way out from the city, where a young girl has been murdered. Wilson understands that he is being ostracized to Siberia, and is forced into an uneasy intimacy with the child’s father, Walter Brent (Ward Bond), who, stupid and brutal with grief, is a mirror image of Wilson’s own derailed sensibility. Wilson’s growing understanding of this man’s madness is consummated by his relationship with Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), the blind woman with whom they are staying. The lies, evasions, and diversions with which she tries to protect her mentally challenged brother Danny are quantitatively no different from those generated by New York hoodlums; it is a mark of Wilson’s spiritual growth that he sees they are qualitatively so.
Even more than most film noir films, On Dangerous Ground is marked by its expressive realism, especially in the opening half hour, where the precise depiction of dingy tenements, crowded streets, and sleazy bars is enforced by the protagonist’s experience of them in cramped, obscured, and oblique compositions, and a moving camera alert to the swerving of a steering wheel, the swing of a fist, or the beat of a heart. But surface realism was never Ray’s goal, and On Dangerous Ground is closer to Carl Theodor Dreyer than the contemporary thrillers of Robert Siodmak or Jules Dassin. Half a decade before the miraculous resurrection that climaxes Ordet, On Dangerous Ground enacts a spiritual rebirth that is an unexpected, hard-won, convincing, and very moving reversal of the fatalistic ideology that usually informs film noir.
That opening sequence of an unseen figure looking out of a narrow car window is matched exactly halfway through the film by the viewpoint of the second main figure, who is also introduced looking on off-screen as Mary opens the door to the two pursuers. Except we soon find out that this cannot be a point of view—Mary Malden is legally blind, and the few shots that are literally shown from her viewpoint use the tics of contemporary avant-garde film to evoke the blurred shapes such a person might make out. “The more, the less we see” states John Donne in the elegy that gave Gerald Butler the title of the film's source novel, Mad with Much Heart (1945). If Wilson and Mary don’t share optical viewpoints, they share an inner vision, or at this stage, a striving towards such inner vision.
Much of the film’s spiritual allegory is already present in the novel, and indeed threatens to dominate the book’s realistic superstructure. By contrast, the first half of the film balances the two dimensions so that the “dangerous ground”—rainy urban streets, dark labyrinthine alleys, treacherous snowy wastes—are both physical and moral obstacles Wilson must pass. The adventures of light staged in Mary’s darkened house are appropriate to a crime narrative of pursuit, concealment, and discovery, but are also adventures of the soul. Whereas Butler’s novel uses her as a kind of screen on which Wilson projects his hopes, fears, and desires, Ray reinstates Mary’s own subjectivity in long, isolated, mostly wordless sequences as she works through her own physical and metaphysical dilemmas.
Just as Jim, Judy, and Plato in the later Rebel Without a Cause attempt to constitute a family as they shelter from violent pursuers, so Wilson finds solace with Mary and hopes to protect Danny from those who would kill him. Each attempt is doomed. Like Plato, Danny is the true rebel who serves as a scapegoat to facilitate the heterosexual union of the protagonists. Although Butler narrates an early chapter from his point of view, the novel’s Danny is a broken machine, with whom it is virtually impossible to communicate. Ray’s Danny, by contrast, communicates through his art. He is an Outsider Artist—long before we meet him face to face in the film’s climax, we encounter the “art installation” of found objects and small sculptures he has made of Mary’s home. The fact that Danny uses the same knife to kill young girls as he does to sculpt artworks is part of the ambivalence toward creativity with which Ray imbued his most “personal” creation, the blocked writer Dix Steele.
The Warner Archive Collection transfer here is literally and appropriately luminous. The commentary by “film historian” Glenn Erickson is marred by the endless recitation of film buff “facts,” but is valuable when discussing the film’s troubled production history (the film was delayed by two years for re-editing and reshoots, although Erickson doesn’t mention Lupino’s reported direction of scenes when Ray was ill), the importance of Bernard Herrmann’s score, and the film’s influence on later works like Taxi Driver. I urge you to buy this disc so that Warner and other studios will release more home-video editions worthy of the greatest American director of the 1950s.
Darragh O’Donoghue works as an archivist at Tate Britain in London.
Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 1