To protect and serve what, exactly? Perhaps there was a time when Detective Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) looked at what he did as serving the untold millions of this nameless metropolis. These days, though, it's just a job. He can't really quit; being a detective is all he knows. The seemingly universal mistrust...outright revulsion...towards cops has taken a heavy toll on Jim, feeding a vicious cycle. Jim lets their fear and lack of sympathy tear away at his humanity, fueling his isolation and self-loathing. His savagely violent outbursts in turn perpetuate the public's skewed perception of law enforcement. He has no family. He has no friends. He has no life outside of his job. Even his fellow detectives are just people he has to endure rather than partners.
A couple of cop-killers are walking free, and although Captain Brawley (Ed Begley) knows that his men are working tirelessly to bring these murderers to justice, he impresses upon them that their best is not good enough. Do whatever it takes to bring 'em in. Jim does just that. He carelessly leaves a floozy (Cleo Moore) in the crosshairs after she spills everything he needed to know about her murderous boyfriend. He beats a suspect so brutally in search of information that his bladder ruptures, opening up the department to yet another lawsuit and well-deserved cries of police brutality. He lunges towards a random schlub who's in the wrong place at the wrong time and makes the mistake of hissing "dumb cop". Brawley lets Jim off with a stern warning, and yet he's back in the captain's office all of a day later for roughing up another hoodlum. Jim's continued presence in the city isn't doing anyone any favors. As it turns out, Brawley has a way to get Jim out of the way so the havoc he's wrought can blow over and maybe accomplish a little good along the way. A girl was found murdered in a understaffed speck on the map upstate, and this sleepy little town needs all the help it can get.
When a grieving father (Ward Bond) -- a dark reflection of Jim's bottled-up rage -- seethes that "there won't be any of your city stuff", that can be taken in more ways than one. It's a daring and dramatic shift. The first half hour of On Dangerous Ground is spent on rain-slicked streets blanketed in shadow. It takes care to establish what would seem to be a supporting cast. There's even a ticking clock -- an investigation of great urgency -- and nearly all of it is dispensed with. A towering metropolis makes way for a mountainous, snow-blanketed countryside. Much of the remainder of the film is set under the light of day. No one in the first act, aside from Jim, is ever again seen. Two key characters take their place. There is, of course, the vengeful farmer who's just lost his daughter. Walter Brent has no interest in bringing a killer to face a judge and jury. He aims to empty his shotgun into the bastard's chest, and heaven help anyone foolish enough to stand in his way, big city detective or otherwise. It's not as if Jim would make any effort to stop him anyway. The two of them take chase after a murderer they haven't managed to get a proper look at, and though they soon lose sight of him on the slick, icy roads, there's only one place nearby where he could've fled. It's the home of Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), a blind woman who, much like Jim, is isolated and forced to be self-reliant.
If you've yet to experience On Dangerous Ground, don't worry yourself trying to figure out how those pieces and parts fit into the film noir mold. This is a noir in which its detective protagonist never once fires a gun. No sinister villain is to be had, nor is there a femme fatale leading Jim towards ruin; if anything, it's the other way around. Mary does not pursue any self-interest, seeking instead to protect those she cares about at a significant cost to herself, and the one secret she wields is volunteered rather quickly. She represents redemption -- a clean start in unspoiled terrain. While Walter reflects Jim's violent, obsessive, uncaring nature, ravaging anyone and anything in his path, Mary stirs a warmth and humanity buried too long within the embittered detective. While so many films noir chart a character's descent into darkness, On Dangerous Ground is instead about Jim clawing his way up towards the light, if indeed the light will have him.
On Dangerous Ground seizes hold of film noir conventions as a springboard rather than a guidebook. They inform the story that director Nicholas Ray (In a Lonely Place) and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (Kiss Me Deadly) set out to craft but do not define it. Some have found it frustrating over these many years that the film's first half hour is the most classic sort of noir before shifting gears into something altogether different, but that upheaval is entirely the point. To remain in the city is to ensure that Jim will remain as he is. Beyond its eagerness to upend what it's constructed, On Dangerous Ground is an extraordinary film. Bernard Herrmann's outstanding score alternates between the heartfelt and the aggressive, in keeping with Jim's internal tumult. The performances are equally remarkable, from the frail yet resolute Lupino to the subtle ways in which Ryan's hulking misanthrope is shown to rediscover his humanity. It's a testament to their talents that the two of them carry so much of the film's emotional weight on their shoulders. With a runtime just over eighty minutes in length, this is a taut romantic drama/thriller with nary a wasted moment. Those who are perhaps less interested in Jim's redemption or blossoming romance can still thrill to On Dangerous Ground's action and its suspenseful setpieces, without one of these elements ever unduly overwhelming the other. Some may bristle at an ending they see as being studio-imposed, but without giving too much away, it closes a circle rather than simply giving audiences what they're perceived to have craved. The film is so rich with symbolism that it's a struggle to write a review rather than the essay it deserves. Given that this is a review, I'm pleased to say that On Dangerous Ground very much comes Highly Recommended, as it applies to both the film itself and this terrific Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.
Though not quite as achingly gorgeous as so many of Warner Archive's other recent releases have been, On Dangerous Ground boasts what is by any measure a very handsome remaster. I'd go so far as to call it revelatory compared to the flat, muddy DVD in the third volume of Warner's Film Noir Classic Collection from a decade back. Despite a tinge of softness, this presentation is richly detailed and well-defined. Black levels very much hit the marks expected for a film noir, often a close match to the pillarboxing bars without detail ever getting crushed. There is no wear, damage, or speckling to speak of, and On Dangerous Ground consistently looks filmic from its first frame to the last. Most any other label would've crammed a film with such a lean runtime onto a BD-25 disc; Warner Archive has gone to the expense of a second layer, helping to ensure that there are no concerns to be found with its AVC encode. There is some chromatic abberation, although it's so slight that I honestly didn't notice until compiling the screencaps for this review. Look at Robert Ryan in the image below, for instance, particularly the hints of green on the edges of his nose and hat:
Even if I had been able to notice that fringing in motion and at a reasonable viewing distance -- and, to be clear, I couldn't -- that would do little to diminish my enthusiasm for such a terrific presentation.
Presented in two-channel mono, On Dangerous Ground's 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack leaves similarly little room for complaint. Bernard Herrmann's Death Hunt ranks among the legendary composer's greatest achievements, and it and the rest of his score sound phenomenal. The film's dialogue is reproduced cleanly and clearly, rarely showing any meaningful signs of strain. There is no background noise of any consequence, nor are there any clicks, pops, dropouts, or the like. The end result is every bit as wonderful as I'd hoped.
Optional English (SDH) subtitles are also offered.
The Final Word
On Dangerous Ground is a film of contrasts: between beaming sunlight and shadowy back alleyways, between urban decay and an unspoiled countryside, between misanthropy and compassion, between a balled fist and a helping hand. Those who are drawn towards some of the familiar trappings of films noir may struggle with On Dangerous Ground's sudden upheavals in atmosphere and tone, but such shifts are inexorable, defining elements -- every bit as much as the powerful performances, masterful cinematography, exceptional score, and spectacular bursts of action. On Dangerous Ground is as extraordinary as it is unconventional, and I'm thankful to see it arrive on such a lovely Blu-ray release courtesy of Warner Archive. Highly Recommended.