Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Ward Bond, Charles Kemper, Anthony Ross, Ed Begley, Ian Wolfe, Sumner Williams, Gus Schilling, Frank Ferguson, Cleo Moore, Olive Carey, Richard Irving, Patricia Prest
Written by: A.I. Bezzerides, Nicholas Ray, based on a novel by, Gerald Butler
Directed by: Nicholas Ray
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 82
Date: 02/12/1952

On Dangerous Ground (1952)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Dancing in the Dark

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Up to now, Warner Home Video has done a wonderful job resurrecting the greatest noir classics for their first two "Film Noir Classic Collection" DVD box sets. The titles packaged in these previous sets included such miracles as Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy (1949), John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947), Robert Wise's Born to Kill (1947) and The Set-Up (1949) and Fritz Lang's Clash by Night (1952).

But "Vol. 3" ($49.98, SRP) unleashes a slate of lesser-known titles, the kind of second-gear stuff you might have found yourself unexpectedly enjoying as second-billed attraction in a Saturday matinee. It's actually just as much fun pouring through these unknowns as it is looking once again at the greats. The titles included in the new set start with Anthony Mann's vicious, striking Border Incident (1949), which teams a Mexican agent (Ricardo Montalban) with an American agent (George Murphy) to stop corruption near the border.

Next, we get John Farrow's baffling His Kind of Woman (1951), starring Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell and Vincent Price in a film full of gamblers, stolen identity, actors and Mexican resorts. Mitchum returns in John Cromwell's shaky The Racket (1951) -- co-starring the lovely, heavy-lidded Lizabeth Scott -- about an honest cop and an old school gangster who team up against a common foe. The Racket comes with an audio commentary track by San Francisco writer and film noir expert Eddie Muller.

Also in the set is Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake (1947), adapted from Raymond Chandler's novel. Montgomery stars as gumshoe Philip Marlowe, although he's hardly ever on camera. In one of cinema's oddest experiments, Montgomery films the entire thing from the detective's point of view; we get the odd glimpse of him in mirrors and other reflective surfaces. His gambit doesn't entirely work, but it's fairly interesting.

Despite all this, the real reason to pick up this set (in this case, the titles are not available separately) is Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1951). On Dangerous Ground came in the middle of an astonishing string of masterworks from Ray, including In a Lonely Place (1950), Flying Leathernecks (1951), The Lusty Men (1952), Johnny Guitar (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Bigger Than Life (1956) and Bitter Victory (1957).

Championed by Jean-Luc Godard and the other famous critics at Cahiers du Cinema, Ray was unique among Hollywood directors; he had a way of hammering through the most intense, unfiltered emotions. Even the stoic Humphrey Bogart comes across as open and fevered in In a Lonely Place. But more importantly, Ray understood unlike any other how to use the space around the characters as part of this emotional landscape. Think of the apartment courtyard in In a Lonely Place, the planetarium in Rebel Without a Cause or the hilltop hideout in Johnny Guitar. On Dangerous Ground does double duty in that capacity, opening in the big, violent city, with its dark alleyways and crooked stairwells, as cop Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) searches for his latest suspect.

Surrounded by soft, family men -- one keeps a rose garden and another likes ice cream sundaes -- Wilson takes his work seriously and finds desperation taking hold. When an informer refuses to talk, Wilson proceeds to beat it out of him, but first asking, tremblingly, "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?!" Ryan specialized in these damaged types, calling forth a reservoir of burbling acid behind his square, stony exterior; he was the best at it. Perhaps because he was not much of a clear-cut hero type, he never earned the adoration and acclaim he deserved. But to think of anyone else in this role is inconceivable.

When Wilson's actions get him into trouble, his superiors send him on a mission out of town, upstate, to the snow-covered countryside, where a murderer is loose. Once there, he's teamed with an irate, shotgun-wielding farmer, Walter Brent (Ward Bond), the father of the murdered girl, who intends to kill the murderer.

Obviously, Wilson is torn between his own penchant for violence and sticking to the law, especially when he meets and interrogates the killer's beautiful, blind sister Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), who only knows her brother as a kind soul that helps her "see" the world. Lupino is terrific, bringing her trademark intelligence and sadness to an otherwise gimmicky role. The part came near the beginning of her own directorial career (Never Fear, Outrage, Hard, Fast and Beautiful, etc.), and she reportedly took over the helm for a few days when Ray was ill.

Ray depicts Wilson's torment with an astonishing use of the snow-covered hillsides. Characters actually have to tromp through the icy sludge (it certainly does not look like a studio back lot). And when they enter Mary's home, with its many sculptures and driftwood samples, their bulky coats and boots tend to bowl over the house's delicate interior design.

If that's not enough, the movie is blessed with a musical score by the great Bernard Herrmann; some of which sounds like his future work with Hitchcock, but here it's refined for Ray's tastes, made softer or going completely quiet when the mood strikes. Rounding out a complete package is a screenplay by the great Turkish-born novelist and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides, who also wrote Thieves Highway (1949), Track of the Cat (1954) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955). He was so influential that he has inspired two new (as yet unreleased) documentaries.

DVD Details: The On Dangerous Ground DVD comes looking gorgeously restored, with all the lights and shadows properly defined. Historian Glenn Erickson provides a commentary track, and there is a trailer. The DVD box set winds up with an interesting new documentary, Film Noir: Bringing Darkness Into Light, that interviews film scholars, filmmakers and other noir experts from Christopher Nolan to Frank Miller and James Ellroy. That disc comes with five short films from the MGM vaults, part of the "Crime Does Not Pay" series. Featuring early work from directors like Joseph Losey and Fred Zinnemann, these shorts (two of which earned Oscar nominations) are more like stern, educational programmers than proper noir, but they have their moments.

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