On Dangerous Ground is not only a sleeper in the canon of Nicholas Ray but is also one in the larger canon of film noir. In a sense, noir almost defies classification because it’s always been more of a style than a genre. The first wave of noir ran roughly from 1941’s The Maltese Falcon to 1958’s Touch of Evil, the latter of which is the culmination of its sweaty seventeen-year run. With the exception of Welles’ film and a few other notables like Kiss me Deadly, Hollywood directors weren’t consciously making films to be “noirs.” As Andrew Sarris noted, the term noir was something of “a critical afterthought in film history.” Of course, the shadowy stylistics of the films can be traced back to German Expressionism, the dark tonality to French Poetic Realism, and the flashback structure to Citizen Kane, but it wasn’t until the mid to late ‘40s that the French actually coined the term to describe the ever-increasing paranoia and doom that had begun to creep into Hollywood in the years that followed Kane. Over the years audiences have come to associate noir mostly with femme fatales, terse-talking investigators, convoluted plots, and an overwhelming sense of fatalism.
Directors: Nicholas Ray, Ida Lupino (uncredited)
Writers: A.I. Bezzerides, Nicholas Ray, Gerald Butler (novel)
Producers: John Houseman, Sid Rogell
Cinematographer: George E. Diskant
Editor: Roland Gross
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Cast: Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Ward Bond, Charles Kemper, Anthony Ross, Ed Begley, Ian Wolfe
US Theatrical Release: December 17, 1951
US Distributor: RKO Radio Pictures, Warner Bros
It’s quite rare to find anything resembling a character study within the realm of film noir. The labyrinthine plots that have come to define the genre are generally not conducive to character-driven tales. On Dangerous Ground is singular in this regard. It’s ultimately a dark examination of a despairing psychopathic cop. Nicholas Ray casts his longtime collaborator Robert Ryan in the role of Jim Wilson (Ray and Ryan made five films together). Like many of Ray’s antiheroes, Jim Wilson is something of a paradox: he’s idealistic to the point of self-destruction. He’s become so hardened by police work that he becomes progressively more violent and disconnected from the outside world. Structurally, what’s most salient about the film is the way in which Ray breaks his character study into two distinctive sections: the first half unfolds in a familiar noir milieu, a grim crime-ridden metropolis.
The film begins frenetically as we're plunged into a dark wet city. As the credits roll over this iconic noir image, a point-of-view shot moves us uneasily down a shadowy street. The shot, taken from the POV of Jim Wilson’s car, establishes a mood of paranoia. Bernard Herrmann's expressive, forceful score imbues the already ominous image with a feeling of imminent danger (the score combined with the images of New York City immediately brings to mind the opening of Taxi Driver, which Hermann also scored). Like Scorsese’s picture, the narrative logic of On Dangerous Ground adheres to the perspective of Jim Wilson’s warped psyche. Ray’s film is abrupt and abrasive with constant shifts in mood and setting, and this opening sets the pattern for the rest of the picture.
The emotional intensity of Ryan’s performance as Jim Wilson is utterly jaw dropping. He plays the character as though he’s been “living in the ass of death.” When we’re properly introduced to Wilson, he’s alone in his stark, little apartment. With his gun already strapped on, he eats his dinner and broods over mug shots of cop killers. He gives off the impression of a man who is truly at home on the dark, depraved city streets. In his actual apartment, he’s lost in a dark reverie, waiting for the moment he can pulverize the hoods in the photos. In the first section of the film, we follow Wilson around steamy bars, dark alleys, and shady apartments. With every frame, his contempt increases. Eventually he gets a lead on a thug associated with the cop killers. Once he locates the crook, he bursts through his doorway, but before he unleashes his fists on his victim, he bellows with psychotic conviction “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 make me do it? Why?” It’s a frightening scene and reveals all of Wilson’s demons. Only an actor at the height of their powers could reveal so many layers of emotion.
