Sunday, August 26, 2012

On Dangerous Ground

ON DANGEROUS GROUND           A-                   
aka:  Dark Highway
USA  (82 mi)  1952  d:  Nicholas Ray

Guy Maddin, transcribed from a 2009 introduction of the film at the IFC Center:
Has there ever been a face—rugged and manfully handsome yet fragile with inner agonies promising to explode into volcanic rage—like Robert Ryan’s? Nick Ray harnesses the violent force of this face as Ryan pounds his beat, and every face on it, to Bernard Hermann’s greatest score. Ward Bond has never been more precipitous or more startling—his grief and stupidity as powerful and natural as a mountain cataract.

Actually filmed before his previous film FLYING LEATHERNECKS (1951), this feels like a natural extension of an earlier character, Humphrey Bogart’s Dix Steele at the end of IN A LONELY PLACE (1950), an outsider with a penchant for violence who can’t conform to the rules of society, perhaps the template for John Ford’s Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) character in THE SEARCHERS (1956) or even Scorsese’s Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) character in TAXI DRIVER (1975).  While the arc of their lives is decidedly different, when we are introduced to all these characters, their propensity for violence is key to understanding their pent up, out of control inner rage, where these men are defined by the jagged edges of their soul, always irritable and dissatisfied, railing at the world around them, but usually it’s a personal disgust with themselves, how ineffectual they are at preventing the sick and twisted perverts of the world from ruining so many people’s lives.  The opening half hour of this film is textbook film noir, On Dangerous Ground -- (Movie Clip) Cop Killers YouTube (3:32), introducing Robert Ryan as a New York City cop Jim Wilson, a guy living alone in a depressingly tiny tenement apartment, who’s been on the force 11 years and seen it all, growing sick of continually dealing with the lowlifes and scum of the earth, “garbage, that’s all we handle,” always having to see the worst side of human nature, growing increasingly rough and physical when making arrests, perhaps crossing the line of police brutality, which he justifies by making the collar, but he’s turned into a loose cannon where his partners think he’s losing it and may crack under the pressure.  Nonetheless, he always starts out cool and collected before something drives him over the edge, as we see in two interrogation scenes here On Dangerous Ground (1952) - Video Dailymotion (5:42). 

Adapted by Ray and A.I. Bezzerides from Gerald Butler’s novel Mad With Much Heart, this is not as well known as other Ray films (though believed to be his favorite), partly because the release was delayed for a year while Howard Hughes tinkered with the editing, adding a new scene condemning police brutality, dropping a posse subplot in the snow, and adding a lushly romantic ending that Ray and film noir devotees disavowed.  By the time it was released, it followed William Wyler’s DETECTIVE STORY (1951), making this feel like a copycat movie.  Structurally, it’s also quite unique, as it breaks formula, starting out as a straight film noir, good cops doing the city’s dirty business but at a psychological price, but in the second half of the film they get out of the city into the snowy expanse of the mountain country, where it feels more like an Anthony Mann western that certainly had its influence on the Coen brother’s FARGO (1996).  Bezzerides’ novel Long Haul was used for Raoul Walsh’s THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940), while also co-writing William Wellman’s TRACK OF THE CAT (1954) and Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), all highly influential projects.  Bezzerides is actually seen early in the film as a corrupt bar owner attempting to bribe Ryan while he’s making the rounds attempting to collect information about a local cop killer on the loose.  When the police chief (Ed Begley) informs Wilson that the police force is being sued for his excessive use of brutality, the chief decides to send him upstate, to get him out into the country where he’ll have a new start and perhaps a fresh attitude.  Little did he know that’s exactly what happens, making this actually feel like two entirely different films.  Perhaps the film’s biggest influence is the outstanding Bernard Herrmann music, very pronounced from the opening credits, then all but disappears as the cops make their rounds in searing realism, before becoming perfectly integrated into the film again, where the Los Angeles Philharmonic plays a brief excerpt ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951) - Death Hunt ... (2:26) and Herrmann himself can be heard in brief audio clips of highly demanding rehearsal sessions On Dangerous Ground - Scoring Outtakes - YouTube (2:21). 
As soon as Wilson arrives upstate and hears the particulars, we hear a young girl’s been killed, where her father, Ward Bond at his angry best, is on a vigilante rampage, shotgun in hand and ready to shoot at the first thing that looks like the killer.  Bond drives this second half with his near psychotic rage, which tempers Wilson, seeing himself in the old man, becoming a more restrained police investigator instead of utilizing the heavy handed brute techniques of vigilantism.  Interestingly, Bond was politically to the right of John Wayne and likely Attila the Hun, where he led the Red Scare witch hunt to publicly identify and castigate communists from under every rock in America, where here he plays someone very close to his real character, as much like Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, he’s driven to mercilessly track down and find the killer.  This psychological shift from one psychopath to another can be heard in Hermann’s remarkable score which pulsates with mad energy in wordless sequences as they follow the footprints in the snow, Bond leading at a brisk pace, stomping through the snow, rifle in hand, one following right behind the other until they come upon a cabin in an open meadow On Dangerous Ground -- (Movie Clip) Scared People  (4:13, followed by the trailer).  Entering carefully, they discover a quietly polite blind woman inside, Ida Lupino, playing against type, becoming the calming voice of a gentle woman who is largely dependent on others, due to her condition, changing the tone of the film from wrath to reason On Dangerous Ground : The Blind And The Cop ... (3:22).  But Bond is hell bent and will not be dissuaded until the killer is caught, where the struggle is as much Ryan against Bond as the two of them trying to find the killer.  An interior melancholic mood established through the quiet of a wintry night turns into a psychologically riveting chase scene during the light of day, as by morning, the escapee leads them on a hunt through an open expanse into the rocky cliffs nearby, very similar to the ending in Mann’s Winchester '73 (1950), where a tense struggle leads to an enduring tragedy, where a film noir turns into a film blanc due to the heavy cover of snow.  The music really makes this film, as there are rapidly changing moods that are only accentuated by the score, adding interior depth to what turns into a glorified depiction of fullblown romanticism by the end, as Wilson finally discovers his humanity, where the earlier violence and anger shifts to forgiveness and love, where the close-up image of the embrace of hands is a transcendent Bressonian moment.      

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