"On Dangerous Ground" makes a bold come-back
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
"ON DANGEROUS GROUND: WARNER ARCHIVE COLLECTION"
Blu-ray, 1951, black-and-white, Not Rated, contains scenes of violence
Best extra: Commentary with film historian Glenn Erickson aka DVD Savant
DIRECTOR Nicholas Ray made dozens of films starting in 1948: "They Live by Night," Humphrey Bogart's "In a Lonely Place," "Flying Leathernecks," "55 Days at Peking," Joan Crawford's "Johnny Guitar," and James Dean's breakout, "Rebel Without a Cause," for which he received an Academy Award nomination for writing.
"On Dangerous Ground" is one his lesser known entrees. Starring Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino – who also helped direct according to the commentary from film historian Glenn Erickson – is billed as a film noir. It's less mystery than character study, though, and a good one at that.
Ryan is cast as Detective Jim Wilson, former war veteran and high school sports hero. He works in a dark and gritty unknown city modeled after New York or Chicago. A pre-Dirty Harry cop, he's known for beating information out of his suspects. It's bad enough he scares his own team mates. The weirdest perps know him him and put themselves in his hands like a challenge. A bruised, blond vamp (Cleo Moore) all but begs him to abuse her. A masochistic informant pleads, "Hit me, hit me!"
"I always make you punks talk," Wilson snarls. "Why do you make me do it? Why? Why?"
That's the last straw for his boss, Capt. Brawley (Ed Begley), who decides to send him on assignment out of town, up north to snowy "Siberia" as the cops call it. Hopefully, this will help him cool down.
Wilson is supposed to help the local sheriff find the killer of a young girl. But the girl's father, Walter Brent (Ward Bond), is sure he knows the man's identity, and plans to take him out with both barrels of his shotgun. Local law enforcement is happy enough to stand aside, leaving Wilson to partner up with Brent.
The two follow a trail up to the isolated log cabin home of blind Mary Malden (Ida Lupino). It seems the killer is her younger brother, Danny (Sumner Williams). She tries to protect him, but this is a confrontation no one can escape. It's a dilemma that shatters Wilson's world.
The studio – and audiences – would have liked "On Dangerous Ground" to be a mystery or a straight forward romance. Aside from the powerful cinematography of George E. Diskant, it doesn't quite fall into film noir either, largely because of a tacked on, studio-approved ending. That it isn't so easily categorized may have caused the film's initial low box office returns.
Ray cuts away from Wilson's violence, returning with a shot of him descending dark stairs or cleaning his hands. The detective lives alone, shutting himself off from any possibility of friendly social contact. Today we recognize the symptoms of acute depression, possibly PTSD.
Once again Warner Archive delivers an excellent 2K transfer, this time remastered from the film's original camera negative, which was scanned at 4K. That provides us with definitive blacks, whites and gray scale, with clear cut detail in high-contrast settings. The original mono track has been cleaned and upgraded to DTS-HD MA 2.0. Dialogue and effects enjoy crisp delivery, but the winner is the score by Bernard Herrmann ("Psycho").
In the commentary, the disc's lone extra, Erickson says "On Dangerous Ground" was Herrmann's favorite. Erickson must be more comfortable behind a keyboard. He has lots of detail to share, but it sounds pretty dry. He talks about the book it was based on and how it differed from the script – and how the final story changed from that. Lupino, who only appears midway through, received top billing. She directed scenes between her and Ryan, bringing a believable, shadowed intimacy to the pair.
Ray's film isn't driven by traditional heroics, a technique that confused its '50s audience. "On Dangerous Ground" has since gained the attention it deserves, and is well worth your time.
— Kay Reynolds