Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > ON DANGEROUS GROUND – Bernard Herrmann

ON DANGEROUS GROUND – Bernard Herrmann


Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1951 director Nicholas Ray had just wrapped up shooting the WWII action film “The Flying Leathernecks” and decided that his next project would a film noir melodrama based on the 1945 novel “Mad With Much Heart” by Gerald Butler. RKO Pictures executives were initially resistant, finding the novel “unpleasant and uncommercial”, but were ultimately persuaded by Ray’s vision and passion. John Houseman was assigned production and A. I. Bezzerides was tasked with adapting Butler’s novel and writing the screenplay. For the cast, Ray hired Ida Lupino as Mary Malden, Robert Ryan as Jim Wilson, and Ward Bond as Walter Brent.

Jim Wilson, who is an inner-city police detective, has become embittered by his profession, which requires constant interaction with the worst of society. His inner rage can no longer be contained and he often beats suspects and witnesses alike. His boss reassigns him to an upstate, rural case that involves a manhunt for a man who murdered a young girl. He is joined by the girl’s unhinged father who is resolved on revenge. Their trail leads to a remote house where they meet a blind woman named Mary. In time she opens up to Wilson that her brother, who is hiding in the basement, is the suspect She says he suffers from a mental disorder and pleads for mercy so he may be treated. Wilson agrees but an enraged Walter disrupts the plan causing Danny to flee and ultimately die falling off a cliff. Mary absolves Jim of Danny’s death and he departs full of regret, but also the realization that he has fallen in love with Mary. He returns to her and they both realize that they need each other. Critical response was mixed, but over time the film has earned praise for its intensity and acting performances. It received no Academy Award nominations.

Producer John Houseman brought in Bernard Herrmann who he had collaborated with in the 1930s during his stint co-managing Orson Wells Mercury Theater. Herrmann was most eager for the assignment and realized upon viewing the film that it offered a powerful narrative filled with violence, rage, and alienation, which ends with love and personal redemption. The emotional contrast and the intersection of tragedy and redemption offered fertile ground, which he would intensify musically. The film is rendered in two Acts, the first offering rage, alienation and pursuit of vengeance, and the second offering reconciliation, redemption and love. Herrmann chose to intensify these polarities musically, composing a scherzo feroce to speak to the violence and quest for vengeance, that would be juxtaposed by a redemptive Love Theme.

Herrmann was renowned for his capacity to understand the psychology of a film’s characters, and the overt, and covert emotional drivers for their behavior. For this soundscape, Herrmann provides just one primary theme, Mary’s Theme. It offers five-note phrasing by viola d’amore, which supports her identity, but later blossoms into a molto romantico love theme when Jim returns to her. There is sadness in the notes as she is encumbered by difficult circumstances being blind, and taking care of her mentally disturbed young brother. Herrmann masterfully captures her very essence within the notes of her yearning theme. Danny has a motif, consisting of odd, repeating, three-note phrases, which ever shift among an array of woodwinds. It never develops or resolves reflecting his mental illness. The rest of the score is dominated by ominous, aggressive, and violently jagged motifs. The repeating four-note Anger Motif is woven within the score’s tapestry, often empowering its brutality and driving its violence. The rest of the score offers a number of brilliantly conceived set pieces, with each perfectly attenuated to the film’s narrative.

“Prelude” offers a trademark dramatic Herrmann main title. It launches the RKO Pictures studio logo and then flow of the opening credits against New York City streets at night, with a tempesta feroce buttressed by horns bellicoso and percussive violence. Woven within the harsh fits and starts of the strident musical narrative is the four-note Anger Motif growling fiercely like a rabid dog. At 1:19 a diminuendo carries us into the film proper and ushers in foreboding horn calls with a muted trumpet counter. We see Pete strapping on his pistol harness and as his girl assists, source music plays on the radio. “Solitude” offers another score highlight. It reveals Jim studying a collection of mug shots in his apartment and Herrmann’s uses a solo trumpet dolente and a retinue of strings doloroso to inform us of the emptiness and loneliness of his life. A car horn elicits him to leave as he joins his teammates carpool to the precinct station.

