Tuesday, March 9, 2021

#2,536. On Dangerous Ground (1951) - The Films of Nicholas Ray


A gritty, unflinching look at the life of an urban policeman, Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground is in many ways a classically-styled film noir, right down to the soaking wet pavement of its city streets. But like most of Ray’s films, it's the characters themselves that take center stage.

The lead this time is played by Robert Ryan, who brings a believability to the role of Jim Wilson, a cop with a chip on his shoulder. Ignoring the advice of his more experienced partners Pop (Charles Kemper) and Pete (Anthony Ross), Jim often loses his cool on the job. After dishing out a particularly rough beating to a suspected cop killer, Jim’s superior, Captain Brawley (Ed Begley), thinks it’s best that Jim leave town for a while, and orders him to assist on a murder case in a rural upstate community.

Teaming up with Walter Brent (Ward Bond), whose daughter was the victim, Jim tracks the killer to a small home in the middle of nowhere, and there meets Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), a blind woman whose brother Danny (Sumner Williams) is the prime suspect.

Brent has vowed to kill the man responsible for his daughter’s death, but Jim promises Mary that he will do everything in his power to bring Danny in alive.

It’s here that the true story of On Dangerous Ground lies; the redemption of Jim Wilson, and how his run-in with Mary Malden transforms him from a hard-edged cop with a short fuse into a smarter, more insightful lawman.

We discover at the outset of On Dangerous Ground that Jim Wilson, unlike his partners, lives by himself (Ray shows the contrast brilliantly in the opening scene, introducing us to Pete’s wife and Pop’s large family before taking us inside Jim’s apartment, where he sits alone, staring at mug shots while waiting for his two partners to pick him up). The implication is that Jim, a bachelor with no family, devotes his entire life to being a cop, and it is eating him up inside. After smacking around yet another suspected criminal, Jim is confronted by Pop, who lays it on the line for him; a flustered Jim asks Pop how he can live with himself after 16 years on the force, spending day after day chasing down lowlifes and thugs. “I don't”, Pop shouts back. “I live with other people! When I go home I don't take this stuff with me, I leave it outside”, adding “To get anything out of this life you've got to put something in it - from the heart”.

Then Jim is sent upstate, and what was intended as a punishment of sorts ends up being his salvation. First, he joins forces with Walter Brent, expertly played by Ward Bond, a grieving father whose sole purpose is to find and kill his daughter’s murderer. It’s probable that Jim sees a bit of himself in Brent, whose angry temperament is more a hindrance than a help as the case unfolds.

Then Jim meets Mary, who, though blind, is arguably the movie’s most insightful character (despite her disability, she cares more for her mentally disturbed brother Danny - the suspect Jim and Brent are after - than she does her own well-being). Ida Lupino delivers a stirring performance as Mary, and like Jim, we come to admire her character’s inner strength.

As with many of Nicholas Ray’s films, On Dangerous Ground is wonderfully shot (by George Diskant, who also handled the cinematography for Ray’s debut, They Live by Night). In addition, this 1951 film noir is expertly paced, with an engaging story, and features a stirring score by legendary Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann (Vertigo, Psycho, Taxi Driver).

But it’s the characters populating On Dangerous Ground that will stay with you long after the movie has ended.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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