by Tony Dayoub
Of all of Nicholas Ray's films, On Dangerous Ground may be the most difficult one for me to objectively get a handle on. It's my favorite of his films because of the duality of Robert Ryan's performance as Jim Wilson, a cop at wit's end with regard to the infectious nature of the corruption and violence he faces on the streets every day. On one hand, a virtuous true believer in the law, and on the other, an enforcer so efficient he will flout the rules to get his man, the short-tempered Wilson can be seen as a natural extension of Bogart's Dix Steele at the end of Ray's last film, In a Lonely Place (though released afterwards, Ground was filmed before Flying Leathernecks). In Ground, Wilson begins at the point where we left Steele in the previous film: an outsider aware of his capacity for violence, unable or unwilling to control his behavior, and resigned to the fact that he should stay away from the rest of polite society. Though reminders like an errant comment from a flirtatious counter-girl at the drugstore, scoffing at the idea of going out with a cop, still sting Wilson.
Were On Dangerous Ground to confine its backdrop to the grimy city Wilson and his ilk traffic in, Ray would still have a fascinating film noir, not unlike the one he worked on (uncredited) for RKO, The Racket (also with Ryan and Robert Mitchum, future collaborator of Ray's in The Lusty Men). There's loads of interesting sidetrips Ground takes in this first act, like when Ryan questions a nymphomaniac played by Cleo Moore; in an unusual dissolve, it's implied that Wilson may have exploited the woman's desire for rough sex in order to get the answers he needs. One scene later, he's beating up her boyfriend (Richard Irving), a slimy, sweaty weasel who seems to be getting off on the beating, while a disturbed Wilson screams at him, "Why do you make me do it?" Another dissolve (mirroring the previous one) allows the film to elide past the rest of the no doubt sado-masochistic interrogation.
Near the end of this nasty section of the film, Ray alludes to Wilson's mental instability with a haphazard hand-held shot through alleyways, as Wilson and his partners close in on some hoods who killed off Wilson's female informant. Here, the movie's central theme is made explicit in an exchange between Wilson and his partner, Pop Daly (Charles Kemper). When Daly pulls him off one of the killers he's whaling on, Wilson confesses he's getting tired of dealing in garbage. He asks Daly, "How do you live with yourself?"
"I don't," Daly says, "I live with other people."
Instead of remaining in this world, On Dangerous Ground then makes a structural leap that's among the more interesting in cinema. After about a half hour of getting to know Jim Wilson and the environment that spawned him, Ray and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides (Kiss Me Deadly) send the cop north, to a remote mountain town where a girl was murdered. There, Wilson's boss (Ed Begley) hopes the change of pace will prove beneficial. Wilson immediately comes into conflict with a man even more high-strung than him (though understandably so), the dead girl's father, Walter Brent (Ward Bond). Brent's haste to capture his daughter's killer allows us to see a different side of Wilson in contrast: the methodical detective.
Unifying the two disparate parts of On Dangerous Ground is Bernard Herrmann's stupendous score. Listen to the film's opening theme, alternately titled "The Death Hunt."
There are contrapuntal elements of what would later morph into the themes of North by Northwest and Psycho. What makes the counterpoint particularly effective is how it represents the way the two landscapes—the dark, slick roads of the city versus the bright, snowy mountains—expose the internal conflict of light and dark in Wilson's soul.
Brent and Wilson end up in a cabin belonging to Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), blind sister of the killer they've been chasing, the mentally-challenged Danny (Sumner Williams). It is here that Wilson finally realizes how truly isolated he is. He sees himself reflected in the solitary Mary, but is impressed at her resourcefulness and resolve. Slowly, Wilson is able to overcome his limitations by comparing himself to Brent, Mary and Danny, placing himself in a continuum where he realizes he's not as alienated as Danny, or even the more civilized Brent, now outcast by his mourning and cynicism towards the world. But Wilson still strives to be like Mary, whose blindness forces her to trust even strangers in order to live day-to-day. In finding this affinity with the woman, Wilson realizes he can overcome his alienation from the world, and perhaps even find love with this kindred spirit. Now, Wilson is faced with a dilemma, suppressing his natural tendency towards violence in order to capture Mary's brother, a wild child incapable of controlling his own destructive urges.
The outcome of On Dangerous Ground is just a little too pat, given everything that's come before it. Because of its unusual bifurcated nature, the movie fell victim to some studio tinkering and re-shoots which altered the original finale and delaying its release by over a year. But despite its flaws, On Dangerous Ground is top-shelf Ray and has been rightly reappraised as one of the classic noirs.