On Dangerous Ground is one of the most unique and interesting classic film noirs. Here is a film that begins in hard-boiled city streets, following police on the trail of a cop killer. The people the cops interact with are all hostile, seedy, and untrustworthy. The streets are dimly lit, and the camera work evokes a feeling of claustrophobia and fear. Then without much warning, the film suddenly changes tone, and we leave the bleak city streets, to a mountainous, snowy landscape. There’s another hunt for a killer, but the tone switches to a more, romantic, and sentimental mood, something which doesn’t normally belong in the world of film noir.
The crux of this story has to do with loneliness, and how the disillusionment of human nature can leave one wracked with pain. That’s what is ailing the film’s main protagonist Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), a cop who lives an isolated life. We first see him alone in his apartment, with his gun holster wrapped around his body, eating dinner, and studying mugshots. He is picked up for his shift by his two partners both of which have wives and families to come home to, there is no evidence Jim has such a lifestyle.
At the beginning of the film, we learn that a cop killer has been on the loose for some time now, and there is a city-wide manhunt for him. We are set up to believe this will be the primary focus of the film, but it’s really all about Jim. We follow his squad as they investigate through the city, meeting up with the different kinds of low lives and degenerates they must associate themselves with every day. For Jim, it’s this kind of interaction, that sets him off. We see very soon, he’s a loose cannon, who could snap any at moment. This section of the film culminates with him pulverizing a suspect so much he gets sent to the hospital. Jim seems possessed in this scene, vehemently asking his victim “Why do you make me do it?” As if he is driven to such acts of violence as a way to cope with his hopeless situation.
Once this happens, Jim’s chief (Ed Begley) exiles him to work on a case out in the country. In this new environment, he gets caught up with the murder of a young girl, and the father (Ward Bond) who goes on a vigilante witch hunt to find the killer. He also meets Mary Maldon (Ida Lupino) a blind woman who is the sister of the young killer and is trying to protect him. It is with Mary, Jim tries to find redemption by promising her he’ll protect her brother and bring him in safely.
On Dangerous Ground is a film noir that wears its heart on its sleeve. It doesn’t portray a hopeless nihilistic world we most associate with the genre, rather it looks for transcendence in the trappings of its gritty isolationism. The character of Jim Wilson exemplifies the type of anti-hero who doesn’t seem he can escape from his violent tendencies. He is a victim of his environment, coping with a cold harsh inner city of the criminal underworld. Jim has learned not to care about people, and that has cut him off completely from society. Yet the film allows his salvation in the presence of Mary, another lonely heart whose blindness has left her physically isolated with only her brother to take care of her. Jim and Mary are both misfits in a world that seems to have cast them both out, but perhaps they can survive together.
There is also a spiritual allegory connected with the film as well. The changing of scenery from an urban city, to snowy landscapes bring about an emotional change in Jim as if his mood is affected by being closer to nature. In the city, he is unhinged and neurotic, while in the country he becomes more calm and level-headed. Ironically Jim is even the voice of reason when up against Bond’s grieving father who wants swift justice to the man who killed his daughter. In the way the environment connects with the characters, one could argue the film owes as much to the poetic realism of the french as it does with film noir.
As Jim, Robert Ryan gives one of his strongest performances. Ryan was always an underrated actor, but he was a staple in film noir usually playing a psychotic villain. Here he gets one of his few sympathetic roles. Ryan is able to portray so much anguish and conflict just with a look or even a clench of his jaw, we can sense the turmoil he’s trying to keep within him.
The film’s direction was credited solely to Nicholas Ray, and we can clearly see his trademark themes of isolation and violence with his characters as portrayed in his other brilliant films In a Lonely Place or Rebel Without a Cause. However it was reported that Ray suffered a nervous breakdown during production, which caused Ida Lupino to step in behind the camera. Lupino was a pioneer filmmaker being one of the very few women to be able to direct a major studio film and even founding her own production company in 1949. It has been said Lupino with collaboration with Ryan came up with the final transcendent scene of the film where Mary and Jim come together and touch hands, which brings together the themes of the film so beautifully.
On Dangerous Ground is a very lyrical film, it moves like music on the screen, beginning in darkness and moving toward redemption and light. It’s lack of conventional storytelling caused it to be misunderstood by critics when it was first released, but later gained a reappraisal as a truly special film in the noir cannon. It speaks to the loners, and the outcasts, and that existential need for connection and how it can be found in a world full of hopelessness and despair.