Monday, October 24, 2011

People Who Are Never Alone

It’s possible that I’ve mentioned it in the past, but over the past year or so I’ve developed an odd attachment to the Open All Night bumper on TCM, the one shown before one of their late movies, and it’s gotten to the point where my evening doesn’t feel entirely complete if I haven’t seen it shortly before going to sleep. Consisting of a series of mostly black & white shots depicting downtown life during the late hours, a few of which are recognizable from certain films, it sometimes make me want to leave my apartment, in search of my own personal noir experience as I sit at the counter of a diner drinking coffee in an attempt to somehow fight off sleep. I’m not sure if Fred 62 or House of Pies would really be appropriate for what that vibe demands but I guess those places are there if I ever need them at that hour. But instead of doing that I usually just lie there with TCM staying on, wondering about what I’m not doing in life and just watch what’s on, letting whatever decades-old movie that’s playing take its effect. I prefer it when the film is something even slightly resembling a noir. It just seems right for the hour. On one particular evening recently I was lying there, in bed earlier than usual, feeling like I was on the verge of soon being half-asleep but not quite there yet. Nicholas Ray’s 1952 film ON DANGEROUS GROUND came on, one that I’d seen before. But then it started and I wondered, wait, have I seen this film? And if I haven’t, what movie am I thinking of? And what am I watching, anyway? Is it a noir? Is it a straight drama? A love story? Is it something else altogether? At 82 minutes, is it the shortest epic about a man’s true nature ever made? Is it the longest short film about an event in a man’s life, one which reveals who he really is? I’m not even sure where the film is supposed to be set, where this world Robert Ryan occupies and is sent away from is supposed to be. It looks like New York, I’d imagine it’s supposed to be New York, but when he’s sent ‘upstate’ as it’s referred to in dialogue, the wide open vistas don’t resemble any part of upstate New York I ever knew (apparently location work was done in Colorado, which sounds unusual for the time—I was guessing they shot it up in the Sierra Nevadas). Maybe it’s not supposed to be anywhere specific…it’s just the ‘upstate’ that can be found when you drive away from any of those nameless big cities which exist only in black & white that films like ON DANGEROUS GROUND are set in. The ones which are playing continuously in my head as I sleep, dreaming of that Open All Night bumper on TCM.

Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is a cop, part of a squad who are being pressed by their captain to find the culprits in a gas station robbery that resulted in a fellow officer being killed. He goes about his business while displaying all the ruthlessness he has bubbling up inside him as he continues his investigation but when one beat down that he gives out goes a little too far, to get him out of the way for a bit his boss sends him to the quieter reaches of upstate (“Siberia” as Jim calls it) where help has been requested after a murdered girl was found. But after encountering the murdered girl’s enraged father (Ward Bond) and chasing down a possible culprit the path they take leads them to the remote cabin of a blind woman named Mary Malden (Ida Lupino) who herself has more secrets and revelations than Jim could have possibly realized.

“I don’t like being alone,” are just about the first lines of dialogue heard in ON DANGEROUS GROUND, spoken by somebody we never even see again. Not much happens in the way of plot for a very long stretch at the beginning, or at least not the sort of plot which might be expected. We follow around Robert Ryan’s Jim Wilson as he does his job, looking for these cop killers. He ignores a good-looking floozy (Nita Talbot, quite stunning) in a bar who’s almost certainly underage and gets the bartender to throw her out. He roughs up an innocent guy on the street who matches a description. He responds to the friendly interest a girl who works at a soda fountain shows in him with good spirits but doesn’t pay much attention to her. He pummels a possible informant repeatedly, but not before chillingly taunting him by asking, “Why do you make me do it? 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 do you do it? WHY? WHY?” Shortly after we witness this, he shares a friendly moment with a paperboy in front of his building when he finally arrives home at the end of the night. Alone in his tiny apartment he pauses to glance at his Best All-Round Athlete trophy, no doubt from long ago, then he tries scrubbing his hands clean, as if he desperately wants to wash away the filth of what he knows he just did, fully aware that he’s not going to succeed. He’s under the command of a captain played with the expected bluster by Ed Begley who seems as interested in the food he’s being served at a restaurant for lunch as much as anything. With all this swirling around him Jim Wilson doesn’t seem to know anymore what point there is to what he’s doing. He’s alone. “What kind of a job is this anyway? Garbage, that’s all we handle, garbage!” he cries to someone who doesn’t care what he has to say. And with no one to strap his gun holster in for him at the start of the night he doesn’t have anything else other than that garbage.

