The American film director Nicholas Ray (1911-1979) was little appreciated during his heyday in Hollywood in the 1950s. But in 1950s France the young movie critics and future filmmakers of the original Cahiers du Cinéma generation revered him as the epitome of the American auteur, the kind of director who managed to transcend the safe impersonality of studio-financed genre pictures and leave on them his own personal stamp. His films were a huge influence on the early directors of the French New Wave. Jean-Luc Godard went so far as to state, "Le cinéma, c'est Nicholas Ray" ("Nicholas Ray is cinema").
Ray's best known films are Rebel Without a Cause (1955), his masterpiece, the movie that made James Dean a star and contains his defining performance as the alienated teenager Jim Stark; the tremendously entertaining Johnny Guitar (1954), Ray's bizarrely stylized, almost Gothic take on the Western; In a Lonely Place (1950), in which Ray revealed the darkest, most sinister side of Hollywood and of Humphrey Bogart (his Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Capt. Queeg in The Caine Mutiny notwithstanding); and Ray's first film, They Live by Night (1949), one of the great films noirs of the late 1940s, a hybrid of romance and fatalism, with its young bank robber and his lover doomed from the beginning, and a clear influence on early French New Wave films as well as the later Bonnie and Clyde. The Criterion release in 2010 of Bigger Than Life (1956), with its brilliant performance by James Mason as a teacher driven to madness by the side effects of a new drug, drew renewed attention to yet another of Ray's best films.
Alongside these movies stands a film of equal merit in Ray's oeuvre, On Dangerous Ground (1952). (It was actually made in 1950 but wasn't released for two years, while RKO tinkered with the film, shortening it by about ten minutes and forcing Ray to shoot a new, more upbeat ending.) This is a movie of more subtle appeal than those better-known works. Quieter, less dense, and less quirky, it nonetheless has many of the same virtues and thematic preoccupations as those films and really should be considered one of Ray's key works.
The main character of On Dangerous Ground is a police detective in an unnamed big city, Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan, in one of his rare lead roles, giving one of the very best performances of his impressive career). Like the main characters in so many of Ray's films, Wilson suffers from a profound sense of alienation from other people and from his environment. The opening sequence of the movie emphasizes his status as a loner with little connection to life except through his job. It begins without explanation after dark with a middle-aged man whose wife is helping him strap on a holstered gun under his suit jacket. He then drives to a suburban house where another middle-aged man, watching television with his children, is being helped into a holster and gun by his wife. The scene then switches to a shabby studio apartment where Ryan stands alone before a mirror strapping on his gun and holster and waits for the other two men to pick him up. These three could easily be criminals preparing for a heist. But they aren't: they're a team of police detectives reporting to the precinct before going out on night patrol.
For the next twenty minutes or so, the movie follows them around dark city streets as they look for a pair of criminals. It is soon clear that Wilson is more than just an upholder of the law. He channels all of his hostility and disillusionment into his job. This is a man with such a grudge against the world that he is close to being a brutal sadist—"a gangster with a badge," as his commanding officer describes him at one point. His two colleagues don't approve of his vigilante approach to law enforcement, but they understand how the job has corroded his sense of ethics. "All we ever see is crooks, murderers, stoolies, dames. . . . 'Til you find out it's different, it's kind of a lonely life," explains one of his partners to the other. And that statement exactly foreshadows what will happen during the course of the movie: Wilson will find out that there is more to life than what he experiences daily and by reconnecting to others will reconnect to himself and to the larger world.
After Wilson becomes too violent with a small-time criminal, his chief sees the need to get him out of the way for a while and sends him out of the city and into a remote mountain area to help the sheriff there investigating a killing. At this point the movie shifts gears completely, and it is this sudden change that leads Wilson to his epiphany. The victim of the killing is a young girl, and Wilson soon becomes completely involved not in helping the sheriff apprehend the suspected killer, but in controlling the girl's grief-stricken father, who is determined to track down the murderer himself and kill him. This vigilantism is too much even for Wilson, and he finds himself accompanying the grieving and enraged father to prevent him from carrying out his intentions. The father, Walter Brent, is played by Ward Bond. If you are used to seeing him playing innocuous bit roles or providing cornball comedy relief in John Ford movies, you will be surprised at the malevolence he conveys in this part, as a man driven by the obsessive need for revenge.
