UCLA Unearths Ray’s Neglected ‘On Dangerous Ground’


In addition to the constant flow of retrospectives and series, the UCLA Film Archive from time to time dips into its vaults to present a double feature just for the fun of it. Tuesday’s offering (at 8 p.m. in Melnitz Theater) is a pair of obscure 1951 films noir by two celebrated directors, Nicholas Ray and E. A. Dupont.

The first, Ray’s “On Dangerous Ground,” is a revelation, an unjustly neglected stunner, while the second, Dupont’s “The Scarf,” is an entertaining curiosity. Both films have their seedy nighttime city streets with their cheap bars, yet both are set mainly in isolated rural areas, atypical for the film noir with its signature flashing neon glare. Their pristine prints remind us how glorious black-and-white could be.

Considering Ray’s cult status, it is mystifying that “On Dangerous Ground,” which he and A. I. Bezzerides adapted from Gerald Butler’s novel “Mad With Much Heart,” is not as well-known as such other Ray films noir as “They Live by Night” (1948) and “In a Lonely Place” (1950). Working with two virtuosos, cinematographer George E. Diskant and the great film composer Bernard Herrmann, Ray hurtles us into the alienated world of a big-city police detective (Robert Ryan), a loner so embittered by 11 years on the force that he’s beginning to undermine his effectiveness by his increasingly violent physical abuse of suspects. Eager to get him out of town for awhile, his chief (Ed Begley) gives him a lecture and sends him to the snowy countryside to help track down the unknown killer of a young girl.

“On Dangerous Ground” develops into a confrontation, as unexpected for us as it is for the detective himself, between two very different kinds of lonely people: a rage-filled city man who trusts no one and a gentle country woman (Ida Lupino) who, because of her near-total blindness, feels she must trust everyone. The impact of Lupino upon Ryan is dizzying, and because Ray is working with people as talented as he is, he manages a shift from violence and anger to love and tenderness with an effect that is at once convincing and profoundly romantic.


From start to finish, the film is breathtakingly dynamic, so much so that it seems amazingly fresh for all its genre conventions. The subtlety, richness and poignancy of Herrmann’s score makes it easy to understand why it is said that he considered it his favorite.

If “On Dangerous Ground” is a major discovery, “The Scarf” is at least a fascinating minor work by the director of “Variety” (1925), a landmark in the German Expressionist cinema, and the lesser-known but dazzling British-made “Piccadilly” (1929), with Cyril Ritchard, Gilda Gray, Anna May Wong and Charles Laughton.

“The Scarf,” which Dupont wrote as well as directed, is surprisingly verbose for a director who began in silents. In any event, it is a highly contrived tale that finds an amnesiac convict (John Ireland) escaping from a prison for the criminally insane in an attempt to discover whether he really strangled his sweetheart or not. He’s given shelter by a crusty desert hermit (James Barton). The film reflects the postwar fascination with psychiatric theory, then applied very literally--at least on the screen.

Still, Ireland manages to stay natural, and there’s enough of the flavorful Barton presence--usually his screen appearances were briefer than here--to give us an idea of what his Hickey in the original production of “The Iceman Cometh” must have been like. Mercedes McCambridge and Emlyn Williams are another matter, however. McCambridge is extravagantly miscast, truly terrible and a total camp as a tough singing bar waitress--"Detour’s” Ann Savage might just have gotten away with the role. Williams is painfully obvious as an insinuating psychologist obsessed with feathers; incredibly, he and Ireland were originally set to play each other’s role. Information: (213) 206-FILM, 206-8013.


“Evangelust,” veteran independent film maker George Kuchar’s outrageous, 35-minute 1987 spoof of Tammy and Jim Bakker, will be presented Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at EZTV, 8547 Santa Monica Blvd., with Kuchar in attendance. It’s Kuchar’s proven mix of sweaty sex and scatological humor, the right approach to people who are already caricatures. Information: (213) 657-1532.