On Dangerous Ground (1951)

dangerous1While Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground in some respects betrays its age with some of its melodrama, settings and fashions (sometimes period films can seem like so much science fiction, its so alien) and certainly isn’t quite the film that Ray intended it to be (the film was shelved for two years and altered in post-production against his wishes) it is nonetheless a massively impressive, fascinating picture. In a clever usurping of the ‘wholesome good cop/authority figure’ characters of Between Midnight to Dawn (1950), a more routine crime drama in which clean-cut cops remain untarnished by the dirt they are working in, this film feels much more honest and real. For the first thirty minutes its a distinctly brutal noir showing how a good hard-working cop has been dehumanised by the relentless grimness of his job, genuinely traumatised by the lowlife underbelly of society he has to work in and the negative public perception of cops (a pretty woman confesses she’d never date a cop). Then when he is tasked with investigating a sex-murder out in the high mountains away from the city the film becomes a romantic melodrama and study of redemption. Would anyone believe a happy ending in a film noir? On Dangerous Ground‘s ending, if it doesn’t entirely convince, at least suggests that a ‘happy ever after’ and redemption can be possible, however fleeting.

As our frustrated honest cop Jim Wilson, Robert Ryan is some kind of revelation with a fantastic performance- his rage is evident in his chiselled jawline and stark eyes, but there’s a subtle fragility there too. His job is gradually destroying him, that much is clear; his worried partners and boss Captain Brawley (Ed Begley) know that Jim is a good man teetering on the edge, and that’s why Brawley sends him out of the city to cool down. The city sequences in which Jim lashes out at anyone who opposes him (viciously beating a suspect and allowing a woman to fall foul of the criminals she snitched on) are gritty and convincing, with an occasional hand-held camera really intensifying the you-are-there feeling. Accompanied by moody driving sequences and a brilliant Bernard Herrmann score, the film prefigures Taxi Driver by some twenty years and is surely an inspiration for Scorsese’s film, from the rain-swept city streets at night to the alienation felt by Jim: one could almost imagine Jim ruminating “one day a real rain will wash away these streets.”

But then Jim is sent to the mountain wilderness of snow and bitter cold, the landscapes suddenly devoid of humanity, barren and stark and beautiful (the location photography in these sequences is exquisite and really impressive- magnificent desolation indeed). The tonal shift is immediate, particularly in Jim- tasked with accompanying the child victim’s father Walter Brent (Ward Bond) who is incandescent with rage and desperate for bloody revenge, wildly brandishing his shotgun- he’s everything Jim was back in the city, and Jim is suddenly faced with seeing himself in Walter and appreciating the folly of his own violent madness. Tracking the child’s killer in deep snow, Jim and Walter reach an isolated farmstead and meet Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), a blind woman who assures them she lives alone and has no knowledge of anyone else being there, despite the tracks saying different. Why would Mary, a decent honest woman who ultimately offers Jim some kind of redemption from his past, hide the killer? 

dangerous 4On Dangerous Ground is quite remarkable. It shouldn’t really work, and I guess some noir aficionado’s would claim it doesn’t, citing its ending and the romantic interludes that lead up to it, but that’s just part of what makes it so memorable and unique. The wilderness scenes were shot in Colorado and are amazing, really- the snow and the blizzards are real and the filming must have been something of a nightmare, but its totally effective, barring what look like a very few front-projection shots (reshoots setting-up the happy ending?). The cast is excellent and Herrmann’s music just sublime, shades of what we would hear in Vertigo several years later. The miracle of so many old films such as these is how timeless they seem to be, and how perfect they are. Script, direction, acting, production values, everything seems to click into place in spite of or perhaps because of low budgets (necessity the mother of all invention, a lesson so many bloated modern films should heed). 

So ultimately we come back to that earlier question I raised- would anyone believe a happy ending in a film noir? Or maybe we are supposed to take it on face value, and then only afterwards start to doubt it, realise its only the promise of a happy ending, and that maybe the noir wins out after all, maybe a missing reel onwards that we never see. Endings in movies are funny things after all, and quite arbitrary. We often see couples walk off together into the sunset, films ending well before we see them divorcing months/years later, or characters dying- well, that’s how everybody’s story ends eventually; films just tie things up and cut us loose before Time wreaks its inevitable revenge. But I digress (I’ve seen perhaps too many noir movies this year), so I’ll choose my own ending here.

In A Lonely Place (1950)

lonely22016.96: In A Lonely Place (Blu-ray)

One of the pleasures  of being a film-fan is discovering old films that you haven’t seen before and simply falling in love with them. Its like they’ve been waiting all those years just for you. In the case of Nicholas Ray’s film noir masterpiece In A Lonely Place it’s been 66 long years- it’s in like those movies where a character asks “where have you been all these years?”, it seems incredible that this film has been out there and I’d been ignorant of it. Thanks to Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release of this classic noir, and subsequent rave reviews that got my attention, I’ve finally fallen under its spell.

(Its the ‘magic’ of disc releases of catalogue titles; many of them don’t seem to appear on tv anymore and its only through these releases, like so many by Warner Archive and Arrow Films, Eureka etc., that these older films get my attention. It’d be such a shame if disc releases get replaced by streaming and downloads, as I’m sure these older films will suffer. You can’t rely on late-night television screenings anymore (they just don’t seem to happen these days)).

lonely3The genius of In A Lonely Place is that while its film noir, its really a story of a doomed romance, a tragic love story. Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a washed-up screenwriter with a vicious temper. He becomes the prime suspect in a Hollywood murder, and his alibi proves to be his seductive, beautiful new neighbour  Laurel (Gloria Grahame). The two of them are lonely, broken souls and they start a passionate affair while the police continue to try to pin the murder on Steele. As the film continues, the romance is clearly good for Steele- he gets back to writing again, and gets a whole new zest for life, but Laurel’s happiness starts to unravel as she begins to witness Steel’s temper and his hair-trigger for violence. Doubts start to form in her mind -and in the audience- regards Steel’s innocence. Are the police right after all?

Its all very dark and complex, with elements that would later surface in Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo a few years later. Indeed it very much feels like a film noir Vertigo, and in some ways In A Lonely Place seems actually superior to that classic, concluding with a similar dark and tragic inevitability. Of course, as Vertigo is one of my very favourite ‘Top Ten’ movies, it’s inevitable that I would fall in love with this noir masterpiece that shares so many of that film’s themes.

lonely1Bogart delivers a brilliant, complex and subtle performance, displaying both a vulnerability and a simmering darkness. Grahame is equal to Bogart with a sultry swagger that slowly becomes something more tender and then fragile. Both are phenomenal, both are perfect- its one of those films where you cannot possibly imagine any other actor inhabiting the roles they take. Bogart is not an actor I ever had much interest in when growing up; other than his early  gangster roles I was pretty much ignorant of his films- I only finally caught up with Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon this year. I think I’ve been missing out on something. I think thats something I will have to rectify.

In anycase, In A Lonely Place may be 66 years old, but its one of the very best films that I have seen all year. Its one of those films that lingers in your head for days- “I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.” Dialogue and sentiments like that, in tragedies like this, it’s pure Hollywood magic. If  you are as ignorant of this film as I was a little while ago, really, this film is not to be missed. Its simply brilliant, and I can hardly wait to watch it, live it, all over again.