Lovely is not a word I would normally use when describing a film noir, yet here I am, labeling On Dangerous Ground as a lovely piece of work. It is perhaps Nicholas Ray’s most upbeat movie, beginning as a hard-hitting cop story and ending on a heartwarming note, with renewal and hopefulness at its beck and call. It is the only tender film noir I’ve seen. Genre turnarounds can be hurtful to the tone of a film, as no one wants to go to the theaters for a Will Ferrell vehicle only to find it sinking into tragedy rather than an uproariously funny closer. But by tying the pessimistic atmosphere of the first act into the neuroses of the title character, the shift in On Dangerous Ground is largely flattering, a difficult feat that Ray pulls off with unwavering certainty. He believes in the story, and, as a result, so do we.
Robert Ryan portrays Jim Wilson, a worn-out detective who is growing increasingly intolerant towards the disreputable scum he deals with on a regular basis. In past film noirs, cops as violent as Wilson would eventually go as far as murdering someone, spending the rest of the movie trying to make their wrongs into rights. But in On Dangerous Ground, it immediately becomes evident that Wilson is capable of saintly good nature but has been pushed over the edge by the constant surrounding sleaze.
After beating up a number of suspects during arrest, his precinct grows concerned and sends him away to the outskirts of town to investigate the murder of a young woman. Upon arrival, he finds a reflection of himself in the hateful family of the victim, and, during the investigation, falls for Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), the blind sister of the prime suspect who serves as a ray of light in his jet-black life.
In theory, On Dangerous Ground should be clunky and awkward; yet, it is kind of brilliant. It looks and feels like a film noir, but that’s only a disguise for the more touching instances of psychological study. Everything is presented in such a nonchalant, nearly conventional manner that the power it eventually bears is unexpectedly poignant. Only Ray could direct this sort of material; most do not have the same curious capacity to switch from the hard-boiled to the humane.
The contrast between the slick city streets and the snowy grounds of the more evangelical countryside are competently histrionic. As Wilson enters the fresh, cool landscape, a tidal wave of reversal falls upon us. In the first few minutes of the film, as we watch Wilson fight crime with boorish tenacity, the streets so usually enthralling in film noir turn into something uncomfortably grimy and greasy. Crime is like a horde of ants crawling up and down our arms. The countryside, though still the setting of a murder, has a comforting tranquility. Without people scattered in every nook and cranny, there is a chance to breathe. The entrance of Lupino is reminiscent to that of an angel falling out the sky; with no eyesight, she is unable to see the vile underpinnings of the world. Her kindness is a gift.
As Wilson’s life converts from direly violent to one of prospect, there is something stirring that occurs that softened me more than I ever would have thought possible. In film noir, we’re used to endless acerbity; it is rare that a character, a policeman who seems so destined to head down a dark path, is given a second chance. Throughout his career, Ryan was mostly typecast as a villain with a booming voice, but in On Dangerous Ground he is given a chance to be expressive and sensitive. It is a surprisingly wistful performance, connecting with ease towards the delicate, soul-baring Lupino.
On Dangerous Ground has been pushed aside as a minor work from the illustrious Nicholas Ray (The Big Heat, Rebel Without a Cause), but it’s nevertheless shimmering all these years later. Its audacious attempts to subvert the norms of such a specific genre are absorbingly moving. B+