Review: On Dangerous Ground
4 / 5 Stars
Here's an unexpected surprise - the release of a Bernard Herrmann score to a little known film noir from 1952. It's the kind of title that's only familiar to hardcore film noir buffs. Directed by Nicholas Ray, On Dangerous Ground tells the tale of a hard-bitten city cop Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) who pursues a killer out in the countryside. Along the way he falls in love with a blind woman Mary (Ida Lupino) who just happens to be the killer's sister. Although Herrmann wrote scores for many dark dramas, this is the only one he did for a movie that fell well within the film noir genre.
Things get off to a rousing start in the "Prelude" with an aggressive theme that pummels the listener with a horn section, eases back, and then moves in again. It almost feels like you're in a boxing ring. This violent theme pops up throughout the score during the several chase sequences in the film. Although not a chase scene, it's used to great effect early on when Wilson interrogates a slimy little weasel of an informant – Dirty Harry-style. As the informant quietly taunts him, a low ominous note accompanies Wilson's fists clenching up. As the informant quickly realizes he's about to enter a world of pain, he tries to make a break for it. Wilson corners him in the small dark hotel room and delivers his great line, "Why do you make me do it? You know you're gonna talk - I'm gonna make you talk. I always make you punks talk! Why? Why?" As Wilson lays into him, the music punctuates each off-screen hit. The cue is only 30 seconds long but it works beautifully.
As Wilson and the murder victim's father Brent (Ward Bond) give chase to the killer, they wind up at tiny house inhabited by Mary. Melancholy strings accompany the growing relationship between Wilson and Mary over several cues. Herrmann does a great job at expressing the quiet desperation of these two lonely souls. Without Herrmann's deft touch, the change within Wilson from a hard-nosed shell of a man to a compassionate human being would not be believable. Even when Mary quietly confesses to Wilson that her brother is the killer on "The Whispering", the tender music never descends into obvious corniness. Another great cue is "The Winter Walk", as Wilson quietly takes Mary back home after she prays over her dead brother's body. With clarinets and violins, the music understates the quiet tension between the two and the solemn dignity of Mary's sorrow.
One word about the recording presented on this CD release. The audio quality of the surviving sources used for this CD was not in the best shape. All the cues are taken from old acetate playback discs and as such there is a great deal of surface noise and scratches. In the liner notes both producer Lukas Kendall and his engineer Doug Schwartz go to great lengths in justifying their creative choices in putting together this release. In short, removing the surface noise would have adversely affected the sound quality of the music. They chose to strike a balance in cleaning up some of the noise yet doing as much as they could to preserve the music's timbre and tone. I, for one, completely agree with their approach. It's better to preserve the original sound than alter it to make it sound 'clean'. Because the music is so good, it's easy to listen beyond the scratches and noise and appreciate the music presented as close as to the way it was.
Technical issues aside, this is an excellent score by Herrmann and a must have for film noir fans. Praise must also be given to both Film Score Monthly and Turner Classic Movies Music for going out of their way to actually put out a score for a film that was never popular or that well-known. With this CD release, hopefully the DVD release of the film will not be far behind.
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