@MovieJay Takes on Nicolas Ray – On Dangerous Ground (1952)
Jim Wilson’s a New York City cop at the end of his rope. He’s been on the force for 11 years, has a weathered but handsome, chiseled face, and an economical manner that reminds us of Dick Tracy. He uses excessive force on the job, but gets results. He doesn’t indulge in self-pity, and when prodded by his co-workers on the beat he deflects or ignores their personal questions to him on love interests to what motivates him. And what is it that drives Wilson? Is it the simple zeal of catching bad guys, or is he driven by a deeper, more lustful kind of vengeance born from rage? “Why do you make me do it?”, he prophetically cries out to a suspect in the murder of a cop while he’s interrogating the man alone in his room, before pummeling the suspect and sending him to the hospital with a ruptured bladder. Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is the type who appears to have been born a hard-boiled, middle-aged man without a past.
On Dangerous Ground begins with a telling opening sequence of three cops who share the same beat, preparing in their own ways for the night shift. There’s the one who’s married without children to a woman who uses dressing him as an excuse for intimacy, having grown lonelier with the job of having to see him off to work nights. Then there’s the one with seven children, a jolly, old-fashioned sort who doesn’t bring his work home with him, who milks every second he can with the family until it’s time to run off again, and who calls his wife “mother”. And then there’s Jim Wilson, who we instinctively know to be single since he lives in a small bachelor pad where the bathroom sink works double-duty as a kitchen one for dirty dishes to be stacked before he runs out the door.
At the station, Captain Brawley (Ed Begley) informs the night shift that it’s been over a week now that a cop killer remains on the lam, and presses his men to re-examine every lead. On a tip from one of Jim’s paid informants on the street, he and his partners are lead to the apartment of a girlfriend of one of the suspects, who gives up information on him. The energy between Jim and the woman is an intimacy teeming with violence, and captured brilliantly in a two-shot of the woman’s bedroom doorway. This leads to the violent encounter between Jim and the suspect, and then later another violent encounter on the street with another wanted man raises the ire of Captain Brawley, who after the case has been closed, sends Jim upstate to help out with the murder of a teen girl, as well as to get him out of the city to clear his mind of it.
This is where the film switches gears, exchanging the wet, shadowy, suspicious New York City streets in favor of picturesque upstate vistas and rural communities with snow-covered rolling hills. A girl has been killed, the townspeople are out in the cold in search teams, while the girl’s father, a brute of a man named Walter Brent (Ward Bond), appears to share Jim’s temperament as well as that mystifying quality that some modern men still share in having strong frontier-like spirits as if they would appear more comfortable killing their food than buying it at the grocery store.
Walter’s oldest son tips the men in the direction of a suspect who had appeared to be running from the town. The chase leads to a house on the outskirts where an almost entirely blind woman named Mary (Ida Lupino) lives with her brother, Danny (Summer Williams), and this is where all matters of plot can no longer be discussed, but must be experienced.
Like the best of his work, director Nicholas Ray, who French directing giant Jean-Luc Godard once exclaimed “Ray is the cinema”, appears to break the rules while telling accessible stories that are both intelligent and entertaining. On Dangerous Ground is no different, and it’s an overlooked noir masterpiece of character and atmosphere (helped by a terrific Bernard Herrmann score) that turns the genre upside-down in such an organic and thoughtful way that by the conclusion of it’s briskly paced 82-minute running time, we feel like we’ve really journeyed into something more substantial than who dunnit.
The film noir genre tends to be marked in several similar ways, with rainy night streets, city sewers billowing steam from underneath, shadows, mist and fog, a femme fatale who may or may not be trust-worthy, and of course, heroes who by the end have found, to their surprise, that they were capable of touching upon dark traits lurking deep within their souls. Being that this is a Nick Ray film, however, prepare to expect the unexpected.
Robert Ryan made a career out of playing mostly bad men, but here was able to show a much deeper side in his performance as Jim Wilson, and it evolves very effectively from the camaraderie he shares with his co-workers on the beat, then to the sibling-rivalry-like relationship he has with Walter Brent, a father frothing at the mouth for vengeance for his murdered daughter, to the ethereal and eventually moving connection Jim shares with Mary. They’re two lonely kindred souls, one who makes a living from not trusting anyone, while the other places all of her trust in her brother to do the job her eyes can’t do. Ida Lupino is a treasure to behold in this film in the way her personality moves in on Jim, a man who is not just an undiscovered country, but quite possibly undiscoverable.