Nov 3, 2016

On Blu-ray: Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan and Thrills in On Dangerous Ground (1951)

The romantic noir thriller On Dangerous Ground (1952) transcends an uninspired story thanks to the special talents of its cast and crew. Directed by Nicholas Ray, starring Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino and scored by Bernard Herrmann, the economical production makes a surprising emotional connection. Now the film is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Ryan plays a tightly-wound big city cop Jim Wilson, who is disgusted by the slick hoods and violent thugs on the streets of his beat in New York. His increasingly violent means of dealing with these criminals finally gets him in trouble. He's instructed to go to the country to handle a brutal murder case while things cool off. Released from the tension of the city, he is able to reflect on his anger while falling in love with the blind sister of the mentally ill murderer.

It's always a bit difficult to believe that an angry, violent character could suddenly see the error of his ways and begin anew. There may not be many actors besides Ryan who could begin to pull off that transformation. He's perfect for the role, and noir in general, because while he is magnetic, appealing, and sometimes even tender, there's always tension thrumming within him. Anything he does, even an act of sincere kindness, is underlined by that feeling that he is on the edge. You always expect that he could suddenly explode into violence, letting lose with a slap or a sock to the jaw.

Ray also makes that transformation more plausible in the way he films the city and rural settings. The New York scenes are cramped and dim, with lots of anxious close-ups. You feel the rough panic of the streets where Wilson spends so many hours. Drug addicts, criminals and underage girls with stringy hair and tight sweaters slinking around bars form the tableaux that inspires his dismay and disgust.

By contrast, the country scenes are wide open and full of light. Acres of snowy fields increase the sense of this being a heavenly place to find redemption. While the murder of a young girl is more terrifying for its rarity in the small community, it is near restful for Wilson to be able to focus his energy on one crime while surrounded by decent people. The revenge-crazed father of the young victim takes his place as the one driven by anger, which helps the detective to understand what he has become.

As Mary, the blind older sister of murderer Danny (Sumner Williams), Ida Lupino plays innocent and somewhat vulnerable, but only to a point. Her familial loyalty gives her strength, and her other, heightened senses have taught her things about people that they might not wish to reveal. It is her wisdom as much as her gentle nature that seems to intrigue Wilson.

As director Nicholas Ray led a somewhat scandalous and dysfunctional personal life, I've always been curious to know what he had in him to inspire such sweetly romantic and deeply compassionate connections between his actors. You can see it in the various interactions between James Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and especially between Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell as a couple on the run in his first feature They Live By Night (1948). His characters find comfort each other to such a profound degree, as if they have finally found the one person in the world who could make life bearable.

Lupino and Ryan connect in this way, seeming to see deep into each other as they become acquainted. Mary makes Wilson melt, though you can never completely forget the rage of which he is capable. His eyes are kind, liquid and calm, but also slightly sinister, like a seal pup. And yet, the pair seems to have a chance because they so profoundly get each other.

Composer Bernard Herrmann underscores all these emotional shifts with dramatically different moods. His score sneaks up on you; in the early scenes his famous propulsive style is not yet evident. It is only when the action moves to the rural settings that he cuts loose, throwing in the swirling strings of Vertigo (1958), the sharp jabs of Psycho (1960) and the blaring brass of North by Northwest (1959). In these scenes he almost cannibalizes his own works too much, but ultimately gives the score its own character by imbuing it with a reckless, off-kilter wildness. This is also one of the composer's best romantic scores; in the scenes with Lupino and Ryan, he uses the low, throaty sound of the rare string instrument the viola d'amore to add unsentimental warmth.

The picture quality of the Blu-ray is good, with occasional scratches, but a decent image overall. Special features include a theatrical trailer and commentary by film historian Glenn Erickson.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.