The underrated On Dangerous Ground continues our Nicholas Ray: Inside the Outsider series this month.
Here we see one Jim Wilson, a Los Angeles police detective who has taken the word “embittered” and made it his personal philosophy–when we first see him here, he is in his apartment, alone, cleaning his weapon, his face locked in a rictus of ill will toward his fellow man. Ray loved showing how interior space reflects a person’s inner self–compare this desolate apartment, with its crucifix and its tarnished boxing trophies, with James Mason’s home that is wallpapered with maps in Bigger Than Life, or Joan Crawford’s saloon partially built of rock in Johnny Guitar. Ryan’s detective lacks human warmth, warped as he is by the “scum” of the city, one of whom he nearly beats to death, lamenting out loud, “I always make you punks talk! Why do you make me do it?”
As critic David Thomson observed of Ryan’s Jim Wilson: “[A] tall man always having to look down, but as if some burden weighed on his spine.”
Wilson is forced to take a break from working in L.A., handed an assignment out in the California mountains, to help the local force hunt down the killer of a young girl. And here we see yet another man warped by circumstances, Ward Bond’s Walter Brent, the father of the murdered girl. But redemption comes in the form of the blind Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), who is connected closely with the case.
Ray’s tormented heroes go through such incredible emotional turmoil that it helps that the director usually gives us an (earned) happy ending leavened with life’s bitterness. On Dangerous Ground presents one of Robert Ryan’s finest performances, allowing him to dive deep into his (too often exposed) dark half, while also allowing us to witness the kindness within as well. At once a brutal noir, On Dangerous Ground is also a brilliant examination of personal redemption.
On Dangerous Ground screens Monday and Tuesday night at 7:00 & 8:45. Purchase tickets here.