“On Dangerous Ground” – A Hard-Boiled Trip to the Hinterlands

I wrote this introduction for The Mesilla Valley Film Society’s screening of On Dangerous Ground in December, 2023.

Robert Ryan is Jim Wilson, an embittered big city detective who’s exiled to the intentionally ambiguous “Upstate” to track down a killer. Ida Lupino plays Mary Maiden, a blind woman who’s dragged into his quest through circumstance. He might find redemption in those snow-covered wastes, but success for him could leave her alone forever.  1951’s On Dangerous Ground has a hell of a hook, and thanks to director Nicholas Ray’s ability to balance the precision plotting of a straight-up crime thriller with the emotional weight of a melodrama, it works pretty damn well.

This is our first Nicholas Ray movie, and that’s weird, isn’t it? From the very beginning, his filmography shows a director that could take the artistic and meld it with the commercial perfectly. The writer/director/actor’s best-known works among general audiences are the Technicolor triumphs The Flying Leathernecks and Rebel Without A Cause, but noir nerds will talk your ear off about his first film, 1948’s They Live By Night — part of the outsiders-on-the-run subgenre that would later house Gun Crazy and Bonnie and Clyde  — and the Bogart / Grahame classic In A Lonely Place. Ray was the kind of director that inspired entire generations of filmmakers, with Jean-Luc Godard once declaring “There is Cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.” 

I don’t need to go into Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan, do I? I’ve sung her praises on multiple occasions (and likely will again, soon) and while we’ve never featured Robert Ryan in one of these screenings before, he’s a standout in the genre, known for noirs like the boxing drama The Set-Up, Crossfire (an engrossing procedural about antisemitism in the military), and Bad Day At Black Rock. He was also reunited with Ida Lupino a year after On Dangerous Ground in Harry Horner’s good-but-not-great Beware, My Lovely. Like Sterling Hayden, he’s the kind of guy who can pull off the stiff upper lip thing without losing any humanity in his performance.

Now we come to everyone’s favorite part: trivia and what reviewers thought of the picture!

  • Rumor has it that Ida Lupino took over direction for a few days while Ray was ill. There’s nothing in the production files to back this up, but Lupino would soon make her own mark as a director. She even personally directed Ray’s screen tests for her tennis drama Hard, Fast and Beautiful.
  • Ray and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides spent time with the Boston PD while researching backstory for Ryan’s Jim Wilson. They even rode with detectives in the South End.
  • Look out for the hand-held camera work by cinematographer George E. Diskant, a real rarity at the time.
  • Bernard Hermann scored this, and if it sounds a little bit familiar, it’s because he recycled large sections for Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and the opening theme of the TV show Have Gun, Will Travel.
  • Bosley Crowther of the New York Times hated this movie. He said that the story was shallow, that the behavior of Robert Ryan’s misanthropic cop was only “superficially explained” and that Ida Lipino was “mawkishly stagey.” 
    • I personally think Bosley Crowther can go soak his head.

Tonight’s movie may be a relatively minor entry in Ray’s filmography, made on the cheap for RKO during the company’s tumultuous Howard Hughes years, but with a cast this good and a setting as unique as we have here, it’s certainly worth your time.

Next month, we kick off our western noir series with the Coen Brothers’ first feature, Blood Simple





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