by John Grant
US / 82 minutes / bw / RKO Dir: Nicholas Ray Pr: John Houseman Scr: A.I. Bezzerides Story: Mad with Much Heart (1946) by Gerald Butler, adapted by A.I. Bezzerides, Nicholas Ray Cine: George E. Diskant Cast: Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Ward Bond, Charles Kemper, Anthony Ross, Ed Begley, Ian Wolfe, Sumner Williams, Gus Schilling, Frank Ferguson, Cleo Moore, Olive Carey, Richard Irving, Pat Prest, Nita Talbot, Joan Taylor.
A film noir that’s in its way more of an anti-noir, in that its protagonist is rescued from the noir abyss—and from the concrete and plate glass tunnels of the crowded city—through interaction in a rural environment with a femme who’s the opposite of fatale. A fairly early outing from Nick Ray—with a few scenes directed by Ida Lupino when illness, perhaps related to his substance abuse, required that Ray take a break—this is one of those members of the noir canon that somehow almost always gets forgotten. Yet, despite its oddness of narrative construction, On Dangerous Ground is a significant piece of moviemaking, and one that deserves far wider attention.
The movie has four distinct sections. The first, accounting for about one-third of the running time, is a gritty urban police drama, incorporating a character study of an embittered, alienated maverick city cop: Detective Jim Wilson (Ryan). The second shifts to a bleak, snow-covered rural landscape where a manhunt is in progress; that manhunt soon narrows down, so that we’re following just two men on the chase: Jim Wilson and Walter Brent (Bond), the father of the murder victim. In the third section the focus is on the rapid changes wrought on Jim through his revelatory discourse with the suspect’s blind sister, Mary Malden (Lupino). The fourth—arguably it’s Chapter 3B rather than Chapter 4—concerns the accidental death of the suspect and the aftermath thereof. Obviously it’s the latter two sections that concern us when viewing On Dangerous Ground as a romantic movie—and a powerfully romantic piece it proves to be, despite its noirish harshness.
That noirish harshness is on full display in the movie’s hard-hitting first section. Jim Wilson has been with the Department for 11 years and, through having constantly to deal with the dregs of society—the killers, the junkies, the rapists, the “human garbage”—is in the throes of an existential crisis that manifests itself in frequent violence. It’s implied pretty unsubtly that the two other detectives on his team—Pete Santos (Ross) and Pop Daly (Kemper)—have escaped this mental torment through having family lives: even though they spend their working hours awash in the same moral sewage as Jim, they can leave it behind them when they go home to their wives and kids. Jim, though, is a resolute loner: he has nothing to think about except his loathing for his fellow man.
The whole department is under psychological stress because a couple of weeks ago a cop, Sergeant Edmunds, was shot dead in a stickup by two petty crooks, George “Mushy” Castro and Gordon “Gordy” Miller. Given a tipoff that a lowlife called Bernie Tucker (Irving) is in cahoots with Castro and Miller, Jim takes Santos to the apartment of Tucker’s girlfriend, Myrna Bowers (Moore), and forces from her the location of her less than admirable beau; when Jim catches up with the latter, Tucker tries to play smartass—a foolish mistake, for sure, for Jim’s in no mood to play games:
“Why do you make me do it? 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 do it? Why? Why?”
Jim beats Tucker so savagely for information on Castro and Miller that he ruptures the man’s bladder. This brings him a minor, rather friendly slap on the wrist from his boss, Captain Brawley (Begley): “Make up your mind to be a cop, not a gangster with a badge.”
But Brawley is far less sympathetic to his subordinate when, soon after, Jim indulges in another outburst of savage violence. Myrna Bowers was terrified to give Jim any information that might lead to Castro and Miller because of the likelihood of vicious retribution. Sure enough, while out on patrol a while later, Jim, Daly and Santos come across thugs attacking—perhaps killing—Myrna. Jim chases and catches one of the perps and starts to pistol-whip him. It’s only through the intervention of his partners that he’s restrained from inflicting truly serious injury.
