On Dangerous Ground (1951)

On Dangerous Ground (1951) is a classic Nicholas Ray urban rural violent cop film noir starring Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino in a tale of loneliness and duality combining the full and contrasting forces of both the wildscapes of the north and the urban environments on the individual.

Robert Ryan plays Jim Wilson a brutalised city cop, in danger of losing his job due to his lack of control when it comes to managing violence in his job. 

Ida Lupino plays Mary Malden, a blind woman who characteristic of blindness in the movies at the time — is symbolically set to allow the hero to finally 'see'.

As a hard-boiled brute gunning for the low-lifes who killed one of his colleagues, Robert Ryan portrays all the sins and extremities of the criminal urban world. However when he gets to the sticks, which are beautifully shot, and just as barren of morality as the city, he meets fellow man of violence, Walter Brent (Ward Bond) who is just as crazed as he is, perhaps more so. 

Cops en routey in On Dangerous Ground (1951)

Urban suspect in On Dangerous Ground (1951)

Grim imagery upon grim imagery and super-cinematic nihilism give On Dangerous Ground its killer classic film noir appeal. None of what happens in this film is fun, or for fun. Much of the time the characters either in the city or in the wilds, don't even speak. That's because they are too tired with the eternal slog of making their way onwards, with only Ida Lupino's character Mary making any effort to diffuse the two ticking human time-bombs that are the vengeance-driven males on their mission.

Mary Malden: Tell me, how is it to be a cop?

Jim Wilson: You get so you don't trust anybody.

Mary Malden: You're lucky. You don't have to trust anyone. I do. I have to trust everybody.

Urban suspect in On Dangerous Ground (1951)

Violence incoming — Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground (1951) 

Best of all, the story is simple, and shows nothing of the famed film noir complexity, flashback or other devices to keep it going. Instead, it asks if such men as brutalised cop Jim Wilson can ever experience a more nuanced or better view of humanity. It asks the question flatly, and answers it in a linear and exciting fashion, with stunning visuals, and manages to captivate fully on the psychological questions it poses — because it never strays from topic.

Ed Begley in On Dangerous Ground (1951)

Jim Wilson is a cop indeed, but as such is an outsider, and the frank discussion to be had in this Nicholas Ray noir is deft and serious insofar as Wilson is aware of his capacity for violence, unable or unwilling to control his behaviour, and thereafter resigned to the fact that he should stay away from the rest of polite society. In this, as in Nicholas Ray's In A Lonely Place, where Humphrey Bogart plays Dixon Steele, we have a fulsomely complete film noir male.

Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground (1951) 

Interesting side trips in psychology mean that once you are engrossed in On Dangerous Ground, you are committed to the harshness of it all. Near the start, Ryan questions a nymphomaniac played by Cleo Moore. In a dissolve, it is surely implied that Wilson will have exploited the woman's desire for rough sex in order to get the answers he needs. 

Robert Ryan and Ward Bond in On Dangerous Ground (1951)

Next up, we see Wilson beating up her boyfriend (Richard Irving), a slimy and kind of desperate city rat who seems to be be getting off on the violence, while a deranged and clearly upset Wilson screams at him, "Why do you make me do it?" 

Another dissolve allows us to imagine what is thereafter going to be a violent and sadomasochistic interrogation. The sheer city noir setting is some of the most enjoyable urban film noir going, with disgust, grit and cynicism on the streets, alleys, cop cars and dirty rooming houses. This is the dangerous ground of the title, for sure.

Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground (1951) 

But more critically, this title references the precarious position of Jim Wilson a furiously temperamental cop who is in an uncertain place mentally. Wilson's police work is characterised by the same type of tough-guy violence that is common to the style and the cop genre, most famously probably being dealt out by Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) in the Dirty Harry film series.

Yet, Harry Callahan does not seem internally bothered by his violence, and most of the time can control it too. Harry is in fact a vigilante, and roundly above the law, and never a part of it. This is not a luxury that brutal cop Jim Wilson has in On Dangerous Ground.

Even Wilson's colleagues Pete Santos (Anthony Ross) and Pop Daly (Charles Kemper) agree that Jim Wilson needs to tone it down. Unlike Harry too, this is much darker as Jim Wilson's on-the-job violence has a sexual charge to it. Wilson does get a sexual thrill from beating information out of suspect Bernie Tucker (Richard Irving). "Alright Bernie, we're alone now," Wilson says with a weird sense of satisfaction.

Why do the the tough guys always have to check the blind genuinely cannot see them?
Ida Lupino in On Dangerous Ground (1951) 

Instead of remaining in this habitual and dark urban world, filmed here by hand-held camera which is quite unique for its day, On Dangerous Ground moves north to a remote mountain town where a girl was murdered. There, Wilson's boss (Ed Begley) hopes the change will prove beneficial. Wilson however comes straight away into conflict with a man even more highly-strung than him in the shape of the dead girl's father, Walter Brent (Ward Bond). Brent's haste and rash hunt-kill attitude allows us to see a more methodical side of Wilson.

