On Dangerous Ground

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.

On Dangerous Ground
Theatrical release poster
Directed byNicholas Ray
Ida Lupino (uncredited)
Produced byJohn Houseman
Screenplay byA. I. Bezzerides
Nicholas Ray
Based onthe novel Mad with Much Heart
by Gerald Butler
StarringIda Lupino
Robert Ryan
Ward Bond
Music byBernard Herrmann
CinematographyGeorge E. Diskant
Edited byRoland Gross
Distributed byRKO Pictures
Release date
  • December 17, 1951 (1951-12-17) (United States)
Running time
82 minutes
CountryUnited States


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 the murderer of a young girl—teaming up with the father of the victim, Walter Brent (Ward Bond), who is determined to exact deadly vengeance. During a chase, after the murderer is spotted, Wilson and Brent are separated from the others and eventually track the killer to a remote house.

Initially, they do not locate the murderer but 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 the selfless Malden and, when he learns that the murderer is her brother and that he is mentally ill, he agrees to her request that he protect the young man.

Mary knows that Danny is hiding in the storm cellar; she tries to make him understand that there is a man, Wilson, who is a friend to them and that he will take Danny away to be helped. On her way back to the house, Wilson confronts her and, as she is explaining to him that her brother is too frightened right then to be dealt with, Danny flees the cellar.

Wilson trails him to a secluded shack and, though Danny is brandishing a knife, manages to engage him in a conversation which seems to be calming and may be leading to a surrender. Then, Brent bursts in. A fight ensues between the two men; Brent's gun goes off and Danny escapes. The two men 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 to the home of a neighbor of Mary's. Mary arrives, having walked from her home after hearing the gunshot. Later, she and Wilson walk back to her house where they have an intimate conversation. He indicates he would like to stay with her but she insists he leave, not wanting anyone around her merely for sympathy. Wilson drives to the city, but he's a changed man. In the end, he returns to Mary.



Critical response

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.
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