On Dangerous Ground (1951)

Directed by Nicholas Ray

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The first third of On Dangerous Ground is a film noir.  Filmed almost exclusively at night on the slick, sparsely-populated streets of New York, the story follows three detectives led by our unsympathetic antihero Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan).  The black and white film is harsh all over.  Jim acts more like a gang leader as he and his pals march through back alleyways and slug supposed criminals as if they had a vendetta against them.

The other two cops can and do pull themselves out of these situations, but Jim is in too deep.  He’s angry and seems to hold the burden of man’s evil, as if any car that’s been stolen was his, any child abducted one of his own and any person murdered a close family member.

This pressure makes him act out, and soon Jim is sent upstate to cool off for a little.  While there he is to help track down a young girl’s killer, a crime which from a plot standpoint is solved and addressed fairly quickly.

The rest of the movie is in stark contrast to the first third.  Where we were once smothered in black, now the story takes place mostly in a wide, snowy rural landscape.  The screen almost seems bleached by comparison to what came before, and suddenly Jim Wilson, the familiar noir hero, looks completely out of place.  His jaded disposition, normalized by this genre of movie, quickly feels like the put upon attitude of a teenager who read Nietzsche’s wikipedia page for the first time.

We’re made to understand, even feel Jim’s burden, but when the story changes setting, we see him in a drastically new light.  The story is in effect telling Jim and the audience that this needs to change.  He can’t live this way, and just because familiar movie tropes suggest this type of character exists, he doesn’t need to.

The main source of change within Jim’s soul is Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), the blind sister of a mentally challenged boy who is responsible for the murder which has brought Jim up north.  She is blind, caring and forced to trust those around her due to her affliction.  She even says as much to Jim, highlighting the central differences between their respective approaches to the world around them.

Jim arrives to meet Walter Brent, the father of the murdered victim.  He is made brute and vengeful by his daughter’s death, an obstacle to Jim’s intended goal of arresting the murderer but a character who highlights Jim’s own need to subvert the law on a daily basis.

Jim might have it in his heart to kill the girl’s killer, but when he meets Mary, she awakens some kind of sympathy within him.  She pleads for Jim not to harm her brother because he can’t possibly understand what he’s done.  Drawn to her, Jim agrees.

The next day Jim comes across the boy, Danny, and tries to calm him down before Walter comes in guns blazing.  The resulting scuffle is between Jim and Walter, his pseudo alter-ego.  When Jim fights against the man’s vengeful intentions, he might as well be wrestling with himself.

They follow Danny up to a mountain where the boy loses his balance and falls to his death.  Walter’s need for revenge is finally quieted, and he mutters in shock, “he was just a boy,” when he sees Danny up close.

Jim is quietly shaken, and I’m not sure what it is, but the film got to me when Mary runs up to him to ask if Danny’s dead.  It’s hard to say why, and the effect likely won’t work on everyone just as certain music may render someone momentarily awestruck while another won’t hear anything they haven’t heard before.  But in this moment I started to think about the film differently.  Everything felt more important, more grand, and I just felt whatever it is the movie is supposed to make you feel.

It’s a melodrama, and that’s all, but sometimes they click.  I felt for Jim, for Mary, and I was under Nicholas Ray’s spell, at least for a time.  Describing the plot and how the film may have achieved this effect won’t do service to what it stirred up in me.  There’s nothing special about this movie, in some cases it feels rushed and overly sentimental, but again it just seemed to work.

Jim is a new man by the end.  He returns home to the dark city, but then he makes a last minute decision to return to Mary and her embrace.  He’s seen the evils of the world, and he’s decided he no longer has to live with them.  Maybe it’s just this purity of intentions, of letting go.  It’s so easy to hold onto things that weigh us down, whether personal or worldly, and sometimes it may feel offensive to let things go.  There’s a certain power in holding onto something like anger, grief or self-righteousness, and while those aren’t all equal emotions, they do contribute to a state of despair.

On Dangerous Ground presents a character for whom we anticipate all these feelings of despair.  He clings onto them like Voldemort and his horcruxes, like he needs them to survive even if they pain him so.  Maybe it’s just ego, and this is the identity he’s painted for himself, that he’s the jaded antihero of a noir film so how could he possibly abandon these painful qualities?  If anyone is going to hold onto these things, it’s Jim Wilson.  And this being a noir, we might be familiar with the idea that a character begins as a surly, jaded man and ends that way too.  Though there is often a lot going on in movies like these, there is often a lack of change.  It’s an arc or a circle that returns us to the beginning, and you get the sense that this is how it will always be.

In On Dangerous Ground change is possible, and that’s a hopeful message, made all the more impactful simply by the movie’s genre.  We expect change in the romantic comedy or the cultural drama, certainly in coming of age stories and definitely in tragedies, even if the change might be for the worse.  Narrative stories are all about arcs, about growth and rebirth, but the noir genre isn’t.  On Dangerous Ground lays the noir visual language on thick, just so we build up our own expectations of the way a story like this will end.  This is a character set in his ways who, through a commitment to his job, will drink hard and die young.  He’s burning out too quickly, and on some level it’s because he thinks this is who he is, how he has to live with the burdens he has to carry.

And then we go upstate, and Jim learns that sometimes you can trust people, and for others it’s a survival tactic to see the best in people, even when things don’t always go your way.

It’s inspiring to see Jim change for the better because if he can do it then so can we.

Up Next: The Spiral Staircase (1946), Spellbound (1945), Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

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