This post is for the Bernard Herrmann blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Muse. Check out the listings for more Herrmann-related material. The blogathan lasts from October 29th to October 31st.
On Dangerous Ground had a famously muddled production and has enjoyed an equally muddled critical afterlife. Director Nicholas Ray considered the movie a failure and producer John Houseman found it “sort of a mess… but awfully good.” Now that the passage of time elevated this once minor work to cult status, generations of critics and movie geeks have argued its merits. Is the story structure, severing the film into two tonally disparate halves, merely uneven or is it bold? Do the romantic elements complement the gritty noir elements or do they declare open war upon them?
The movie starts like any typical noir. Jim Wilson is a big-city cop who’s been hardened by constant exposure to corruption and criminality. His ordinary world encompasses darkened alleys and shabby apartments populated by every kind of scumbag. Not above beating the hell out of suspects to get confessions, Jim is too much even for the police force. His captain opts to send Jim to the snow-covered countryside where there’s a murderer on the loose, hoping the assignment will cool Jim off literally and metaphorically.
Depending on your perspective, this is either where the movie loses its way or gets interesting. Jim encounters a reflection of his own anger in the victim’s father, who swears bloody vengeance on the killer. During the search, he also comes across the lonely Mary Malden, a sensitive young blind woman who knows the killer’s whereabouts but is not willing to reveal him. It turns out Mary is the killer’s sister and she’s hoping he’ll agree to be hospitalized for his mental illness rather than continue to run from the law.
On Dangerous Ground is definitely a film of two halves. While most people prefer the gritty urban fare in the beginning, I take more to the latter section. The desolate beauty of the wintry countryside sets the film apart from your typical city-bound noir, createing an atmosphere both dreadful and romantic. The black-and-white visuals make the sense of cold palpable, especially when the film goes inside Mary’s cabin, dominated by deep shadows and the intense white fire of the hearth.
What stands out the most in the story is the fragile relationship between Jim and Mary. Ryan and Lupino could both channel hardboiled toughness and soulful yearning, making them an ideal screen pairing. Their characters are desperately, even ontologically lonely people, lending a desperate quality to their budding romance. Not everyone likes this part of the script, feeling any love that doesn’t end in disillusionment or death has no place in noir. However, I think there’s room in film noir for movies that show some glimmer of hope in an otherwise corrupt world. Murder, My Sweet has a similarly romantic subplot between Philip Marlowe and a fresh-faced ingenue, and no one ever contests its noir status.
The one element of the film everyone agrees upon is the quality of Bernard Herrmann’s score. For his part, Herrmann liked the movie and claimed he was “very partial to it” in a 1971 interview. Herrmann’s score brings together the contrasting elements of menace and romance in a chocolate/peanut butter style combination. This contrast is especially clear in two pieces from the score: “Death Hunt,” an intense, brassy composition which plays while the men are pursuing the killer, and the gentle, romantic theme associated with Mary. The gentler music is soulful and moving, perfectly complimenting the central romance and the quiet, desperate yearnings of both lovers.
Whether you see On Dangerous Ground as a truncated curiosity or an underrated gem, there’s no denying the power of the film’s many parts. Herrmann’s contribution might just be the glue that holds everything together.
A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann by Steven C. Smith