Make up your mind to be a cop, not a gangster with a badge.
There’s a chilling moment in Nicolas Ray’s tough, contemplative noir On Dangerous Ground where detective Jim Wilson is beating the confession out of a suspect, connecting punch after punch, pleading with him, “Why do you make me do it?!” He’s internalized the brutality and depravity his job has exposed him to until it’s become second nature. It’s a violently tangible performance delivered by Robert Ryan (Act of Violence), and under the expressive direction of Ray, his character undergoes something like a spirit quest out in the mountains. On Dangerous Ground offers heaps of grit and haymakers, but also a flood of compassion towards its lineup of riff raff.
After 11 years on the force, Wilson has been molded into a hardened brute. He has no family, no children, nothing to come home to after the beat but a beer and thoughts of violence. His partners and chief recognize him as an explosion waiting to happen (aka, a lawsuit), so his superiors send him to rural upstate to cool off for a while. There’s been a child murder up in the mountains and he’s sent to help out with the manhunt.
The last Nicolas Ray film I reviewed, They Live By Night, agilely moved from location to location, and On Dangerous Ground does it even better. The snowy upstate sticks transform Wilson, who gradually begins to break down his armor and allow himself to become vulnerable. The initial catalyst for this change is Walter Brent (Ward Bond), the father of the young girl who was killed. He’s committed himself to vengeance. If he finds the bastard who killed his daughter before the cops can, the scum is getting a belly full of buckshot, no questions asked. He’s bent on vigilante justice, much like Wilson’s attitude on the beat. Witnessing this broken old man’s volatile soul effects Wilson, but it takes a woman’s touch to truly change him.
The trail leads him to the home of blind, beautiful Mary Walden (Ida Lupino), the sister of the killer. She lives in a world of darkness, one that’s as lonely as Wilson’s angry solitude. Unlike Wilson, however, Mary isn’t bitter about it. Her faith hasn’t been beaten down by her condition and the subsequent seclusion it brings. Her kindness is the second catalyst that breaks down Wilson’s outer shell. He decides to do everything he can to save Mary’s brother before Walter can tear him in half with a shotgun.
His rescue operation doesn’t go quite as planned, but there’s a (forced) happy ending tacked on by the studio. The screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides (Kiss me Deadly) originally ended with Wilson walking off alone. A changed man, but alone. The studio made Ray and Bezzerides force a romantic ending though, in which Wilson and Mary wind up together. Ah well. I typically prefer a downer ending, but I enjoyed the sentiment here of two lonely souls forming a whole. It worked for me.
On Dangerous Ground is a really thoughtful film that offers up a genuine character arc, rather than a man simply barreling towards doom. It was a nice break from the bleakness I usually imbibe, but hell, there are still some really dark moments. Ray shoots the city like no one else – there’s an energy to his streets that make them seem more claustrophobic, more inescapable than in other noirs. Then when the film shifts to rural upstate New York, there’s a meditative quality to it all. It’s really great, thoughtful stuff, man.