On Dangerous Ground (Blu-ray Review)24 Oct, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Ward Bond.
It’s been 50 to 55 years since I first reacted positively to Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground via one of my local NBC affiliate’s scratchy old C&C TV prints from the RKO library — and I still don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie quite like it in terms of structure and risk-taking tonal shift. Hell, just hearing the first notes of an unmistakable Bernard Herrmann score over the familiar RKO logo has at least a mild “Twilight Zone” effect, and this isn’t even a reference to Herrmann’s work on Rod Serling’s landmark TV series.
But though I’ve seen Ground several times over the years via AFI showings I programmed, on laserdisc and via the excellent standard DVD included on an old Warner film noir box, George E. Diskant’s black-and-white cinematography never quite hit me the way it has on Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray. Diskant, by the way, shot Ray’s debut with They Live By Night, which deserves a Blu-ray of its own for being one of the great American films and one notably superior to Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (itself a better than respectable version of Edward Anderson’s same-titled Thieves novel). Continuing the pedigree, both Night and Ground were produced by John Houseman, though his participation here was a less harmonious experience that he apparently didn’t value (though tough-to-please Herrmann was on record as liking the film).
As with Night, one can imagine RKO studio head Howard Hughes looking at the preliminary cut and going, “what the hell is this, and why couldn’t we have cast Jane Russell and Victor Mature?” To get an idea of how long the studio tinkered with and sat on the picture before its tiptoeing release at the end of 1951, note that character actor Charles Kemper, who plays one of violence-prone Robert Ryan’s stable cop colleagues, was killed in a road accident in May 1950 (just two days after shooting was completed, per Glenn Erickson’s expert bonus commentary). Well, this was never going to be a very commercial movie, and according to the AFI Catalog for the 1950s, Ground lost $425,000 at the box office. (Students of taste may want to note that David and Bathsheba, to name one, was a big hit in the same year while Ace in the Hole was one of the biggest box office flops of Billy Wilder’s career.)
Anyway. The first half of Ground (or more like its first 30 minutes) is a grimy noir cop drama, the kind that RKO did better than anyone. It’s an unusual movie for its day in that it addresses police brutality, and had RKO not delayed the release, it would have preceded William Wyler’s Detective Story, in which Kirk Douglas memorably has his way with ill-favored suspects. (This was also a period when James Cagney’s 1950 Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye was banned for a few years by my home state Ohio’s censorship board just for showing a cop on the take.) Ryan’s partners (Kemper and Anthony Ross) are pictured as solid family men with an at-home support group, but then here’s lonely-guy Ryan in a nondescript apartment rinsing off his plate in a sink barely big enough to facilitate a decent Barbosal shave. This probably contributes to the character’s wired-tight demeanor as a onetime high school jock now lost in the urban jungle and prone to beating up lowlifes who won’t spill their guts or otherwise get with the program. Ryan’s immediate colleagues are worried, and the big boss (Ed Begley) is more than that; after the latest physical incident, Begley orders his loose cannon “upstate” to sleuth the murder of a young girl.
Unless I missed something, the city and state are unnamed, though I’ve seen at least one reviewer peg it as New York City, and maybe it is. On the other hand, Ray and Kiss Me Deadly screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides worked with police in Boston for their research, and it appears that the picture opened there in December 1951 before going out into general release as soon as the year turned. And yet: Ground’s second half was shot in Colorado and looks it — impressive location footage that proves that the movie wasn’t anybody’s studio-bound cheapie. Wherever the story’s upstate town is or is supposed to be, it’s on the high end of rural with an abundance of snow, and the whiteness of the stuff (which dominates the exteriors along with some very serious mud) makes for uncommonly evocative image that searingly establish time and place. Being Ray, the close-ups (and decision when to use them) are top of the line here — a great contrast to, say, Tate Taylor’s recent botch of The Girl on the Train, which employs tight shots so haphazardly and without effect that I almost thought I was watching a Joshua Logan movie. I only bring this up because I saw both films within a day of each other, and the contrast was striking.
There was no greater actor from his generation that Ryan, and he’s practically in every scene here. Yet possibly due to Hughes’s desire to distribute the films she was concurrently directing for her production company, Ida Lupino gets top billing even though she doesn’t make her first appearance until just short of the halfway mark. Cast as a blind woman whose younger brother may be what are these days called a “person of interest,” she’s a spiritual redeemer who on paper is probably too good to be true. But Lupino was an acting equal of Ryan’s, and the unexpected scenes of growing affection between the two get an invaluable boost from Herrmann’s score, which elevates the story to a near-celestial plane.
At 82 minutes, the film feels a little truncated and particularly so at the end — which is the only reason I don’t put Ground quite on the same level as Night, In a Lonely Place or The Lusty Men, highlights of a period when Ray was turning out a masterpiece with half the movies he directed — and at a time when nobody was looking. Commentator Erickson does a good job of contrasting the screen result with its source novel (Mad With Much Heart by Gerald Butler), filling in details of the movie’s rather tortured post-production and noting the puzzled trade reviews (the New York Times’s dependably myopic Bosley Crowther panned it as well).
Fortunately, the movie’s rep was “made” by 15-plus years of TV showings before its reevaluation in the 1970s, which is also kind of what happened with Ray’s Johnny Guitar (both films were, of course, revered in France, where Ray was something of a deity). This has been a great Blu-ray month of filmdom’s most self-destructive geniuses, what with Johnny’s smashing new 4K release from Olive (necessitating a rather unwelcome double-dip buy not all that long after a previous standard issue). Industrial-strength political reactionary Ward Bond is excellent in both films, so there could have been some interesting political discussions on the set, given a director and male star who somewhat miraculously avoided blacklisting.