RKO Radio Pictures, 81m 55s
A profoundly moving noir story of redemption, ON DANGEROUS GROUND is a title textured with multiple meanings. On a surface level, it alludes to the various settings that form the backdrop for the drama. But on a more crucial level, it references the precarious position of Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), a temperamental cop who is in an uncertain place mentally. Wilson's police work is characterized by the same type of tough-guy tactics that would be utilized famously by Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) in the DIRTY HARRY film series, and any number of similar rough-around-the-edges movie cops who bend the rules. All such policemen justify their methods with results, to the chagrin of their more progressive superiors, who must be concerned about the general public's perception of the police force. Even Wilson's colleagues Pete Santos (Anthony Ross) and Pop Daly (Charles Kemper) agree Wilson needs to tone down his behavior. The pivotal scene of on-the-job violence has a sexual charge to it; Wilson appears to get a perverse thrill from beating information out of suspect Bernie Tucker (Richard Irving). "Alright Bernie, we're alone now," Wilson says with a peculiar sense of satisfaction.
Another key sequence reveals the kinder side of Wilson, when he allows time for a brief street football game with the local paperboy (Leslie Bennett). A former star high school football player, Wilson lives by himself in a small studio apartment, the kind where cooking utensils are not far from the bed. His living arrangement puts him in complete contrast with both Santos and Daly, whose families clearly enrich their private lives. The deeply embittered loner Wilson has been on the force eleven years and has grown to resent the day-to-day grind, surrounded by people who do not like cops. He is not a bad man as much as he is the product of a poor environment. After a sustained working-over from Wilson leaves the thug Tucker with a ruptured bladder (according to the suspect's attorney, anyway), Wilson finds himself in hot water with Captain Brawley (Ed Begley). With Wilson's easily-lit fuse perhaps leading to "another civil suit," Brawley sends his problematic charge on a rural case upstate. Though the opening credits roll over rain-drenched city streets where cop killers remain on the loose, ON DANGEROUS GROUND closes somewhere completely different, in terms of both setting and the lead protagonist's frame of mind.
At first anyway, the change of scenery does not permit Wilson any time for reassessment. Walter Brent (Ward Bond) is on the trail of the disturbed young man (Sumner Williams) who killed his daughter. Now it is Wilson who must act as the controlled voice of reason, since Brent is prepared to avenge his daughter's death with however many shotgun blasts he deems necessary. The irate father Brent is similar to Wilson in that he trusts no one. While the impetuous men are in pursuit of the suspect, a disorienting car crash leads to a light that signifies the narrative's critical turning point. The light is inside the home of Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), an angelic figure positioned as Wilson's potential savior. The Malden/Wilson encounter in a remote country home recalls a strikingly similar sequence in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), where the monster (Boris Karloff) stumbles upon a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie). Like the monstrous creation, Wilson is inclined to distrust others, and like the blind man, Malden must "trust everybody." Malden speaks in a calm tone that immediately seems the antithesis of Wilson, or perhaps his antidote.
The second act of ON DANGEROUS GROUND allows both Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino to deliver emotionally gripping performances. In respect to film noir conventions, it comes as little wonder that Malden resides in a rural location, far removed from the tawdriness of big city living on full display in the first act. The degradation of urban life is reinforced by the city’s peripheral female characters, all of whom contribute to Wilson's sense of alienation in some fashion. An underage barfly (Nita Talbot) challenges Wilson's authority, the bruised Myrna Bowers (Cleo Moore) brings out his dark side and the nice girl Hazel (Joan Taylor) has no interest in dating a cop. In contrast to her quite durable urban counterparts, Mary Malden embodies the (admittedly clichéd) fragility of woman, always vulnerable without strong male protection. This trait is best exemplified when the outraged father Brent comes disconcertingly close to striking the completely defenseless Malden.
Like the prior year's WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950), another notable noir to feature an overly tough cop, ON DANGEROUS GROUND advocates conservative values with redemption through the union of man and woman, each half empty without the other. On a traditional family level, the father Brent, the matriarchal figure Malden and her "just a kid" brother Danny combine to redeem Wilson. As for Wilson's checkered past as a disillusioned lawman, it might be argued that no great injustice had been done to those he punished, given the playground around which Wilson had to romp. To a great extent, ON DANGEROUS GROUND blames the city’s criminals and common lowlifes for the manifestation of Wilson's dark side. Ultimately devoted to Malden, his self-removal from the urban milieu effectively exonerates him from any past transgressions. The conclusion also dovetails nicely with the opening segments that establish the importance of the traditional family.
British novelist Gerald Butler wrote the source novel MAD WITH MUCH HEART, first published in 1945. A.I. Bezzerides adapted the novel for the screen, with help from the film's acclaimed director Nicholas Ray. Bezzerides also wrote the source material that inspired THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940), both the novel and screen adaptation for THIEVES' HIGHWAY (1949) and the screenplay for the great KISS ME DEADLY (1955), based on a novel by Mickey Spillane. The character Jim Wilson stands alongside other male protagonists in Ray films who seem cut off from society, i.e. Bowie (Farley Granger) in THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948), Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) from IN A LONELY PLACE (1950), Jim Stark (James Dean) in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955). Cinematographer George E. Diskant also lensed the Ray-directed film noirs THEY LIVE BY NIGHT and A WOMAN'S SECRET (1949). Whether the background is a studio set or location footage in Colorado, Diskant handles the situation effectively, particularly when disorienting hand-held camerawork is involved.
Among the most venerated film noirs for good reason, ON DANGEROUS GROUND is well presented by the dual-layered Blu-ray edition available via Warner Archive. Based on a 2016 remaster, the transfer observes the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, and the thunderous score by Bernard Herrmann sounds terrific. The audio commentary by Glenn Erickson, first made available on the Warner DVD released in 2006, provides a rundown of the numerous alterations that were applied to ON DANGEROUS GROUND during its almost two-year stretch on the shelf at RKO, which was not unusual under the leadership of Howard Hughes. Good or bad, Hughes’s tinkering proved to be of little help to the film’s delayed release; ON DANGEROUS GROUND lost $450K at the box office and was received coldly by critics. Erickson builds a solid case that the most similar film to ON DANGEROUS GROUND is director Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER (1976), probably the finest of revisionist noir films that emerged in the 1970s. A theatrical trailer (2m 10s) is the only other supplement.