“Violence” reveals Jim being taunted by a suspect named Bernie in his apartment. He succeeds in triggering Jim who says “Why do you make me do it?” As rage swells in his eyes, anger builds on low menacing low register horns and woodwinds. The Anger Motif is unleashed at 0:05 atop dire horns joined at 0:21 by a tempest of violence empowered by anvil strikes as he pummels Bernie without mercy. As they unload Bernie at the station, Jim pummels him again and is ordered to go home. “Nocturne” supports Jim’s walk home and Herrmann speaks to his bitterness, loneliness and dissatisfaction with his life, using a nocturne borne by strings tristi, and woodwinds of woe with harp adornment. A wistful trumpet joins at 0:59 as he examines a high school trophy “Best All-Round Athlete and says – “Who Cares.”

In three unscored scenes, the next day in an unscored scene his boss Captain Brawley who reports a civil lawsuit has been lodged by Bernie’s attorney because of a ruptured bladder. He warns Jim his job is on the line if there is another incident. Yet that night Jim pistol whips a suspect and is reprimanded by Pop saying he could lose his job. Jim’s response is “What type of a job is this anyway? Garbage. That’s all we handle. Garbage!” A paternal Pop gives him some tough love and they depart. In the morning Jim reports to Captain Brawley’s office. He dresses him down and orders him to leave town to cool off, working on a murder case upstate in Westham. “Pastorale” offers a beautiful score highlight. An oboe borne pastorale leads a retinue of strings gentile, and kindred woodwinds with harp adornment. As we see Jim driving upstate. At 1:01 the harp becomes more prominent as Herrmann shifts to a misterioso. Jim joins Sherriff Carey, and we observe a dog team on the scent hunting the suspect. At 1:50 grim, portentous horns resound, joined by a grim bassoon as they arrive at Brent’s farm, the murdered girl’s home. They meet her father Walter, who is hostile, seething with rage and determined to kill the man with his gun – an externalization of what Jim may become if he continues the path he is on.

“Hunt Scherzo” offers an amazing score highlight with some of Herrmann’s most creative writing. He shows how music can really drive a film’s narrative with this cue. Walter’s son arrives, says the man is running towards Sully’s, and they all set out in pursuit, joining the posse and dogs. Herrmann propels the chase with a scherzo empowered by muted horn declarations, answered by kindred horns as an echo. Strings bellicoso join the fray, intensifying the music’s energy and offering a new rendering of the ever-shifting echo effect. Woven within the music are contrasting interludes of a misterioso, which heighten the drama, such as at 1:14 when they find fresh tracks. The suspect jumps out of a tree as they approach at 1:42 and the hunt scherzo reenergizes, only to again subside in an eerie misterioso as new tracks are found. At 1:56 the scherzo resumes as an enraged Walter charges ahead and Jim in his street shoes struggle to keep up in the deep snow. At 2:18 a diminuendo supports them coming to a hill overlooking the town. We see a man thrown to the ground and his car stolen by the suspect. At 2:28 the scherzo supports their charge down the hill and we end with uncertainty as they question the man.

We flow seamlessly into “Snowstorm”, a tour de force score highlight, carried by descending, grim, repeating statements of the Anger Motif as the crazed and unhinged Walter convinces Jim to commandeer a car so they can pursue. At 0:36 swirling strings furioso propel the two pursuing the killer in the car. Slowly the music loses much of its kinetic force as they enter a snowstorm. The now muted swirling string motif continues, but does so entwined with an ethereal misterioso. At 1:34 a series of string surges support the car sliding on the icy roads, as Jim struggles to balance speed and safety. At 1:49 a crescendo di terrore surges as they come across a car wreck and Jim crashes into the embankment to avoid it. At 2:07 we segue into “The Silence” as we see Walter exit the car as Jim lays unconscious over the steering wheel. Herrmann sows unsettling tension and mystery atop repeating phrases by eerie shimmering strings and grim woodwinds. Walter finds the car, opens the passenger door and fires point blank, intent on murdering the killer, but the car is empty. He trudges up a hill, with the now awake Jim following. At 3:04 the Scherzo Hunt Motif resumes, empowered by woodwinds, but without its kinetic ferocity as they discover tracks in the snow and resume their pursuit. We close grimly as Jim points out a light from a house in the distance.