Robert Ryan is without a doubt one of Hollywood’s greatest unsung heroes. For my money, he is the greatest on that list. Prior to becoming an actor Ryan worked just about every job imaginable: he was a janitor on a ship, a laborer, a boxer, a playwright, even a businessman; he did it all, and he brought to Hollywood a cynical, haunting intensity that’s never been matched. Of the dozens of Ryan films I've seen over the years, he’s never shown a single misstep or dead note. And he took on roles many actors would’ve shied away from: bigots, racists, psychopaths, all kinds of villains. His acting persona couldn’t have been more different than who he was in real life. Jim Wilson in On Dangerous Ground is among his best performances, which is saying quite a bit.
Nevertheless, after Wilson pulverizes his lead, his captain reprimands him for being too free with his fists. But Wilson is unable to restrain himself; so when he brutalizes another crook his captain decides to cut him loose from city work. Wilson is then sent upstate to investigate a case involving the death of a young girl. In a sense the narrative ends when Wilson leaves the city. The first half of the film has been set in the darkness of the city, and the narrative sort of begins again with its second half, which shifts to the white snowy mountains of the country. The temporal and geographical aspects of noir have almost always confined violence to night and the city. In fact, it’s an old Hollywood cliché that the city is a big dangerous place, while the country is a refuge from the wicked ways of the world. In the cinema of Nicholas Ray, violence permeates both milieus. The two sections of the film nearly mirror each other. When Wilson arrives upstate, he encounters a frenzied mob led by Brent, the father of the dead girl. Ward Bond plays Brent in usual form, growling his way through the film like a bloodhound in pursuit of its prey. He is basically a spitting image of Wilson: a raging violent madman, so it's no surprise the two buddy up to hunt down a killer.
It’s at this point we realize Wilson’s distorted superego has imploded. It's as if he can't wait for criminals to break the law so he can abuse them with his iron fists. He's more than eager to join Brent's mob. Seething with violence he tells Brent “I want him as much as you do.” If you’re familiar with the cinema of Nicholas Ray you know he's fascinated by mobs. His use of it in On Dangerous Ground, however, is atypical. Ray normally employs mobs to highlight the loneliness and alienation of his heroes. James Dean's confused Jim Stark in Rebel without a Cause is a perfect example. He’s threatened and singled-out by the mob of rebel teenagers at his highschool. In On Dangerous Ground, Ray's pathological cop readily joins the mob.
In their search for the killer Brent and Wilson arrive at a mysterious home in a desolate part of the country. A blind sage (played by Ida Lupino) lives there. She's cast as Wilson's romantic savior. In the hands of less accomplished actors, their scenes together could've turned to mush. They manage to pull off the expository dialogue about loneliness and trust—the reasons for Wilson's pathology as it turns out—with a melodramatic intensity that gives the scenes an authentic feel. (It's worth noting that Lupino was one of the very few women who took to directing during Hollywood's golden years. Her stark, offbeat noir The Hitch-Hiker is worth seeking out). Through Lupino’s character Wilson begins to see himself as he is: a one man mob.
Jim Wilson’s self-destructive nature can be found in many of Ray’s antiheroes, but he is most like Humphrey Bogart’s Dixon Steele of In a Lonely Place. The ending of On Dangerous Ground was supposed to be along the bleak lines of Ray’s masterpiece In a Lonely Place. In that film, Bogart’s temperamental character ends up more ruined and ravaged than he was at the outset of the narrative. Things turn out better for Ryan’s Jim Wilson; thanks to RKO Pictures, he was rescued from the purgatorial loneliness Ray had originally conceived for the film’s finale. Even if the ending feels a bit tacked on, its hopefulness is still far from being sentimental. While it’s impossible to ever truly justify studio interference, one thing is certain: Ray's film would have probably been too despairing for most audiences had it been cut the way he intended. The ending, thankfully, doesn't undermine his movie.