Thursday, May 5, 2011

Guest Review: On Dangerous Ground (1952)

By Philip Schweier

On Dangerous Ground (1952) is a rare case in which I can’t wait for a movie to end. It is part of a film noir collection I received for Christmas, but it represents the low end of the five films in the collection, in my opinion.

Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is a reasonably honest plainclothes cop who spends his time cruising the city with pals Pop Daly (Charles Kemper) and Pete Santos (Anthony Ross). When we meet the trio, we also meet their families – except for Jim, who spends his free time going over mug shots of the local crooks. This only reinforces Wilson’s distance from humanity.

After roughing up one too many suspects, Wilson’s captain, Brawley (Ed Begley) sends him on a special assignment upstate.  A sheriff there by the name of Carrey (Ian Wolfe)…

…A word of note about character actor Ian Wolfe: the man was just born old. Star Trek fans may recognize him as Mr. Atoz from the episode “All Our Yesterdays,” but he had been acting for many years before that, usually playing older gentlemen. By the time he gave his final performance in Dick Tracy (1990) he was 95 years old.

…needs help with a manhunt for the murderer of a young girl. It’s rural, mountainous country, and the locals are content to run the scoundrel down like the animal he is. Apparently Sheriff Carey would prefer a more civilized outcome before they execute the perpetrator.

Ward Bond plays Walter Brent, the father of the murdered girl, and with Wilson’s help they pursue the culprit over hill and dale until they come to the lonely farm house of the even lonelier Mary Malden (Ida Lupino). Despite her blindness, Brent is convinced she’s hiding someone, which Wilson confirms while Brent is outside searching the outer buildings. She begs Wilson to do what he can to protect her brother Danny (Sumner Williams) from mob violence. He’s not evil, just mixed up (uh-huh).

Mary convinces Wilson the hour and the weather won’t help them in their manhunt, so he and Brent bed down in the living room. The next morning, Wilson spies Mary heading outside with a sandwich. He follows and corners Danny in a shed, only to be interrupted by Brent. A fight, another chase, and Danny meets his come-uppance, though not that the hands of the vengeful father, whose rage passes when he realizes the “man” they’d been pursuing was little more than a boy.

Wilson returns to the city, thinking over the lines of dialogue from earlier in the movie regarding Mary’s loneliness and Pop Daly’s attitude toward police work: “I live with other people. When I go home I don't take this stuff with me, I leave it outside.”

Initially the movie starts out as a nice little police drama, complete with low-lifes and good cops and bad. But once Wilson is sent to the country, it becomes a chase movie (which wouldn’t be so bad had it stayed a chase movie). Instead it takes yet another turn, becoming a long, drawn-out melodrama, as Mary’s blindness becomes the catalyst for Wilson’s sudden and dramatic (and unbelievable) transformation.

I’ve always felt blind characters in movies (Gene Hackman being the exception) to be a cheap ploy to elicit sympathy from the audience. It’s as if somewhere there is a filmmaker’s rule book which states, “If you want laughs, kick someone in the groin. If you want sympathy, introduce a blind person, preferably a young and beautiful woman.” 

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Caftan Woman said...

I consider "On Dangerous Ground" to be one of Nicholas Ray's finest pictures. A.I. Bezzerides story of redemption features performances of raw emotion supported by incredibly atmospheric cinematography from George Diskant and an outstanding Bernard Herrmann score. Truly a benchmark in the style known as "film noir".

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...


I think I fall somewhere in between your assessment and Phil's take on On Dangerous Ground: I wouldn't call it a masterpiece but on the other hand it's not "the low end" of the movies in the Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 3 collection to which he's referring. It's a flawed film, to be sure, mainly because of that tacked-on happy ending (Eddie Mueller talks about ODG's original wrap-up in his noir reference book Dark City) but it features one of my favorite Robert Ryan performances and that incredible outburst of his ("Why do you make me do it? You know you're gonna talk! I'm gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk! Why do you do it? Why?") which I have used in actual conversation from time to time. And of course, anything from the pen of Bezzerides (They Drive by Night, Thieves' Highway) is always first-rate in my ledger.

Caftan Woman said...

Ivan, you have used that bit in actual conversation? I am impressed.

One day I want to use Marlowe's line from "Lady in the Lake" - "Imagine you needing ice." Haven't run into the right circumstances yet.

Yvette said...

Ian Wolfe. Wasn't he in every movie ever made? He lived long enough. I love him.

You're right, Ivan, he was born old. :)

dfordoom said...

I didn't like this movie either, but then I consider Nicholas Ray to bea wildly overrated director. In my opinion he made one great film - In a Lonely Place. His other movies do nothing whatever for me.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

In my opinion he made one great film - In a Lonely Place.

No argument from me there, but he also made They Live by Night, The Lusty Men and Johnny Guitar and fairly decent vehicles like Ground, Bigger Than Life and Party Girl. But I can certainly see your POV that Ray's work is overrated -- Rebel Without a Cause is a movie whose reputation simply can't cover up the fact that it's pretentious and even a tad dull in spots.

dfordoom said...

Glad to find someone else who disliked Rebel Without a Cause. I wasn't impressed by Party Girl either, despite a great performance by the underrated Robert Taylor.