When their car runs off a snowy road and overturns, the pair must continue their pursuit of the suspected killer on foot, and this leads them to an isolated ranch where a young blind woman, Mary Malden, lives. The men suspect her of harboring the criminal. Although she denies it, she is sheltering him, and he is her mentally disturbed, possibly autistic, young brother. Mary is played by Ida Lupino, and like Bond she is quite effective here playing against type. There is no abrasiveness or neuroticism—traits that Lupino was expert at conveying—in this character. And it is her gentleness, sensitivity, and caring nature that give Lupino's Beauty the power to tame Ryan's Beast.
Much in Ray's movies is built around the concept of contrast and opposition. Sometimes this is simple interpersonal conflict: between the teenagers and their parents and other adults in Rebel, between Joan Crawford and her nemesis Mercedes McCambridge in Johnny Guitar. Sometimes the conflict is more generalized: between Bogart and the Hollywood system in In a Lonely Place, between the criminal young lovers and the law in They Live by Night. In On Dangerous Ground, the main conflict is between people. This conflict, though, is not strictly personal, but rather between personality types and the ways those types view the world.
Andrew Sarris writes that "Robert Ryan [suffers from] disillusion with mankind in On Dangerous Ground," and I would say that is a succinct and accurate summation of Jim Wilson's persona. But Wilson himself seems unaware of the true nature of his discontent, so focused is he on the corruption he witnesses around him. When he returns to his dreary, anonymous apartment after his shift ends, the first thing he does is go to the basin and wash his hands. Then he looks at them in disgust and washes them a second time—this time even more vigorously, as if trying to scrub away all the vileness he has been exposed to for the last several hours. He almost seems to be trying to strip away the contaminated skin from his own hands.
Wilson gains perspective about himself only after he leaves his familiar environment and is exposed to Jim Brent, the murdered girl's father, and Mary Malden, the killer's protective sister. These characters hold a mirror up to Wilson, forcing him to examine himself and consider for the first time what everyone else seems to realize about him—that his dissatisfaction with life is destroying him by creating an impenetrable barrier between him and the rest of the world.
Brent shows Wilson what he might ultimately become if he does not change the course he is on, how hatred, no matter what its origin, can become all-consuming. In Brent he sees someone whose rage is even greater than his own. Recognizing the destructive ugliness of himself reflected and magnified in Malden, he comes to realize that his own brutality makes him little different from those he despises. Instead of needing to be restrained himself, he is called on to become the restraining force on Brent, and this unaccustomed role reveals to him a side of himself of which he has been unaware. He sees that his rage fueled by disillusion can be controlled, indeed must be controlled, if he is not to become the monster he sees in Brent.
Mary also becomes a catalyst that causes Wilson to discover within himself a part of his personality that is new to him. Wilson's rigid, judgmental hostility is contrasted with Mary's gentle passivity and loyalty to her brother. Mary's selflessness and protective behavior show Wilson that it is possible to love something that is flawed. It allows him to accept imperfection and shows him that his intolerance of imperfection in the world around him is really a projection of his self-loathing and inability to accept his own flawed nature. And although Mary is quite independent and capable, she still brings out the protective instinct in Wilson. When he perceives that the beauty and nobility in her are the result of the tempering of her strength with gentleness, he is able to reconcile these opposing parts of his own personality.
Brent makes Wilson realize that his intolerance and lack of self-control are actually signs of weakness, while Mary makes him see that there is strength in tolerance, self-restraint, and empathy. If in classical tragedy the hero is brought down by some kind of imbalance in his personality, an exaggeration of some characteristic in his makeup that throws him off-center, then Wilson is in a way a tragic hero doomed by the excesses of his own nature. Yet despite its dark veneer, On Dangerous Ground is ultimately about tragedy averted, for Wilson's encounters with Brent and Mary cause a kind of balance to be restored within him and permit him to avoid a tragic fate.