Brawley therefore sends Jim out of the Big City (unnamed) to Westham, just a few score miles north but effectively in Siberia, to help the local sheriff, Carrey (Wolfe), cope with a case involving the rape-murder of a schoolgirl. Jim’s car journey north seems every bit as much a transition from one world to another as Lemmy Caution’s interplanetary equivalent in Alphaville (1965): where before we were confined to the darkness-saturated claustrophobia of the urban night, now suddenly our eyes are assailed by the stark glare of subarctic snowfields, the whiteness relieved only by occasional houses, bare rocks . . . and raggedy human beings.
There’s little doubt as to who the killer is: the mentally unstable youth Danny Malden (Williams). Somehow he’s managed to evade the major manhunt that’s underway, led by the dead girl’s father, Walter Brent. Brent makes no secret of the fact that he wishes Jim would just turn around and go straight home, because there’s no use in city folks meddling with the affairs of rugged country folks, and that he intends, on catching Danny, to mete out summary justice in the interests of “closure”—both barrels of his shotgun in the belly, to be precise. With a quirk of a smile, Jim reveals that he’s not entirely averse to such a scheme: it’s not, after all, so very different from his own approach to the city lowlifes he polices.
Soon it’s just Brent and Jim on their own amid the hostile landscape. They spot a lonely homestead in the distance and make their way toward it. It proves to be the home of Mary Malden, elder sister of the fugitive and a woman whose strange behavior and manner puzzle the two men until finally Jim works out that she’s blind. Noticing that a lamp’s lit, he deduces that Danny must be somewhere in the vicinity.
In a sense this discovery is less important than the transformation that, while Brent prowls around outside, occurs very rapidly within the hardened cop as he talks with Mary. We can almost watch his bitterness melt away as he encourages her to tell her brother to hand himself over to Jim; Jim will ensure Danny’s taken safely away to the psychiatric institution under whose care he should have been placed long ago. When Jim finally locates Danny in the storm shelter (oddly, there’s no trail of footprints in the snow between house and shelter to betray Danny’s hiding place), he tries to put this same offer to the terrified youngster—”I’ll cut you! I’ll cut you!” cries Danny, waving a switchblade—and has almost prevailed when Brent bursts in, hungry for vengeance. While the two men fight, Danny flees; they chase him across a field and up a steep crag from which the terrified boy falls to his death.
Somehow Jim must try to explain this to Mary . . . but she angrily rebuffs his approaches. She doesn’t need him. She doesn’t want him. She will cope better on her own.
There are several reasons why the latter parts of the movie make such a moving piece of romantic cinema.
First and foremost, there’s Ryan’s performance. Over and over again, after watching any of a dozen or more Ryan movies, we find ourselves thinking as the credits fade that this, surely, must have been the performance of his career . . . only to realize that we’ve said so before, and with equal justification. But he’s in spectacular form here, conveying major shifts of mood and emotion via the most subtle shifts of facial expression, even of bodily stance. As Jim and Mary circle each other warily in her cabin, opening up to each other in a way we recognize is familiar to her—she even says as much—at the same time that it’s strange to him, we can sense the sea change going on within the city-hardened toughie: yes, he fancies her; yes, he’s falling in love with her; yes, she’s wakening his protective instincts; but most of all he’s seeing through the door she has opened that there’s another mode of existence than the one he has for so long embraced. In her presence, the cop’s stony expression softens until he begins to seem almost boyish, as if we’re being given a glimpse of the ideals-driven youngster he was when first he signed up to be a cop. Jim is becoming a better man even as we watch, and Ryan manages to convey through all sorts of nuances not only that this is happening but that Jim is aware of it happening.
