GERALD BUTLER – Mad with Much Heart. Rinehart & Co., hardcover, 1946. Originally published in the UK by Jarrolds, hardcover, 1945.

ON DANGEROUS GROUND. RKO, 1952. Robert Ryan, Ida Lupino, Ward Bond, Sumner Williams, Charles Kemper, Ed Begley, Ian Wolfe, Cleo Moore and Olive Carey. Screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides and Nicholas Ray. Directed by Nicholas Ray. Currently available for streaming on TCM.

    I was much impressed with Butler’s first novel, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, and While Mad with Much Heart isn’t quite as well-built, there’s still much to be glad of. It’s a terse chase story, set in the snow-bound English countryside, with Inspector James Wilson detailed from Scotland Yard to help the locals pursue a mad killer who has attacked two schoolgirls. As the story spins out, though, Wilson has less trouble with the killer than he has dealing with the vengeance-crazed father of one of the girls, with the killer’s blind sister, and with his own loneliness and self-doubt.

   This isn’t really enough to carry a story successfully (asked for his opinion, Raymond Chandler advised against filming it), but Butler does a very nice job conveying the physical effort of running and driving through deep snow, the slippery suspense of a slow-motion car-chase over icy country lanes, and the sheer exhaustion of mind and body brought on by the cold. Somehow the visceral quality of the story and his prose keeps one turning the pages.

   The film that John Houseman and Nicholas Ray made out of this despite Chandler’s advice is an oddly moving affair, rather disjointed (like many RKO films under Howard Hughes’ regime) and all the better for it. It opens with twenty minutes of sheer Big City noir, with Robert Ryan as a psychotic cop on the verge of murder, then shifts neatly to the snowbound countryside, where Ryan sees his own violence mirrored in the rampaging father (a fine performance by Ward Bond) setting up one of those narrative metaphors that Ray did so well: If Ryan can keep the berserk parent from blasting the frightened fugitive, then maybe (?) he can control his own sickness.

   This is the sort of film on which Nicholas Ray built his reputation. The early city-set scenes are purest noir, with George E. Diskant’s camera sliding fluidly through seedy bars, sleazy apartment houses, and shadowy alleys, punctuated by short bursts of jerky hand-held shots to accentuate the violence. And when we move out into the country, Ray and Diskant impart the feel of icy snowscapes, jagged rocks, and rustic farms just as vividly.

   Then there’s the plu-perfect playing, from the sleazy bit players, to Robert Ryan at the edge of violence, Ward Bond well over the top, charging through a landscape that barely holds him, and in the midst of this Ida Lupino serenely dominating the screen, while Sumner Williams as her disturbed brother darts about like some dangerously wounded animal.

   In short, this is a totally unique film, done with consummate artistry, and if you’ve been a good little boy-or-girl this year, you owe yourself a viewing.