Sunday, April 27, 2008

On Dangerous Ground

Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground is an excellent noir-melodrama, despite its highly improbable and, well, melodramatic plot. Noir regular Robert Ryan plays a hard-bitten cop whose experience with dealing with criminals and violence has filled him with self-disgust and bitterness. He occasionally goes hysterically violent and brutally roughs up the suspects. While at home he washes his hands as if he were washing off the slime of the real world. Because of his erratic behavior and violent temper he is transferred to an upstate mountainous village to investigate a murder. There he meets a blind girl, played by another noir regular Ida Lupino, who is trying to save her juvenile brother who is a suspect. It is quite over-wrought and schematic but both the actors are so good and Ray's handling of the scenes between them gives it such pathos and emotional urgency that you never feel manipulated into believing in such a wildly improbable scenario. Instead it comes off as very sincere and authentic, and hence powerful.

The film also boasts of a score by Bernhard Hermann which is typically heavy, ominous and full of dread. In fact once in a while, it even threatens to take over the proceedings. The snowy and frozen landscape is extremely well shot with a lot of depth of focus, in effect, making the background part of the character and the story itself.

An exchange between Ryan and his co-worker which sums up the basic theme of the film very well... You don't live with yourself, you live with other people. Indeed! (From IMDB)

Jim Wilson: [yelling] So I get thrown off the force! What kind of job is this, anyway? Garbage, that's all we handle: garbage!
Pop Daly: Don't you know? That's the kind of job it is.
Jim Wilson: You've been doing it for sixteen years; you ought to know. How do you do it? How do you live with yourself?
Pop Daly: I don't! I live with other people. When I go home I don't take this stuff with me, I leave it outside. But you! The way you carry it around with you, you must like it!

Wikipedia also links to a critical contemporary review of the film by Bosley Crowther in the new york times. It shows the same bias against melodrama that I had mentioned earlier. Only in this case it is a very masculine melodrama...


Puccinio said...

The reason for that improbability is the sad fact that the film is a mutilated masterpiece. Mutilated by Howard Hughes.

Hughes cut scenes here and there but the moronic thing he did was re-ordering and re-shuffling scenes in a way that ruined the emotional narrative of the film. Like the scene where that call-girl who gives Robert Ryan information and is then found dead takes place in the urban section of the film. That scene was supposed to take place after his character returns from the village.

That entire exchange you quoted by the way is also supposed to be at the end, since it was to make him realize that he can't be lonely anymore and so goes to Ida Lupino. Hughes in his divine wisdom ruined it and made that genuine positive ending into a fake happy ending.

The film is still great though. The opening section is just a documentary about the daily lives of police officers with no plot at all driving the action. The main plot comes only a quarter into the film. And of course the performances and characterizations are deep enough to still give the film resonance. And Ward Bond is beautiful too in his brief role as the sympathetic avenger of his daughter's murder(shades of ''Virgin Spring'' at work there).

And of course Robert Ryan is great. A criminally underrated actor who was also that rarity, a great guy.

One of Ray's best films, definitely.

Alok said...

Oh I didn't know about the Howard Hughes interference. They did bungle a lot of their great classics... But they (or whoever owns RKO, prob Warner) have been making it up by releasing these lesser known classics in really excellent DVD editions. I wish I had more time to go through all the commentary tracks and watch them at least more than once.

The second section also uses documentary technique, specially the way it uses landscapes. Few scenes were even shot by hand held cameras which is extremely rare in films of that period.

I also agree about Robert Ryan. He was great in The Set-up, the brutal and merciless boxing drama by Robert Wise and also Fritz Lang's Clash by Night which was full of emotional violence and despair too. Both of these were also made under RKO I think.

puccinio said...

Hughes was kind of Nicholas Ray's Mephistopheles. Despite being a rabid anti-communist propagandist for mysterious reasons he protected Ray(a known leftist, and a former communist) from the lynch mob. Ray in exchange worked on cheesy films like ''Flying Leathernecks'', patch-up work on ''Macao'' and ''The Racket''. He made two personal great films at RKO like ''On Dangerous Ground'' and ''The Lusty Men''. Hughes collected Ray's soul on the former film, while Ray got back his soul in the second film. He then went to Republic Studios and made ''Johnny Guitar'' independently and went into his peak phase.

Robert Ryan appeared in many great films like Anthony Mann's ''The Naked Spur'', the most minimalist of westerns(he goes toe-to-toe with Jimmy Stewart in that one), but his best might be Max Ophuls' ''Caught'' where he plays Smith Ohlrig, a film-un-clef portrait of...Howard Hughes.

Watch it, it's brilliant. max Ophuls was one of the many careers that Hughes tried to sabotage in his reign at RKO(where he essentially ran the most creative Hollywood studio into the ground), he fired him from a film called ''Vendetta'' only to re-hire him after his second-choice dissappointed him and then re-fired him again. In all the film has six credited directors...and it's absolutely unwatchable. So Max got his revenge. Godard once said it was his best American film.