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Thursday, May 23, 2013

ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952)

This lesser-known work from Nicholas Ray (co-written with A. I. Bezzerides) is one his best. An unusual structure starts with an extended prologue that sets up the violent character of city detective Robert Ryan, and the numbing brutality of his assignments. His two partners, squeezed into cars & suits too narrow for such big men, find release valves in their home life, but the solitary Ryan is like a loose grenade with the pin pulled. In a fix after roughing up too many scumbags, he’s sent up north to cool down and help a county sheriff track down a killer. The shift in tone, and the start of a normal three-act structure, is signified by a distinctive Bernard Herrmann music cue.* But within minutes, Ryan is thrust straight into a chase for a mentally unbalanced killer thru the snowy countryside, accompanied by Ward Bond as the victim's avenging father. (He's also accompanied by one of Herrmann’s greatest agitato set pieces, very chromatic, with wicked horn licks & pre-echoes of his scores for NORTH BY NORTHWEST/’59 and MARNIE/’64.) Ryan winds up meeting the suspect's sister, Ida Lupino, fashioning a real character out of mere dramatic convenience; and making their meetings the emotional center of the story, with a real D. H. Lawrentian aspect to it. Sometimes, Ray’s films get away from him, but not here. (Though the two sides of the story play better on second viewing.) It’s also quite dazzling on a technical level with fine perfs from actors you rarely see and some daring hand-held action camera work from George Diskant that still make a big impact.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Producer John Houseman was the likely connection to Herrmann from their days with Orson Welles at The Mercury Players.

DOUBLE-BILL: Ray was an uncredited co-director on John Cromwell’s THE RACKET/’50, something of a warm-up for the city side of this film. But with Ryan as a psychotic gangster and Robert Mitchum playing ‘good cop.’

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