While Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground in some respects betrays its age with some of its melodrama, settings and fashions (sometimes period films can seem like so much science fiction, its so alien) and certainly isn’t quite the film that Ray intended it to be (the film was shelved for two years and altered in post-production against his wishes) it is nonetheless a massively impressive, fascinating picture. In a clever usurping of the ‘wholesome good cop/authority figure’ characters of Between Midnight to Dawn (1950), a more routine crime drama in which clean-cut cops remain untarnished by the dirt they are working in, this film feels much more honest and real. For the first thirty minutes its a distinctly brutal noir showing how a good hard-working cop has been dehumanised by the relentless grimness of his job, genuinely traumatised by the lowlife underbelly of society he has to work in and the negative public perception of cops (a pretty woman confesses she’d never date a cop). Then when he is tasked with investigating a sex-murder out in the high mountains away from the city the film becomes a romantic melodrama and study of redemption. Would anyone believe a happy ending in a film noir? On Dangerous Ground‘s ending, if it doesn’t entirely convince, at least suggests that a ‘happy ever after’ and redemption can be possible, however fleeting.
As our frustrated honest cop Jim Wilson, Robert Ryan is some kind of revelation with a fantastic performance- his rage is evident in his chiselled jawline and stark eyes, but there’s a subtle fragility there too. His job is gradually destroying him, that much is clear; his worried partners and boss Captain Brawley (Ed Begley) know that Jim is a good man teetering on the edge, and that’s why Brawley sends him out of the city to cool down. The city sequences in which Jim lashes out at anyone who opposes him (viciously beating a suspect and allowing a woman to fall foul of the criminals she snitched on) are gritty and convincing, with an occasional hand-held camera really intensifying the you-are-there feeling. Accompanied by moody driving sequences and a brilliant Bernard Herrmann score, the film prefigures Taxi Driver by some twenty years and is surely an inspiration for Scorsese’s film, from the rain-swept city streets at night to the alienation felt by Jim: one could almost imagine Jim ruminating “one day a real rain will wash away these streets.”
But then Jim is sent to the mountain wilderness of snow and bitter cold, the landscapes suddenly devoid of humanity, barren and stark and beautiful (the location photography in these sequences is exquisite and really impressive- magnificent desolation indeed). The tonal shift is immediate, particularly in Jim- tasked with accompanying the child victim’s father Walter Brent (Ward Bond) who is incandescent with rage and desperate for bloody revenge, wildly brandishing his shotgun- he’s everything Jim was back in the city, and Jim is suddenly faced with seeing himself in Walter and appreciating the folly of his own violent madness. Tracking the child’s killer in deep snow, Jim and Walter reach an isolated farmstead and meet Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), a blind woman who assures them she lives alone and has no knowledge of anyone else being there, despite the tracks saying different. Why would Mary, a decent honest woman who ultimately offers Jim some kind of redemption from his past, hide the killer?
On Dangerous Ground is quite remarkable. It shouldn’t really work, and I guess some noir aficionado’s would claim it doesn’t, citing its ending and the romantic interludes that lead up to it, but that’s just part of what makes it so memorable and unique. The wilderness scenes were shot in Colorado and are amazing, really- the snow and the blizzards are real and the filming must have been something of a nightmare, but its totally effective, barring what look like a very few front-projection shots (reshoots setting-up the happy ending?). The cast is excellent and Herrmann’s music just sublime, shades of what we would hear in Vertigo several years later. The miracle of so many old films such as these is how timeless they seem to be, and how perfect they are. Script, direction, acting, production values, everything seems to click into place in spite of or perhaps because of low budgets (necessity the mother of all invention, a lesson so many bloated modern films should heed).
So ultimately we come back to that earlier question I raised- would anyone believe a happy ending in a film noir? Or maybe we are supposed to take it on face value, and then only afterwards start to doubt it, realise its only the promise of a happy ending, and that maybe the noir wins out after all, maybe a missing reel onwards that we never see. Endings in movies are funny things after all, and quite arbitrary. We often see couples walk off together into the sunset, films ending well before we see them divorcing months/years later, or characters dying- well, that’s how everybody’s story ends eventually; films just tie things up and cut us loose before Time wreaks its inevitable revenge. But I digress (I’ve seen perhaps too many noir movies this year), so I’ll choose my own ending here.