As with the three main characters, Ray pursues his preoccupation with contrast and opposition in the settings of the film, and it is in this purely visual element of the movie that Ray shows how truly cinematic is his way of telling a story on film. "Few other directors had such a sense of the effect of locations and interiors on people's lives, or the visual or emotional relationship between indoors and outdoors," writes David Thomson. On Dangerous Ground could serve as an illustration of that statement.
In the opening sequence in which the three detectives gather, Ray uses their homes to tell us important things about them and in particular about Ryan's character, Jim Wilson. One of Wilson's colleagues lives is an apartment with his wife. The other is first seen in his suburban living room watching television with his four children. But the place where Wilson lives forms quite a contrast with the homey environments of his colleagues. For one thing, it is clear that he lives alone. It is also clear that he lives in a rented room in a rooming house; the presence of the wash basin in the room suggests a shared bathroom down the hall. This is a bleak, impersonal place, an ascetic environment inhabited by someone living a solitary existence, like a monk or even a prisoner.
As Wilson and his partners cruise around those city streets at night, we get a clear impression of darkness and squalor. This is archetypal film noir territory—damp urban streets illuminated by dim pools of light from streetlamps and by the garish neon signs of the sleazy bars and flophouses that line them. The buildings densely crowded together and looming over the level of the streets from which they are filmed, along with the cramped interiors of the seedy places Wilson visits searching for criminals, create an atmosphere that feels enclosed and oppressive. Everyone seems to be hemmed in, almost penned up. What a visual and atmospheric contrast the last two-thirds of the movie is, then. As soon as Wilson leaves the city, the film takes on a feeling of openness and space, and the stony, man-made harshness of the city is replaced with soft, flowing, snowy landscapes broken only by the occasional conifer. The perpetual night of the city is replaced here by natural light reflected everywhere.
The extended sequence in which Ryan and Bond pursue the killer on foot through this snowy landscape is one of the most striking in the entire movie. This sequence contains virtually no dialogue or interaction between the two. It is all motion, just the images of their tiny, dark figures, filmed largely in long shot, crossing the vast, white screen. What the sequence does have, though, is the powerful music of Bernard Herrmann, which reaches its peak here, a kind of tone poem of perpetual motion that prefigures Herrmann's later scores for Hitchcock in Vertigo and North by Northwest. This is cinema of absolute simplicity and purity. And every element in these austere landscapes suggests liberation just as strongly as the earlier cityscapes suggested confinement.
Just as striking is the farmhouse Mary Malden lives in, at which Wilson and Brent arrive near dark and end up spending the night. What a contrast this house is to both Wilson's cheerless room in the city and the by-now freezing outdoors. This is a house that wraps its inhabitants in a womb-like atmosphere. Everything about it is warm and cozy: the wood from which it is constructed, the soft light from the oil lamps, the fire burning in an open fireplace, the comfortable furniture. Things that seem a little odd about the house are quickly explained by Mary's blindness. The pot of ivy hanging in the middle of the main room just below the height of her head and immediately in front of a large doorway, the little glass wind chime beside the front door that tinkles in the draft every time the door is opened, the large piece of curved, polished wood near the fireplace—these are all cues to guide the blind woman through the house. This house is a threat-free zone, a place of refuge and security.
In the end, both the environment and the people he meets during his sojourn work their spell on Wilson. He is a man redeemed. The pat ending in which Wilson abruptly turns around on his way back to the city and returns to Mary, who having rejecting him changes her mind—an ending apparently imposed on Ray by the studio—is the only thing in the movie that doesn't quite ring true. But this is a minor quibble. The rest of the movie is a remarkable blend of realistic romanticism and detached cynicism, the exact blend of opposed but complementary attitudes found in Ray's best movies.