On Dangerous Ground
On Dangerous Ground (1952) may not have the optimum look or feel of what we have come to call classic film noir, but it certainly features one of the key characters in the canon the neurotic and tormented male cop. Ostensibly a member of society's guardians, he is in most ways worse than the criminal class he wars with. In this case he has the generic name Jim Wilson and he is played by the great Robert Ryan, invoking a facial vocabulary of knitted brows and vacant stares. On Dangerous Ground begins in the city, indeed on the streets at night, the quintessential noir location, but after 30 minutes makes an unusual shift, out to the country, the snow, the daylight, as Wilson is sent in pursuit of a murderer at the furthest edges of the film's world and Wilson's jurisdiction. When Wilson transitions from the city to the country, director Nicholas Ray replicates, in collaboration with photographer George E. Diskant (The Narrow Margin), the opening shots of the city at night seen from a car, but here showing snow, ice, bare trees, static and lonely roads, essentially turning a film noir into a film glacé. Wilson is a loner, an angry man thwarted and denigrated by the very society he is pledged to protect, prone to beating suspects if they are the least bit recalcitrant. However, as is typical in classical Hollywood cinema, he meets his mirror image in Walter Brent (Ward Bond), the father of the girl whose murderer Wilson is tasked to apprehend, a short-fused law and order country farmer who wants a lynching not a trial. Danny Malden (Sumner Williams) is the criminal on the lam, and Mary (Ida Lupino) is his blind sister, the sensitive love interest. Lupino does a poor job as a blind character (her hands appear to have eyes), and as the blind always do in B movies, she exists to delineate the emotional or moral blindness of others. The film's killer might remind some viewers of David Warner in Straw Dogs, and Wilson changes so much under Mary's influence that when he and Brent go hunting for Malden, Wilson is really there to stop Brent from killing the disturbed lad, which is the premise of that other great Ward Bond film, The Searchers. This was as personal a project as the studio system would allow a young director such as Ray at the time, with Ray seeking out producer John Houseman to help him pull it together, and Ray took On Dangerous Ground very personally indeed, so personally so he virtually disowned it after the film's end was altered with new scenes directed by Lupino. Until then, Wilson is very much like other Ray "heroes" such as Dixon Steele in In a Lonely Place, or Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, successive editions of the modern alienated man with no true home, a character that Ray was much fixated on and which was much like Ray himself. On Dangerous Ground, part of Warner Home Video's "Film Noir Classic Collection: Vol. 3," comes in a reasonably good full-frame black-and-white transfer with adequate DD 1.0 audio, which does as much justice as it can to Bernard Herrmann's magnificently hectic score. Subtitles come in English, French, and Spanish. Supplements include the film's trailer and an efficient, quickly paced audio commentary by Glenn Erickson, the Internet's DVD Savant. Erickson is very good on the film's production history (RKO studio chief Howard Hughes delayed release for two years as he tinkered with the editing) and points out such novelties as the cameo, his first and last, by the film's writer, A.I. Bezzerides (They Drive by Night, Thieves' Highway, here adapting Gerald Butler's story Mad with Much Heart), and the evanescent presence of regional B-actress Cleo Moore, who appeared in numerous Hugo Haas films. Slimline snap-case in the box-set.