On Dangerous Ground (1951)

*. My DVD of On Dangerous Ground is part of a box set, Vol. 3 in the Film Nor Classic Collection. By this point it seems to me Warner Bros. were starting to scrape bottom (though they had more of these sets to come). I don’t mean this in terms of the quality of the films, but in their connection to film noir. The first film included in Vol. 3 is Border Incident, a movie about an investigation into illegal immigrant farm labour. The second, His Kind of Woman, is a very odd sort of crime comedy (also, like Border Incident, set partially in Mexico). Were these noirs? Well, they were about cops and criminals.
*. One can argue endlessly over the definition of noir. And indeed many people have. Since the 1970s it’s been a favourite topic for critics. Is noir even a genre? Does it describe a moral vision, a style of photography, a setting, or scripts grounded in hard-boiled, tough-guy fiction?
*. I don’t want to make a big thing over this but personally I think it’s a stretch to see On Dangerous Ground as noir. It seems to me more like a crime melodrama. But others disagree. In 100 Film Noirs (part of the BFI Screen Guides series) authors Jim Hillier and Alastair Phillips include it. And it’s in this box set. So there’s some consensus out there for seeing it through this lens.
*. As Glenn Erickson notes on the DVD commentary track, this is a movie that has enjoyed a revival in terms of its crtical standing. Its current high reputation, he tells us “is all retroactive.” When On Dangerous Ground came out it was not well received, for what I think the innocent viewer will understand as obvious reasons. Ida Lupino’s judgement was that it was well produced but suffered from a poor script. Bosley Crowther concurred, thinking director Nicholas Ray made the most of “flimsy material,” the story being “a shallow, uneven affair.” It’s a movie that splits in two, and however deliberate a decision this was (it’s not in the source novel), Variety thought it seeemed like “two pictures grafted together.”
*. I’d agree with these negative judgments. It is a poor script from A. I. Bezzerides (best known for writing Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, and making a surprise cameo here as the sleazy Gatos). Much of the dialogue strikes me as overwrought and formalistic, and in the second half the romance between Jim (Robert Ryan) and Mary (Lupino), however capably rendered, is just too much. Again, this was not a failing that anyone missed at the time. Ray’s original ending did not have Jim coming back to Mary but presumably continuing his lonely downward spiral in the city. But that would have been too bleak even for noir.
*. It is an interesting film to look at, and has some terrific photography in different modes, from the handheld camera in the early street scenes to the chiaroscuro in the shed. This made the poor quality of the DVD transfer I was watching all the more disappointing. You really need to see the restored version.
*. What is that thing in the farm house that looks like the sculpture of a tree branch? Is it a sculpture of a tree branch? Or is it supposed to be a tree?
*. Did Robert Ryan look like Sterling Hayden back in the day or what? I actually thought he was Sterling Hayden for a moment.
*. Speaking of misidentifications, when the cops chase down the man in the street, they’re going off a radio description that only tells them they’re looking for a man in a gabardine coat. No wonder they get the wrong guy! That’s not a lot to go by. How would you even be able to tell if someone was wearing a gabardine coat if you were just driving by them anyway?
*. In their chapter on the film in 100 Film Noirs Hillier and Phillips mention that it’s a favourite of Martin Scorsese “and a key influence on Taxi Driver.” This echoed something Erickson says in his commentary: that the later film On Dangerous Ground most resembles is Taxi Driver. I’m not sure I see much of a connection. Travis Bickle is, like Jim Wilson, an alienated loner who sees the city as full of garbage, but is there anything aside from that? Is Iris supposed to be Mary? Is Travis rehabilitated? Does he renounce violence? I don’t get it.
*. There’s a lot to like here. Bernard Hermann’s score really grabs you by the lapels as the titles come up (if you have lapels), and it nicely develops an echoing hunting theme as the chase after Danny begins. Both the city streets and snowy upstate landscapes are well evoked and juxtaposed. Danny is an interesting figure, bold even for the time. Ryan does a good job in what is a complicated role. Lupino does her best to get us to take Mary seriously. But I keep finding myself drifting back to those earlier judgments. This really is a flimsy script, both on a line-by-line basis and for its contrived and sentimental premise. That’s hard to overcome.

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