“The House” reveals the men warily approaching the house supported by repeating statements of the Anger Motif borne by muted foreboding horns with answering string. They knock and are greeted gently by Mary. Walter is agitated and aggressive insisting the man they are tracking must have come here. Jim is mor diplomatic, and Mary agrees to let them come in and see for themselves that she is alone. Walter is agitated and suspicious of why Mary is in a house with all the lights turned off. She apologizes and directs them to a table lamp and we flow into “Blindness” a beautiful score highlight, and one of the most eloquent compositions in Herrmann’s canon. We are graced by an exquisite soliloquy of Mary’s Theme expressed tenderly by a solo viola d’amore with harp adornment. We discern sadness woven within the tapestry of the melody, which speaks to the burden she faces with her blindness, and mentally disturbed brother.

In “Fright” Walter and then Jim finds men’s clothing upstairs. Walter swells with anger, accuses her of hiding him, as he is not convinced, she is blind. Violins surge and voice pain as Walter’s effort to slap Mary is deflected forcefully by Jim, who understands that she is blind. A diminuendo of sadness follows, as the two men depart to search the barn and remaining buildings. At 0:24 as Walter at last admits that she is blind, her theme borne by viola d’amore reprises and supports their search as we see Mary displaying body language, which suggest anxiety. At 0:51 muted French horns join as they search the barn, and Jim advises he is going to search other buildings on the lot. Foreboding woodwinds supports Jim’s departure, while Mary’s tender theme supports camera scenes of her in the house caressing the mirror, and then her face. At 1:38 we see her clearly anxious as her theme darkens, becomes aching and dissipates into despair as she greets the opening of the door with “Danny”, when it is really Jim. In “Faith” Jim tells her not to be afraid. Music enters exquisitely carried by refulgent, yearning violins voicing a sad romanticism as he asks if she is lonely living here, and she responds no, and then asks if he would be lonely living in a place like this. He answers, yes, he would. She counters that a city can be lonely too, and that sometimes, people who are never alone, are the loneliest. We discern nascent feelings of attraction arising between the two, which Herrmann voices at 0:38 when her theme borne by viola d’amore with harp adornment reprises warmly as she asks to touch his hand and he offers it. She says you are cold as she caresses his hand and offers to make him a warm drink.

“The Searching Heart” offers a molto romantico score highlight with one of the finest melodic compositions of Herrmann’s canon. Mary thanks him for not offering pity for her blindness and encourages him to rest by the fire and stay the night as it is too late and dark to search. She asks his name, he replies Jim Wilson and she approaches him, gently caresses the contours of his face, and then states if only she could see, she would know whether to trust him. We clearly see Jim is now attracted to her and her theme’s exquisite romanticism, blossoming as the viola d’amore is joined by kindred strings romantico to creates a beautiful and moving cinematic confluence. Mary drops all pretenses and says her brother Danny has mental problems. She pleads for his safety, saying Brent will kill him, while you would ensure his safety. He promises that within his power, he will protect Danny and insists she tell him where he is before Brent finds him. An angry Brent enters, disparages Jim as a ‘city cop’, and we flow into “The Whispering”, another evocative score highlight. Brent sits down by the fire and Jim offers him a brandy, and then drapes a blanket over his shoulders, the first friendly moment between the men. Herrmann supports with a very moving passage with an exquisite tête-à-tête between a solo cello triste and bassoon.