Amazingly, the two landscapes — the dark, wet roads of the city versus the bright, snowy mountains — immediately expose the conflict of light and dark in cop Jim Wilson's soul. The short bursts of jerky hand-held camera shots in the city scenes are so enveloping that all we know is we are watching classic film noir, with its accentuated violence. In the country, the feel of the icy snow-lands, jagged rocks, thick forests, empty snow-plains and rustic farms is vivid and lonely.

Score from Bernhard Herrmann

Brent and Wilson end up in a cabin belonging to Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), who is the blind sister of the killer they've been chasing, the mentally-challenged Danny (Sumner Williams). Finally, Wilson finally realises how truly isolated he is and almost sees himself reflected in the solitary Mary, while he admires her own hardness resolve. As he compares himself to wild man of the mountains Brent, resourceful Mary and ill-fated Danny, Jim sees that he's not as alienated as Danny, or even as lost as the more civilized Brent, but that it is pure solid black film noir cynicism towards the world that is his worst enemy. 

In finding this affinity with the blind Mary, brutal New York City cop Jim Wilson sees that he can overcome his alienation from the world, and perhaps even find love. The question remains about his suppressing his natural tendency towards violence. This is not as straightforward as it might seem, especially in a world of policing where the moral value of an act can be judged by the value of its consequences.

Crucially, in Brent, brutalised cop Jim Wilson sees a keen reflection of himself — an angry and violent man who justifies taking the law into his own hands.

Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground (1951) 

There is a also a buddy-film element to the rural aspect of On Dangerous Ground. When he hits the sticks and joins the pursuit of the wanted young man, Robert Ryan as Jim Wilson hooks up with a rural double of himself, the bloodthirsty and violent Walter Brent, played by Ward Bond. The pair of them are complete loggerheads in their attitude to the hunt, and Ward Bond as Walter Brent is immediately dismissive of Ryan, simply using the word 'city' as a slur. 

Ida Lupino in On Dangerous Ground (1951) 

The two set off on the manhunt almost fighting as they go, unwilling partners in a cold buddy movie, chasing and driving, and running and hunting, until the pair happen upon Ida Lupino's mountain house.

Two movies in one, On Dangerous Ground expresses duality and loneliness like no other classic noir. The wandering opening scenes contain a rambling urban beauty, with a gritty city view of cops and crime, dark corners and all the anonymous evils of the city life. 

The film score was composed by Bernard Herrmann (1911–1975) and seems to be the same as — or was re-used knowingly in Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 thriller North by Northwest. He also later reused a sequence that became the opening theme of the 1957 television series Have Gun Will Travel, as well as other fragments of incidental music later adapted for use in the TV show.

Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground (1951) 

Herrmann sought to use an obscure baroque instrument, the viola d'amore, to represent Mary Malden's isolation and loneliness. The sound of the instrument can be heard much of the time she is on-screen

The closing minutes of On Dangerous Ground (1951) are longer than might normally be expected of a period classic such as this — but they work to express through Robert Ryan's character, as true a presentation of a spiritual awakening as might be found in 1951.

Ida Lupino in On Dangerous Ground (1951) 

Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground (1951) 

On Dangerous Ground fits snugly into Nicholas Ray‘s groove. As with In a Lonely Place (1951), a lonely and violent man is given a chance to reach empathy through the help of a woman. Like They Live by Night (1949) or Johnny Guitar (1954), the film breaks on to the screen with all the tropes of a certain genre in place but then  reveals itself to be something else entirely. Like Rebel Without a Cause (1955), On Dangerous Ground is about a group of people who are so misunderstood by those around them, that they are refused from society from even going home.

As with Johnny Guitar, the hero has macho job: a gunslinger in Johnny Guitar, an obsessed cop in On Dangerous Ground. Both men are recovering from emotional problems brought on by excessive involvement with a violent job.

Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino in On Dangerous Ground (1951) 

On Dangerous Ground does not also belong to Nicholas Ray alone, but also to Ida Lupino —  and when Ray became ill, Lupino directed some portions of the film. Lupino started directing not long after Ray. As an actor, she recalled how she found herself bored between takes while “someone else seemed to be doing all the interesting work.” 

By 1950, Lupino and her husband opened an independent production company to produce low-budget, issue-oriented films, tackling American cinematic taboos like rape (Outrage, 1950) and bigamy (The Bigamist 1953).

This drama of despair and salvation is one of the greatest in all film noir, and carries its film noir themes of alienation and violence with impact. The journey from the urban to the rural maps an inner journey of realisation that carries a moral beauty to it, making On Dangerous Ground (1951) one of the most striking examples of the style.

With intensity and imbalance Robert Ryan makes this profound journey into the beauty of a snowy landscape from the darkness of his urban world — which is where we witness that mesmerising and violent interrogation in which Robert Ryan delivers one of the most anguished lines in all of the might great and immortal film noir canon: "Why do you punks make me do it?!"

This is a man so out of control and is a gripping vision of loneliness and the existential possibilities of having to live and work in a corrupted and sick urban world, where crime seems to have seeped into every crack.

Back at his apartment after this savage and maniacal day at work Wilson (Robert Ryan) looks for at a moment at his sports trophies — the only sign of positivity in his entire life —  and all he can say is: "Who cares?"

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