On Dangerous Ground (1951): Lyrical Noir from Nicholas Ray, Starring Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan

A gripping, emotionally touching crime tale, Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground is considered to be an existential melodrama, which disqualifies it from the label of “pure” film noir because of its focus on the regenerative power of love and the fact that its closure suggests an upbeat ending.

A. I. Bezzerides script, based on George’s Butler novel “Mad With Much Heart,” is divided into two distinct parts, the first hard-boiled noir set in the city, the second a lyrical love story in the country, which, for some critics (not me) lessens the film’s overall impact and coherence.

The protagonist is a tough, troubled cop named Jim Wilson (well played by Robert Ryan), who has been brutalized by his job of cleaning up the “human garbage” in New York City; he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He lives alone in a shabby apartment and has no social interaction, except with his peers. Wilson’s job and life have made him bitter, angry, and violent. He is so filled with hate that he lets his fists speak for him when interrogating criminal suspect.
To avoid having to suspend him, his boos, Captain Brawley (Ed Begley) sends Wilson to the country to help investigate a rural killing by a disturbed teenager, Danny Malden (Sumner Williams). There, Wilson is confronted with Walter Brent (Ward Bond), an irate, vengeance-seeking father, obsessed with catching the killer of his young daughter.  There’s a parallel between the two men, who though different, both are brutes, motivated by hatred.
In the country, Wilson also meets Danny’s blind sister, Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), who pleads Wilson not to harm her brother and prevent him from falling into Bond’s hands. Through Mary’s compassionate view of the world, Wilson becomes more humane and understanding, realizing that the youth charged with the crime is mentally disturbed. He tracks the youth (Williams) across vast tracts of snow.

Cornered, Danny flees in panic across the snow-covered terrain, where he accidentally falls from a cliff to his death. Wilson consoles Mary and then plans to head back to New York City and his job. However, realizing that there is nothing meaningful for him in the Big City, Wilson returns to Mary, determined to start together a new life.

Despite a contrived plot, the film is tautly directed by Nicholas Ray, who’s excellent in establishing a mood of despair in the first chapter and then redemption toward the conclusion.

Several critics–purists of film noir–have claimed that On Dangerous Ground is an incoherent film, because only the first half (with it urban setting) qualifies as noir, whereas the second half (set in the country) and its happy ending deviates from the genre’s conventions.  The journey taken by Wilson is as much external and physical (from city to country) as it is moral and internal.

“On Dangerous Ground” failed to hit at the box-office (RKO claims to have lost $425,000) and Ray himself was not pleased with the film’s final cut.

It would take another decade and another generation of prominent film critics, such as Andrew Sarris of the “Village Voice,” to reevaluate the film as one of Ray’s more subtle and lyrical films, bearing many of the director’s characteristic stylistic flourishes.