Wednesday, July 10, 2019
Noir/ Lupino Watch: On Dangerous Ground (1951)
Format: Noir Alley on TCM on DVR
If I were to buy this movie on Bluray (and it's Lupino, so don't count me out), I would wish it had Eddie Muller's conversations which bookended the showing on Noir Alley. Muller says he's doing "barroom, not classroom", but I'll argue that by showing a wide variety of films on Noir Alley and talking about why we should pay attention, discussing what happened during production, etc... and not just lauding whatever it is we're about to see, Noir Alley is one of the best movie-watching experiences and educations you can hope for. And, yeah, he makes it all as casual as a talk over cocktails.
On Dangerous Ground (1951) is directed by Nicholas Ray and stars two of my favorite denizens of Noir Alley, Ida Lupino* and Robert Ryan (here wearing a coat and hat and a tough cops face in a way I wish with all my heart I could pull off). I'd meant to watch it some time ago, and I can't recall why it fell off the list - but now was the time! Muller certainly discussed details of the film and production, but his real focus was on the Bernard Herrmann score. And it is very, very much a Bernard Herrmann score, which is almost off to see against an RKO b&w cop picture.
I feel like tapping in NathanC to discuss Bernard Herrmann properly, but you know him from his many, many compositions, not least of which included Citizen Kane, Day the Earth Stood Still, Psycho, Cape Fear, and Vertigo. And his score here is remarkable, utterly different from anything else in the genre around these years that I can remember. The big, brassy wails you may recall from his later work in North by Northwest, etc... is alive and well on this soundtrack and punctuates a chase and struggle, elevating the scene by a wide margin.
The film really stars Robert Ryan as a city cop on the edge of losing it. Each night he goes out to track down killers and bring down criminals, and, 11 years in, he's only got his work and the knowledge that no matter what he does, someone else is going to do something awful tomorrow. The collars he's bringing in aren't sticking as charges of police brutality are getting his cases thrown out. His "getting results" isn't, but he's losing site of what he's supposed to be doing.
Just as he's set to explode, his boss sends him upstate to work on a case of a murder in a small, rural mountain town. It's the dead of winter, and we see Ryan's environment and the concrete jungle of the city shift to open, sprawling white. But already upon his arrival, the community has stirred up citizen posses and no one wants to take time to talk to, or give up an ounce of the search to a city cop who is suspicious just by existing.
Ryan stumbles upon a house with no lights on, and inside finds Lupino alone. They suspect she knows something, but also determine that she's blind - alone out here in the snow. And as the search continues outside, Ryan and Lupino begin to build a trust.
Muller didn't pull any punches, and, yeah, the ending was sweet, but made little sense and seemed out of place with where the movie was headed. Apparently the entire sequence had been improvised by Lupino and Ryan who both wanted a better ending - when none was forthcoming, they at least went for the happy ending rather than watching Lupino and Ryan both self-destruct (the original ending). It may be less cheesy, but it's also not much of a story if there's not really a point, I guess. I dunno. It just felt like the movie was missing 15-20 minutes of story that would have made the final scene feel earned, as we'd say today.
In addition to the Herrmann score, Ryan and Lupino are both in great form here, and I tip my hat to director Nicholas Ray, an actor's director, who does indeed pull off some terrific sequences including Lupino's prayer scene and lets Ryan really show how close his cop is to the edge. Despite weak plotting and what feels like an anemic storyline, we do get some great character work that's a step even for two of whom I consider top notch.
The two actors paired again the next year in Beware, My Lovely, which is sort of an interesting dark reflection of this movie, but both play utterly different characters (instead of trying to catch a lunatic Lupino trusts, Ryan plays a lunatic Lupino sort of trust).
This movie is also rumored to have been co-directed by Lupino - and folks tend to want to believe good things about Lupino, so the story has gotten some traction - but Muller had to clear up that while it is THE final and important sequence, that was the entirety of her contribution. Still - it seems to have given her a taste for life behind the camera.
It is an oddball of a movie in many ways, but for the score and performances, I'd say worth a watch. There's too much that goes unexplored and it does feel truncated, but wanting more, as we say, is sometimes a good problem.
*I have no idea what is up with the cleavage on Lupino in the poster - and it's weirding me out now that I noticed it