On Dangerous Ground

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On Dangerous Ground
Poster - On Dangerous Ground (1952) 01.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Nicholas Ray
Ida Lupino (uncredited)
Produced by John Houseman
Screenplay by A. I. Bezzerides
Nicholas Ray
Based on the novel Mad with Much Heart
by Gerald Butler
Starring Ida Lupino
Robert Ryan
Ward Bond
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Cinematography George E. Diskant
Edited by Roland Gross
Distributed by RKO Pictures
Release date
  • December 17, 1951 (1951-12-17) (United States)
Running time
82 minutes
Country United States
Language English

On Dangerous Ground is a 1951 film noir directed by Nicholas Ray and produced by John Houseman. The screenplay was written by A. I. Bezzerides based on the novel Mad with Much Heart, by Gerald Butler. The drama features Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Ward Bond, and others.


Bitter, cynical police detective, Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), is known for beating information out of suspects and witnesses. His violent tendencies are noticed by both his partners and the police chief. After Wilson ignores the Chief's warnings, he is relegated to a case up-state so that he might cool off. He joins a manhunt for a killer—teaming with the father of the victim, Walter Brent (Ward Bond). Wilson and Brent are separated from the others in the manhunt and track the killer to a remote house.

Initially, they do not locate the killer, but, rather, find Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), a blind woman by herself in the house. They learn that she lives with her brother, Danny (Sumner Williams). Wilson is drawn to Malden and her selflessness and, when he learns that the killer is her brother and that he is mentally ill, he offers to protect him from Brent.

Wilson and then Brent locate Danny in a secluded shack. A fight between Wilson and Brent ensues and Danny flees. They chase him up a rugged mountainside where Danny loses his footing and falls to his death. Brent is shocked by Danny's youth. He carries him back to town. Wilson and Mary walk, alone, to her house where they have an intimate conversation. Wilson drives to the city, but he's a changed man. In the end, he returns to Mary.



Critical response[edit]

New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther found the screenplay a failure that produced poor performances. He wrote, "the story is a shallow, uneven affair, as written by A. I. Bezzerides from Gerald Butler's Mad With Much Heart. The cause of the cop's sadism is only superficially explained, and certainly his happy redemption is easily and romantically achieved. And while a most galling performance of the farmer is given by Ward Bond, Ida Lupino is mawkishly stagey as the blind girl who melts the cop's heart. For all the sincere and shrewd direction and the striking outdoor photography, this R. K. O. melodrama fails to traverse its chosen ground."[3]

Fernando F. Croce, film critic for Slant magazine, liked the film and wrote, "Perched between late-'40s noir and mid-'50s crime drama, this is one of the great, forgotten works of the genre... Easily mushy, the material achieves a nearly transcendental beauty in the hands of Ray, a poet of anguished expression: The urban harshness of the city is contrasted with the austere snowy countryside for some of the most disconcertingly moving effects in all film noir. Despite the violence and the steady intensity, a remarkably pure film."[4]

Critic Dennis Schwartz liked the film and acting in the drama and wrote, "A schematic film noir by Nicholas Ray (They Live by Night) that overcomes its artificial contrivances to become a touching psychological drama about despair and loneliness--one of the best of this sort in the history of film noir... Robert Ryan's fierce performance is superb, as he's able to convincingly assure us he has a real spiritual awakening; while Lupino's gentle character acts to humanize the crime fighter, who has walked on the "dangerous ground" of the city and has never realized before that there could be any other kind of turf until meeting someone as profound and tolerant as Mary."[5]


The film score was composed by Bernard Herrmann (1911–1975). Instrumentation: piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, an English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, tam-tam, bell plate, piano, solo viola d’amore and strings.

Herrmann wanted to use an obscure baroque instrument, the viola d'amore, to symbolize Mary Malden's isolation and loneliness. The sound of the instrument can be heard much of the time she is on-screen. Herrmann was so impressed with viola d'amorist Virginia Majewski's performance that he wanted her credited in the film. Nicholas Ray told him "There aren't enough cards," so Herrmann replied, "Put her on mine." In the film's opening credits, Bernard Herrmann's credit reads, "Music by Bernard Herrmann — Viola d'Amour played by Virginia Majewski." [6]

At the 35:25 mark, listeners can hear a sequence that Herrmann reused in 1957 as the well-known opening theme to the television series Have Gun Will Travel starring Richard Boone. The scoring in the film version is only slightly different from that in the better-known TV theme; the sequence in which this theme appears also contains other fragments of incidental music later adapted for use in the TV show.


  1. ^ "Symphony and Concert -- Records: ". The Boston Globe. December 16, 1951. Last accessed: November 7, 2013.
  2. ^ "Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan In Star Roles". The Christian Science Monitor. December 18, 1951. Last accessed: November 7, 2013.
  3. ^ Crowther,, Bosley (February 13, 1952). "'On Dangerous Ground,' Story of Detective Turned Sadist, Opens at the Criterion". New York Times. Retrieved January 30, 2008. 
  4. ^ Croce, Fernando F. Slant magazine, film review, 2006. Last accessed: January 30, 2008.
  5. ^ Schwartz, Dennis. Ozus' World Movie Reviews, film review, January 30, 2005. Last accessed: January 30, 2008.
  6. ^ Roland Kato, Interview with Virginia Majewski, Newsletter of the Viola d'amore Society of America, Volume 19, Number 2, 1995.

External links[edit]