Three years after Nicholas Ray made his directorial debut with 1948’s They Live by Night (which I wrote about here), he made On Dangerous Ground (1951), starring Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino. Written by Gerald Butler, On Dangerous Ground tells the story of a hardened cop, Jim Wilson (Ryan), with a bad reputation for roughing up not only suspects, but anyone else he comes in contact with while on the job—including innocent witnesses. One of Jim’s partners has a serious talk with him about the consequences of his actions, and how it will destroy his career and destroy him, but Jim doesn’t listen. It isn’t until a particularly scary encounter between Jim and a witness, that his boss, the police chief (Ed Begley), pulls him from his current duties. Jim is sent to aid a case out in the country—in hopes that once he shakes off the grime of the city, he will cool down and come to his senses.
Walter Brent (Ward Bond) is in search of his son’s killer, reluctant to accept the help of outsiders, including Jim. Walter is understandably blinded by rage, as any parent might be in that situation, and is hell-bent on revenge at any and all costs. While a natural response to his son’s murder, Brent’s behavior is more in line with that of the posse mentality found in the Old West than modern detective work, and he jeopardizes the delicate nature of the investigation and manhunt. Their search leads Jim and Brent to the secluded home of Mary Malden (Lupino), a kind, soft-spoken woman who they discover is blind. It’s through her and after witnessing Brent’s raw anger, that, for the first time, Jim begins to see the damage that such hostility and violence can cause, and opens up to the possibility that there’s a better way to live.
Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino are both magnificent, as is perennial character actor Ward Bond, whose appearance in any film is always a welcomed sight. Ryan was known for his tough guy roles, often playing characters with shaky, questionable morals. So it’s refreshing to see a Ryan performance where he not only taps into the hardened personality that audiences came to know, but also a more sincere, vulnerable side. Ryan’s ability to play the tough guy and the sensitive changed man made him a truly unique actor as well as an extremely attractive leading man, albeit a rather unconventional one. Ida Lupino, who not only had an incredible career as an actress, but as a successful director and producer in a profession disproportionately dominated by men (which is still very much a problem today, unfortunately), gives a powerful performance as Mary Malden. While her loss of vision impairs her ability to be completely independent, her outlook on life somehow gets through to Jim, changing him in profound ways. While a great actress, Lupino sometimes had a tendency to overact—that over-the-top courtroom scene in Raoul Walsh’s 1940 film They Drive by Night, for example. (Despite its dramatics, is still a terrific piece of acting.) In addition to her impressive performance, Lupino apparently lent her directorial talents to a few scenes in On Dangerous Ground while Ray was sick, but wasn’t credited for her work. A common practice at the time.
The film also features a score by the legendary Bernard Herrmann. From the opening notes, it’s clear that it’s Herrmann. And throughout his score, there are segments that are quite similar to the work he later contributed to two Alfred Hitchcock thrillers: Vertigo (1958) and North by Northwest (1959). The story in On Dangerous Ground is an incredibly simple, yet powerful commentary about the damage that anger can do to a person’s soul, along with the bitterness and loneliness that accompanies it. Although the film is often considered a noir, it’s more of a noir-in-reverse. It has all of the elements of a noir: the seedy city, a crusty, unethical detective, a crime and a beautiful woman. But unlike a noir, On Dangerous Ground never pulls the rug out from under its anti-hero or its audience. There’s no double-crossing. No female-induced downfall. The set-up is there, but Nicholas Ray gives us an unexpected, beautiful end to a story where its characters might face a disastrous end. In addition to this unique take on noir, On Dangerous Ground is a visually stunning piece of cinema. Ray’s impressive camera techniques were truly innovative. Blind rage, confusion and paranoia, and the gritty, raw, dangerous conditions in the dreary city are all conveyed through Ray’s camera. At times, it feels like a documentary or even live news footage; the audience is completely immersed. On Dangerous Ground is an unexpected, powerful entry in Ray’s filmography, and one of his best.
Next week I wrap-up my look at the films of Nicholas Ray, with his 1956 drama Bigger Than Life, starring James Mason, Barbara Rush and Walter Matthau.
This piece was originally published at StreamLine, the official blog of FilmStruck on June 10, 2017 and can be found archived here.
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