Thursday, August 7, 2008

Nicholas Ray, 1911-1979

August 7 marks the birth anniversary of director Nicholas Ray. In his honor, our movie for today will be his 1952 movie On Dangerous Ground.

Robert Ryan stars as a policeman in the big city. The only thing is, he's nearing the end of his rope, and as a result, he gets a bit violent with the suspects. His bosses finally get so sick and tired of this that they tell him it's in his own best interests that he go up to the mountains for a spell, where he immediately gets involved in a murder investigation. One of the first people he meets is Ward Bond, who is the father of the murder victim, and as such is just about as angry as Ryan, albeit for different reasons. The two, as part of their investigation, eventually end up at the isolated farmhouse of one Ida Lupino. They quickly discover that she's blind, which means that she must have somebody helping her around -- and it seems fairly clear to them that this person, Lupino's brother, is a good bet to be the murderer.

You can probably guess the conflict. The father is out for blood and would be perfectly happy to kill the young man, who is of course in hiding. Ryan can't allow this to happen, partly for professional reasons, since it's bad enough that his violent temper has already gotten him sent out of his normal job. There's also the practical consideration that they're going to need Lupino's help to find the killer -- and the requisite element of romance. While Ward Bond has been too busy being blinded by rage, Robert Ryan has been looking at Lupino and seeing her inner beauty. All this leads to the climax of the two men eventually finding the killer, with the requisite suspense of finding out which of the two is effectively going to get his way.

In some ways, On Dangerous Ground is like two movies in one, in that there's a hard-boiled police drama at the start, and an almost melodramatic thriller in the second half. But Ray's direction, combined with some fine black-and-white cinematography in the mountain scenes, help put to rest any idea that this might be a flaw. It's helped by the fact that Ryan is able to play both sides of his policeman well. Ida Lupino is superb as the blind woman, while Ward Bond is more than adequate as the enraged father of the murder victim.

On Dangerous Ground was a fairly low-budget movie, and was largely forgotten at the time of its release. It took half a century before it got a second look by the critics, who now tend to rate it even more highly than I do. (Not that I don't like it; it's more that if I give it a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10, the critics and auteur-types of today give it an 11.) It's available on DVD, too, so you don't have to wait for TCM to show it.

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