Monday, March 11, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952)

Although women's melodrama and film noir might seem like incompatible genres, there are a few notable occasions when they come together in a single film, and director Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952) shows just how beautifully the two genres can be merged. Surprisingly short at only 82 minutes, On Dangerous Ground combines noir and melodrama with a two-part story; its first act unfolds in the dirty streets of the crime-ridden city, while the second half takes place against a landscape blanketed by clean, deep snow. The changing locations indicate the changing tones of the story, making On Dangerous Ground a sophisticated narrative and one of the few noir films to hold out real hope for its protagonist's redemption.

Robert Ryan stars as Jim Wilson, a tough cop who is on the verge of coming apart at the seams after too many years on the job. Jaded and angry, Wilson has devolved into a sadist who takes his frustrations out on the criminals he catches, which makes him a liability for the department. As a result, his chief jumps at the chance to get Wilson out of town when a rural community upstate needs help with a murder case. Wilson joins forces with the murdered girl's vengeful father (Ward Bond) to track down the killer, but his hardened heart experiences unexpected softening when he meets the suspect's blind sister, Mary (Ida Lupino).

Ryan certainly has the right look for a man on edge; his hard features and dark eyes give Jim Wilson a frightening intensity, especially in the early scenes. Ward Bond delivers a somewhat muted but solid performance as Walter Brent, with his best moment coming near the very end of the picture. When he takes Danny Malden (Sumner Williams) in his arms, we are reminded that this story must have begun with him cradling his own child in much the same way, and the scope of their tragedy becomes clear. Ida Lupino, however, dominates the film with her luminous, moving performance as Mary, a woman so generous and strong that Ryan's cop can't help but respond to her appeal. The dialogue suggests, but does not dwell upon, the extent of her self-sacrifice to protect her brother, but the thoughtful viewer will understand the true nature of her character from those few, meaningful hints.

Music from Bernard Hermann and cinematography from George E. Diskant strengthen the narrative's appeal. Lupino actually directed some scenes when Ray became ill during the shoot, and she enjoyed a successful directing career of her own with films like The Trouble with Angels (1966). Along with the major performers, you'll find Ed Begley, Sr., as the police captain and Western matriarch Olive Carey as the mother of the dead girl.

If you enjoy On Dangerous Ground, try other melodramatic women's noir like Laura (1944) and Mildred Pierce (1945). Look for more of Ida Lupino in High Sierra (1941), The Man I Love (1947), and Road House (1948). Robert Ryan also stars in The Set-Up (1949), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), and The Wild Bunch (1969). You can find character actor Ward Bond almost everywhere, especially in Westerns from John Ford; he's particularly good in Fort Apache (1948). Director Nicholas Ray also helmed the excellent Humphrey Bogart noir, In a Lonely Place (1950), as well as Johnny Guitar (1954) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.