“Dawn” reveals the next day with the sun rising over a hill and Mary getting out of bed. Herrmann graces us with refulgent strings tranquilly and auras of ethereal wonder. A wailing oboe triste joins as we see her carrying a sandwich down the stairs. At 0:40 tension enters as Jim sees her sneak outside. At 1:01 a grim foreboding bassoon supports Jim removing the shells from his shotgun. The musical narrative darkens with violins cycling atop abyssal bassoon as Jim returns the gun to Brent’s lap. At 1:40 we segue into “The Idiot” atop clarinet and kindred woodwinds as Mary offers a frightened Danny food, and reassures him he will not be killed if she trusts her. She counsels him to stay and go with a man they can trust, someone who will not hurt you. Herrmann offers a well-conceived, dissociated woodwind narrative, buttressed with dire strings, which speaks to Danny’s troubled psyche. At 3:17 we segue into “Fear/The Cabin” atop strings grave, which usher in Mary’s aggrieved Theme as she makes her way back to the cabin. Danny’s woodwind motif joins in interplay as Jim intercepts her as she pleads for him to protect Danny. Danny bolts from the cellar, and Jim pursues up the rocky hill. At 4:02 a crescendo on Mary’s Theme borne by tortured strings supports the pursuit. At 4:21 the Hunt Scherzo reprises and swells ominously as Jim tracks Dany’s trail in the snow. We conclude on a diminuendo as Jim reaches the hilltop cabin, and approaches by stealth. He enters the cabin, filled with toys and finds Danny. He tries to calm and reassure the boy and appears to be making progress.

“The Death Hunt” offers a tour de force and perhaps Herrmann’s greatest action cue. Brent bursts in aims his shotgun to kill but it is swatted away by Jim. Danny bolts as Jim and Brent fight. Jim manages to retrieve the shotgun and flings it outside down the hillside. Then he and Brent set out in hot pursuit. Herrmann supports with a driving, kinetic orchestral tempest expressed dynamically with an angry declarative orchestral furioso statement answered by a choir of mixed staccato horns – some unmuted, some muted. Strings irato, flutter-tongue horns and anvil strikes join the mayhem creating a truly ferocious musical narrative. They catch up to Danny who begins a desperate climb up a rocky hill. At 2:14 we segue into “The Hunt’s End” atop wailing horns of desperation as Danny struggle to escape, loses his grip and falls to his doom at 2:20, his death marked by a chord of death as Brent and Jim look down in shock. As they climb down to the body, Herrmann supports the grim aftermath with dire woodwind figures and harsh answering drum strikes. They reach Danny, and when Jim turns him over, Brent says with disbelief – “He’s just a kid.” As Brent picks the boy up and carries him home in his arms, a harsh dirge full of regret empowered by dire low register strings, drum strikes and muted trumpets, carries their progress. The music swells and becomes dire after 3:25, but is dialed out of the film as Mr. Willow joins them, and Jim sets off to bring Mary the bad news. Ray evidently wanted just the dialogue to carry Jim walking to meet her.

“Grief” reveals Mary realizing that Danny is dead before Jim can utter a word. Strings affanato and horns a lutto voice her pain, her mournful theme rendered, as she and Jim walk back to the house. The musical narrative softens as she reaches him and gently caresses his hair. In (*) “Mary Prays” she prays to God, asking him “To forgive him as you have forgiven all your children who have sinned.” Herrmann supports her anguish with an aching viola d’amore bearing her theme. The theme carries her outside as she walks past the men and out into the fields. We flow into “The Winter Walk” a poignant score highlight as Jim takes her gently by the arm and walks by her side. Herrmann supports their walk with a beautiful threnody borne by violins affanato and woodwinds a lutto. She returns home, walks to a chair by the fireplace, and sits with sad resignation as we hear Jim enter.

“The Parting” offers a heart-breaking score highlight. It reveals Jim trying to console her, yet she cuts him off, and says it was not his fault. She reveals that Danny was her eyes, who brought the whole world to her – bouquets of flowers, branches from trees, so she could feel them. He asks if she will now get treatment for her eyes, and offers his assistance. Yet she becomes distraught, rejecting his pity, and asking him to please leave as she stumbles and falls. Jim comes to her and Herrmann supports with crying violins answered by aching woodwinds full of anguish, as she pleads with him to go. At 0:17 Mary’s Theme, joins as she caresses his face one last time as she asks him again to please go as the viola d’amore weeps, now shorn of all hope, and overcome with despair. Her theme carries him outside where Brent offers him a lift back to his car. “The Return” reveals Brent driving him to his car at his farm. Aching violins, full of longing usher in Mary’s Theme at 0:39 as we see her lingering in his thoughts. “The City” opens with tremolo strings and a grim soundscape, which support a montage of scenes revealing a contemplative Jim driving home. His vacant expression informs us of the emptiness, and loneliness of the life to which he is returning.