Although Lupino is given top billing, there’s no doubt at all that this is Ryan’s movie. Even so, her contribution is far from negligible as the resolute, courageous yet vulnerable young woman who, in order to raise her kid brother after their mother died, abandoned hope of the operation that might have restored her sight; she’s an ideal romantic heroine. Mary is fiercely independent—she likes Jim because “When you talk to me there’s no pity in your voice.” Yet her loneliness is obvious to us, notably in the manner that she negotiates her way around the cabin, guiding herself by touching precious artifacts—a crudely carved wooden bust, a hanging shrub basket, a lacquered tree branch propped upright—but also through Diskant’s skilled cinematography, and in especial his framing of so many of the shots in which she appears: trudging alone through the snow, with only the striated clouds and distant black crags for company; swallowed into a firelit room that suddenly seems not so much cozy as far too big for her. Yet, though certainly conscious of her own state, she soon detects that Jim’s solitude is even more profound: “Sometimes people who are never alone are the loneliest, don’t you think so?”
Diskant’s cinematography is also splendid during the scrabbling chase up the crag, with Brent in pursuit of Danny and Jim in pursuit of Brent. It’s a marvelous action sequence; even more striking is its immediate aftermath, as a low-angle shot shows us Brent and Jim, pinned against the rock face, looking down aghast to where Danny has landed.
The contributions of Ward Bond, as the farmer driven into wild, vengeful fury by his grief, and of Sumner Williams as the unstable Danny are significant too. Both roles are delivered with conviction and intelligence. Like Jim, Brent must go through a moral/psychological transformation, for when he looks down on the dead form of Danny he suddenly has a revelation that he might sensibly have had a long time before: “He’s just a kid. That’s all he is. A kid.” And it’s Brent who takes it upon himself to carry the dead boy to the nearby house of farmer George Willows (Ferguson) for all the world as if it were his own dead daughter he was bringing home to lay to rest.
For most movies, these four very powerful roles might be enough, yet On Dangerous Ground is remarkable for the number of excellent supporting roles it features. Begley, as the precinct captain, is highly watchable as always though can hardly be described as stretching himself, but Ross and Kemper, as Jim’s two cop buddies, stamp their presences on the first part of the movie in no uncertain manner. Irving is highly convincing as the lowlife Bernie Tucker, and even more so is Moore as his almost dignified floozy Myrna: she manages to convey to us that, had only a couple of minor forks in the road been otherwise, Myrna could well now be in an entirely different circumstance, that her values are decent ones and to be found not far beneath the surface. It’s the kind of role we associate with Gloria Grahame, then married to director Ray, and Moore handles it similarly.
This accent on the importance of the supporting roles being more than ciphers goes all the way down into the uncredited parts: there’s a smoldering cameo early on from an anonymous Nita Talbot as an underage barfly.
A final contributor to the movie’s effectiveness as a romance is one that we hardly notice during the narrative. Bernard Herrmann here held back from creating the kind of score for which he’s most famous—the kind that jars you into awareness of its presence. The score here is so well done that it blends in seamlessly with the rest, emphasizing mood without ever seeking to dominate it.
Ray had already directed, and would go on to direct, many far more celebrated movies: They Live by Night (1949), In a Lonely Place (1951), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), King of Kings (1961), to mention just a few. Yet, viewed today, On Dangerous Ground has weathered the years as well as any of them, and better than some. It still possesses the power to move us, and the strength of our identification with its central characters is independent of the passage of time since it was made—over six decades, a whole lifetime for many! In that sense, it can’t be disputed that the movie’s a classic.
On Dangerous Ground—which during production had the working title Dark Highway—stayed on the shelf for a couple of years after completion before its release; this was not unusual for RKO in those days, Howard Hughes being the way he was. When finally it hit the cinemas it met a distinctly mixed critical reception, but its reputation has risen markedly since then. Perhaps its tripartite/quadripartite narrative structure was ahead of its time.
The much later On Dangerous Ground (1996 TVM) is not a remake but an unrelated thriller based on a Jack Higgins novel.