Nicholas Ray, 1951
Starring: Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Ward Bond
Jim Wilson is a hardened city cop who comes under fire for his violent tactics. His partners are concerned as he becomes increasingly unhinged and his boss assigns him to a case far out in the countryside. He joins a small team in the midst of a manhunt for the killer of a young girl. The girl’s father is determined to murder the man as soon as they find him. In the meantime, they encounter Mary, a blind woman living in an isolated cabin. She eventually reveals to Wilson that she cares for her younger, disturbed brother, Danny, who has gone on the run after killing the girl. She makes Wilson promise that Danny will see no harm and be taken into custody peaceably. Unfortunately the girl’s father is armed and has found Danny’s trail…
Directed by Nicholas Ray, who was once again teamed up with producer John Houseman and writer A. I. Bezzerides (Thieves’ Highway), both of whom worked with Ray on his first film, They Live By Night. Based on Gerald Butler’s novel Mad with Much Heart, On Dangerous Ground is an odd twist on the conventional film noir in the sense that it is essentially two separate stories with Robert Ryan’s Jim Wilson as the bridge between two visually different worlds. The first half of the film is essentially a vague police procedural in a harsh, urban setting (probably New York City) where cop killer roam free and underage girls hang out in bars, flirting and beginning for alcohol. The second half moves to a snowy, mountainous village (probably northern New York state), where the desolate, icy countryside is a symbol for Wilson’s internal torment and isolation.
Wilson is haunted by demons and possessed by violence. How he got this way is presented in a flimsy back story indicating that he takes his job as a police officer too seriously, can find no emotional respite in the city, and has developed some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is actually not a far cry from the real lives of servicemen returned from the war. These sorts of characters appear throughout dozens of film noir movies from 1945 through the ‘50s, several of them played by Ryan himself, such as The Woman on the Beach and Crossfire. Ryan is excellent in everything and this is no exception – if the plot doesn’t sound overly compelling, it is worth seeing simply for his performance.
Top-billed actress and noir-staple Ida Lupino supports Ryan with a solid, if unusual turn as the innocent Mary. She’s a troubled, lonely woman who has sacrificed her health and life to raise and care for her mentally disabled/ill younger brother, Danny (Sumner Williams). Like so many of Ray’s films, On Dangerous Ground focuses on characters who are fundamentally outsiders. Mary and Wilson are lonely and damaged, if in different ways, and trapped within prisons of their own creation. It is death of Danny – essentially a sacrificial act – that restores balance to the community and allows for Mary and Wilson to come together, reborn, and begin life anew. The romantic subplot is subtle and utterly convincing, and does not distract from Wilson’s tortured struggles with himself. The rare happy ending feels somehow natural, like Wilson and Mary have both suffered so much that the film cannot possibly strip anything else from them.
This underrated effort is available on DVD or streaming from Amazon, and comes recommended thanks to assured directing from Ray and two excellent performances from Ryan and Lupino. Also keep your eyes peeled for side roles from Charles Kemper (Scarlet Street), Ed Begley (12 Angry Men), Anthony Ross (Kiss of Death) and Ward Bond (It’s a Wonderful Life, The Searchers) as the grief-mad farmer on a quest for blood and violence. The film’s wonderful score, which does so much for the relatively thin plot, is from Hitchcock’s regular collaborator, Bernard Herrmann.