“An Epiphany” reveals Mary’s voice entering his mind and reprising; “Sometimes, people who are never alone, are the loneliest”, this is soon joined by Pop’s admonition; “The way you are going, you won’t be good to anybody, not even yourself! To get anything out of this life you have to put something into it, from your heart!” Herrmann supports with yearning strings tristi, that offer a musical narrative, which lays bare a life to which he cannot return. In “Finale” the first forty-six seconds of the cue were dialed out of the film and feature an ominous soundscape led by dark horns. Synchrony with the film begins at 0:47 as woodwinds tenero and strings delicato voice her theme and support his return as he enters her house and calls out, Mary. The music remains warm, but is tentative as she walks downstairs to him, reaching out for his hand. As she grasps his hand a molto romantico crescendo d’Amore blossoms as they embrace and kiss. The Love Theme soars as the camera pans the cloud swept skies atop a snow-covered pine forest. We conclude at 2:12 with a grand flourish as “The End” displays.

I commend Intrada, William Stromberg, and Anna Stromberg for this exceptional re-recording of Bernard Herrmann’s riveting score to “On Dangerous Ground”. The recording offers excellent audio quality, and the performance of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under William Stromberg’s baton is peerless. I commend their efforts and hope for additional projects in the future. Herrmann throughout his career used succinct, repeating, malleable motifs, which he would shift, modify and interplay, eschewing long-lined Steineresque melodies. This score provides an enduring testament to his masterful use of his signature style, offering harsh, jagged and relentless aggression. Cues such as “Hunt Scherzo”, “Snowstorm” and “Death Hunt” offer some of the most violent and ferocious action music of his distinguished career, if not the Golden Age. Juxtaposed is Mary’s Theme, which speaks to her tenderness, but also her vulnerability and isolation. Herrmann chose a viola d’amore, a rare instrument whose warmth and sweetness graced us with exquisite beauty. Sadness and yearning are woven within her melody, and brilliant is how Herrmann transmutes it during the film’s finale where it blossoms into a soaring love theme. Beautiful set pieces such as “Blindness”, “The Searching Heart, “Nocturne” and “Pastorale” fill in the soundscape, offering eloquent respites from the film’s violence. Folks, this epitomic score offers an enduring testament of Bernard Herrmann’s distinctive and unique style of film scoring. The conception and execution of his music here is flawless, and I believe responsible for elevating, if not transcending this film. I highly recommend you purchase this quality album, which offers two of Herrmann’s lesser-known scores. I also advocate that you support future Kick-starter projects by Intrada and the Strombergs who provide an invaluable service in fostering film score art.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to a live performance of “Death Hunt”; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DebI1gefKA

Buy the On Dangerous Ground soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prelude (1:42)
  • Solitude (1:17)
  • Violence (0:32)
  • Nocturne (2:12)
  • Pastorale (2:13)
  • Hunt Scherzo (2:51)
  • Snowstorm & The Silence (3:42)
  • The House (0:49)
  • Blindness (3:33)
  • Fright (2:02)
  • Faith (1:55)
  • The Searching Heart (1:30)
  • The Whispering (1:05)
  • Dawn, The Idiot, Fear & The Cabin (5:29)
  • The Death Hunt & The Hunt’s End (4:25)
  • Grief (0:58)
  • The Winter Walk (1:28)
  • The Parting (1:14)
  • The Return (1:07)
  • The City (0:38)
  • Finale (2:36)

Running Time: 44 minutes 05 seconds

Intrada INT7176 (1951/2023)

Music composed by Bernard Herrmann. Conducted by William Stromberg. Performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra . Original orchestrations by Bernard Herrmann. Recorded and mixed by Mike Ross-Trevor. Score produced by Bernard Herrmann. Album produced by Douglass Fake.

  1. John Steven Lasher
    May 9, 2023 at 6:58 pm

    I’m sorry to offer a spoiler here, but I don’t think this is a particularly memorable recording, particularly as regards the conducting. The messy, poorly executed “Death Hunt” cue is a case in point. If you compare the Intrada recording with either the Charles Gerhardt/NPO or the the Esa-Pekka/LA Phil recordings you will understand where I am coming from.

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