Jim Wilson is probably in an even worse mental place than Bogart's Dixon Steele in Ray’s IN A LONELY PLACE. This is a man who’s going to explode, no doubt about it. Everyone around him knows this. When he’s sent off to deal with this case in the middle of nowhere it feels like a jolt to the film as if the plot (Screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides based on an adaption by Bezzerides and Ray of the novel ‘Mad With Much Heart’ by Gerald Butler) which has been building gradually suddenly gets hijacked for an unexpected detour. After some time running around in the snowy wilderness with Ward Bond as the enraged father of the murdered girl (for a few minutes it feels as if the conflict between the two of them might actually be the focus) we stumble into something else altogether involving the introduction of Ida Lupino’s character (a surprisingly late entrance for one of the leads of such a short film) and Wilson seems as taken aback by her as we might be. Who is this woman? What movie is this, anyway? ON DANGEROUS GROUND feels dreamlike and strangely, hauntingly real at the same time, aided by a stunning score by Bernard Herrmann, some of which clearly looks forward to his work on NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Even some of the early section set in the city, obviously done on the backlot, feels somewhat different with a few points-of-view shots taken from a car that feel unusual for the time, allowing for camerawork that is surprisingly adventurous. The fatalistic tone is such that even if the time spent in the city doesn’t take place entirely at night it still feels like it does—a night that I suspect never ends for Jim Wilson while he’s there, contrasted with the wide open feel of the second half. Suddenly we’re in an environment that is beautiful yet cold, harsh and unwelcoming yet what winds up happening couldn’t be more the opposite of that, with every single moment involving the almost otherworldly vibe given off by Ida Lupino in her cottage being almost unspeakably beautiful.

It’s almost impossible to imagine this woman existing anywhere else than that cottage. And even if she’s not entirely forthcoming at first with more than a few of her own secrets that she doesn’t want to discuss, it’s as if she’s the beacon of all that is pure in the universe. “Sometimes people who are never alone are the loneliest. Don’t you think so?” she asks Wilson. “I don’t know, I’ve never thought it out,” is his reply and it’s hard to believe he ever would have but I just love that piece of phrasing which seems to indicate she’s hitting him in a soft spot and he’s not sure how to respond to it, how to act with this woman who’s got his number, not hearing any pity in his voice as he’s forced for once to be a professional against the fury of Ward Bond’s enraged father seeking vengeance. She’s blind but it’s as if he desperately wants her to see him and, in a way, she can although she seems to have shut herself off from the world as much as he has, instead choosing to live through the brother she’s desperately trying to hide from these men. “You don’t have to be afraid,” he tells her at one point which could almost be what they’re saying to each other in every sentence, finding their way towards what it’s like to not be alone. The desolation doesn’t feel like any other movie from this period and this section is so moving in its dreamlike qualities that I almost don’t know what to say about it. The sheer weight of emotion that is felt doesn’t really resemble any other movie either. Even the pain clearly shown by a briefly seen young girl over her murdered friend is palpable. Isn’t this supposed to be just a B noir? Not according to Nicholas Ray, I suppose.

With the brief running time it’s hard to avoid the feeling that some of the film does seem truncated (apparently due to tinkering involving Howard Hughes, then in charge of RKO) and the manhunt plot is wrapped up earlier than might be expected. But it’s the aftermath to that manhunt which really turns out to matter, lingering on certain moments involving the haunting image of the two stars in frame together doing nothing but walking, which leads to an ending that feels necessary yet I’m still not completely sure how I feel about it--some reports have reshoots being directed by Lupino and whether this is true or not I do wonder if the final moments could have maybe had a slightly more tentative feel to them. But the emotion holds—even the Ward Bond’s brute is allowed to display a certain amount of compassion in the end in how he regards Ryan. “I don’t like being alone,” went that line spoken at the beginning. Sometimes it’s a difficult thing to say to another person. Sometimes it might be the most important thing to admit of all.

I’m almost tempted to say that this might be my favorite Robert Ryan performance—when a few others like ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW come to mind it’s not such an easy choice to make but regardless there’s an intensity to what he does here that is much more palpable, that lets you feel the bitterness and the quiver in his voice while still letting the inherently decent person that’s deep down there somewhere show through somehow. Ida Lupino is remarkable as well—a figure of mystery who maybe because of how disarming she is reveals more than is apparent at first and her determination visible in her presence draws you to her every time she’s in frame, doing more with those eyes than I can almost believe. There are moments throughout from some of the other actors that work very well--Ward Bond’s fury, Ed Begley asking for more peas in that restaurant, Joan Taylor as Hazel, the friendly girl behind the soda counter. But it’s Ryan and Lupino in the frame together which makes the film, which matters most of all.

TCM has been running various films directed by Nicholas Ray in celebration of the centennial of his birth and one thing that ON DANGEROUS GROUND makes clear, even if there were changes made along the way, is the undeniable feel of emotion that comes through. There's something to the level of spirituality in this man rediscovering who he is, of why he is, making this film more than I can imagine it would have been in anyone else’s hands. “What difference does it make?” someone asks late in the film about how long something might have taken. And really, what difference does it ever make? What does it matter how alone we are? That late night response I had to ON DANGEROUS GROUND feels personal. I’m not even sure if I ever want to watch it with someone else, let alone among people in a crowded theater. You never know when they’re going to start laughing. And maybe it should only be watched late at night, via TCM or otherwise. It should be watched alone. And never lonely.

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