Where and how does one find light after long periods of darkness, figuratively speaking? If one lives a difficult, unforgiving life, how can that same person change their outlook? What they know is harsh and a constant struggle. Joy, pride, maybe even love are elements which might not figure prominently into their psyche and hearts. One job that I imagine comes fully loaded with its share of frustrations and depressing sights is that of a police detective. Death, rape, theft, blackmail, what these men and women deal with is human behaviour at the lowest level of decency, and this is a daily reality, morning, noon and night. Perform a quick survey on the streets of a city to get a very general idea of what people’s feelings are towards the cops. A serious portion of them will tell you they hate them, or at least display some form of dislike towards them. The fact still remains that they exist to serve and protect the innocent, and yet the loathing expressed emanates from those who are protected as from those who break the law. A lose-lose situation.
On Dangerous Ground, revered director Nicholas Ray’s foray into the film noir genre, has its story concentrate on one such detective, Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) who, after 11 years as a highly effective member of the force, is cracking under the weight of it all. The darkness which lies in the hearts of men and women on the filthy city streets and alleyways of the city he patrols each night has seeped into his consciousness a bit too much, to point where his moral behaviour has grown corrupt. He stills remains firmly on the side of the law, but therein lies part of the problem: he is too firm. The most common method used in extracting information from suspects and slimy witnesses is to pound their faces into jelly in order to make them squeal out what Jim is on the prowl for. The regular citizens do not do him any favours either. A pretty girl rejects the notion of dating him because of his line of duty and a falsely accused man calls his a dumb cop. All of this greatly irritates Jim, who has sealed many of his emotions off from the world, to the irritation of his two partners. Unlike his colleagues, Jim remains unmarried and little to no social life. Self loathing has entered the mix and before the situation with his boss can get any worse, the latter sends Jim off for a special assignment outside the city. A young girl has been murdered by what is assumed to be a mentally challenged young male adult. Jim’s deficiencies as a police detective are put to a stern and revelatory test when he encounters the suspect’s sister, a blind woman, Mary Malden, played by Ida Lupino.
Nicholas Ray’s picture is a testament to how great traditional noir can be. Unlike some of the previous entries in this marathon which wilfully chose to adopt different routes, either with regards to narrative or aesthetically, On Dangerous Ground does follow the tropes of film noir pretty faithfully, but it performs the task so well that the result is a movie that does indeed feel different, perhaps because it is so much better than most. Part of the film’s success rests with its willingness to venture into certain extremes. Rather than have an alcoholic cop, we are given a cop with dangerously violent tendencies prone to some manic obsessions. The voluptuous women in the early stages are all replaced with a woman who is beautiful, amazingly strong in character, but equally vulnerable. The wet and unwelcoming streets of the big city morph into the frigid snow plains and mountains of the open countryside that feels awkward and lonely at times. The convergence of Jim’s and Mary’s emotional and thematic arcs is compelling in how two people who could not be more different are inexorably drawn together, although not sexually.
On Dangerous Ground does what its own title suggests, by sending Jim onto dangerous turf in a frantic hunt for a crazed killer. Ward Bond plays the victim’s father, whose rage at the death of his daughter’s death makes Jim’s anger towards common criminals look like the equivalent of teenage tantrums. The older man is determined to track down the killer and give him an unhealthy dose of led straight from the shotgun cannon. This sensitive start to Jim’s brief stay in the country immediately forces the detective to repress his typically violent responses to crime. For once, there is someone more enraged than he. This is only the first of two significant meetings, the second naturally being that with Mary, who without hesitation allows Jim and the father into her home when they suspect Mary of hiding the accused feeling suspect. It is during their overnight stay and in the early hours of the following morning that Jim’s psychology slowly begins to see a light at the end of the dark, damp tunnel. Mary is blind and has been for many years already, yet her natural instinct is to be kind and trust in the honesty of people by letting them into her home. Her lack of sight has not prohibited her from recognizing that kindness is still the better policy. Jim has literally ‘seen’ it all in the big city, and the moments etched in his memory, as well as the daily psychological assaults have catapulted him into a depressing state, one that compels him to behave ruthlessly, even when such action is clearly overkill. These two people have now found each other, each practically feeding off their diametrically opposed philosophies. Mary reveals that the murderer is her brother but fully understands the nature, purpose and justification of Jim’s duty at the present time, which is to catch her brother and bring him to justice. She makes the detective promise that her brother will not be harmed at the firing end of the older man’s firearm. Jim now cannot engage in his ritualistic vigilante inspired sense of justice, there is already someone who wishes to fill those shoes. The coming together of Jim and Mary is at the heart of Ray’s film, which is ultimately about redeeming oneself. In their depictions of the two central characters, Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino are both superb. Lupino brings a haunting vulnerability to her arc, but strong convictions keep her going and keep from always her glass half full. Ryan begins with a stunning intensity and ends with a much more humble and recognizably human face.
After seeing Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger than Life (reviewed here), On Dangerous Ground fits comfortably into the director’s oeuvre. He finds inspiration in stories about male characters who, while being active members of a given societies, do not themselves feel comfortable in them. There is always something causing alienation: teenage rebellion, the stifling norms of suburban mediocrity, and now the ugliness that stains the life of a detective. Each of these movies presents a protagonist who does not follow the rules of regularly heroes. They go decidedly against the grain in their attempts at finding justifications for their individual existences. Jim Wilson is taken from the city, where not only the crooks scheme and hide but as do his own terrible habits, to the country, where both his physical and emotional selves are out in the open. There are fewer places to hide out here, forcing Jim to come to terms with his true self and finally decide what sort of cop he truly wants to be.
Accompanying this tragic tale is Bernard Hermann’s powerful score, in particular the piece which plays over the opening credits. The composer who eventually went on to create classic scores for both Psycho and Taxi Driver drives home one of the prevailing realities of the film with his pulse pounding music. On Dangerous Ground is a violent movie, but the violence goes far beyond the physical abuse Jim inflicts on the suspects (which, by the way, occurs much more off screen than it does on screen). The emotions twirling are violent as well. The psychology of several characters is violent, but the unlikeliest of cures in the shape of a blind woman far out on the range proves to be a saving grace. She may not be capable of seeing light, but she nonetheless brings it into the life of the protagonist and to the viewer. Ray’s film is the best film of the marathon thus far and comes with the highest recommendation.