Director: Nicholas Ray
Producer: John Houseman
Screenwriter: A. I. Bezzerides
Cinematographer: George E. Diskant
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Studio: RKO Pictures 1952
Main Acting: Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino
Opening on the typically tough urban streets of most film noir, On Dangerous Ground adds a surprising twist less than halfway through its running time. Detective Jim Wilson (played by Robert Ryan) is a disillusioned and disgruntled cop that has a reputation for roughing up suspects. Without family, a wife, and any actual friends, he lives a lonely existence in a cramped apartment where scanning police photos for criminals counts as entertainment. The paradox of his life is that while being a policeman is his sole interest and obsession, he has increasingly become disenchanted with his work and everything it entails. He tells his partner, “What kind of job is this anyway? Garbage. That’s all we handle.” We see that Wilson is taking out his disappointments on all the hoodlums in which he comes in contact. He also shuns human interaction and rejects the invitation of his colleague to stop by for Sunday dinner with the family. The movie hints that at one time Jim Wilson was a steady visitor to his partner’s home. Now his isolation and withdrawal from humanity keeps him at arm’s length from everyone. He is existentially empty and going through the motions without much purpose.
The opening scene sets up the clear difference between the three partners. Pete (Anthony Ross) has a caring wife that is worried every time he leaves the house. Her sensitive demeanor establishes that the law officer has someone waiting for his arrival every night with love and compassion. The second partner, Pop (Charles Kemper), also is married and has a small army of children. These two characters can deal with the harshness and bleakness of police life, because as the movie suggests, they have others who love them and always await their return home for communal warmth. Jim is an island all to himself, he has no such luxury. When the three protagonists pull up to Doc Harmon’s shop and enter to treat Pop’s shoulder, we are treated to one of the most telling little moments in Ray’s picture. Doubling as an ice cream joint, Doc’s lovely female worker Hazel makes a disparaging comment towards Wilson about being a cop. Her flippant remark comes across as the troubled detective metaphorically, as well as physically, turns away from the conversation (and humanity) and emotes a pained expression of intense disappointment and sadness. Robert Ryan is brilliant in this moment and we realize that under this tough exterior resides a sensitive person adrift from tangible human interaction. He is the typical Nicholas Ray figure, one of anguished emotional disconnect that swims apart from the normal tide of society.
The twist that takes On Dangerous Ground to a entirely new milieu occurs once Jim is banished to the country to help on a different investigation. His roughhousing of suspects have lead him to coming close with permanent dismissal. Ed Begley, while scarfing down a huge quantity of green peas, lets our hurting detective know he needs to calm down or make a change. Later he states, “Take it easy, Jim. What I said. You better think it over.” Seventy miles upstate in “Siberia,” Jim enters a world where film noir’s darkness makes way for snow and pure light. His drive is accompanied by the awesome Bernard Herrmann score which touches the perfect emotional chords. The white landscape is a second chance for our hero. Here, he can be reborn and start anew. Can he find the happiness within and can another person help him on his quest? The feature is at the thirty-minute mark at this point, but it is actually only just beginning.
An unfamiliar sentimentality creeps into the movie once Ida Lupino (who plays a blind woman, Mary) enters the screen. Unfamiliar, since this is not a common trait found in most film noirs of the period. It works primarily because Ray doesn’t force any syrupy melodramatics. His study of these two lonely people finding each other is nuanced and imbued with a genuine spark and level of vitality. Wilson goes from troubled goon to confused inhabitant slowly. Mary’s pleading for him to spare her brother (who is the main focus of the investigation and is responsible for a girl’s murder) and bring him to justice without taking his life is slowly agreed upon by Jim Wilson. Here is a person (Mary) who isn’t “garbage” and is tender and kind. She asks him for a favor and her eternal goodness reflects back on him as they speak by a glowing fire in the middle of the night. His demeanor begins to change completely and he finally promises her that he will try to spare her brother’s life. He sees that redemption is possible and sets out to protect Mary’s sibling from Ward Bond’s thirsty drive for personal vengeance (Bond’s Walter Brent is the father of the slain girl).
There are some conflicting reports about the ending of On Dangerous Ground. Film historians suggest that Nicholas Ray hoped for a less happy ending than the movie’s actual conclusion. His apathy by the studio’s decision to culminate with an upbeat finale was so great that he had no motivation to direct the last scene in the picture. Legend has it that the two principle actors, Ryan and Lupino, actually engineered the last moments before the fade to black. While Ray should have been able to wrap up his work the way he intended, I have always admired the joining of the two characters for a happily ever after. Noir should never finish on such a positive note, but in this one instance maybe it’s not such a bad idea. A bleaker ending wouldn’t upset me either and would surely be more appropriate for our cynical little genre. Good things can happen in noir as well, though… Jim is the embodiment of this rare happening. Hopefully he lived out his remaining years in the company of his celluloid salvation, and like Pete and Pop, found eternal companionship and his way off the island.