Loneliness is the defining thematic element of the cinema of Nicholas Ray. Almost all of his films deal with a protagonist whose behavior isolates themselves within their society. Ray implements these concerns fluidly in his screen adaptation of Gerald Butler’s Mad With Much Heart titled On Dangerous Ground (1952). Though On Dangerous Ground is commonly considered a film noir, only the first twenty minutes of the film utilizes the lighting techniques of the genre. Likewise, the film is more concerned with the psychological state of its Police Detective protagonist than it is with the crime he is investigating. The misunderstanding of genre and intention are the trappings of Ray’s early films. An iconoclast, Ray often employed a variation of cinematic styles and tricks in his films, using the techniques to the best advantage of his films without aligning his films with any particular genre. This has lead to the popular belief that Nicholas Ray was a genre-bending revisionist, as well as to the mislabeling of other films. Like In A Lonely Place (1950), On Dangerous Ground has been swept up into the film noir genre, an incident that hinders rather than eases any sort of critical analysis of the film.
The film’s protagonist, Detective Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), is but one in a long line of misunderstood and frustrated heroes in the films of Nicholas Ray. Like Major David Brand in Bitter Victory (1957) or Ed Avery of Bigger Than Life (1956), Jim Wilson is his own worst enemy, and served as a blueprint for the popular “anti-hero” dramas of the seventies. In Jim Wilson we find Ray returning to similar themes of violence and disillusionment that made In A Lonely Place such a haunting film. A policeman for eleven years, Jim Wilson is world weary and lonely when the film begins. Wilson’s quick temper, his distrust and his inability to “leave work at work” are all indicative of how far he has removed himself from everyday life. At one point, Ray shows us Wilson at home cleaning up his supper. Wilson’s apartment is bare, dingy and small. Of course, Wilson’s loneliness and his distrust of humanity begin to manifest itself in episodes of excessive and sadistic violence perpetrated against suspects. The pattern of disillusionment and violence that results in Wilson’s transfer to the rural suburbs is the same pattern that prevents Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) from fulfilling his relationship with Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) in In A Lonely Place.
Stylistically, Ray is able to make Wilson’s violent outbursts visually unique within the context of On Dangerous Ground. In several instances, when Wilson gets out of the police car to pursue a suspect, or when Wilson is engaged in a car chase, Ray uses a hand held camera. Except for these rare moments, the camera is stationary, thus providing a dynamic contrast to the kinetic energy of the hand held shots. The abruptness and the energy of these shots successfully emote to the audience the violent urgency Wilson is experiencing, conveying a temporary sense of displacement similar to that Wilson undergoes after one of his violent outbursts.
Once transferred out of the city, both Wilson and the cinematography begin to undergo a change. The hand held shots of violence from the city sequences disappear, replaced by long tracking shots of wide snowy fields. By doing this, Ray and cinematographer George E. Diskant are able to juxtapose the tranquil beauty of the country with the raw energy and violence of the city as well as Wilson himself.
Jim Wilson has been sent to investigate the murder of a little girl while she was on her way home from school. The local police, along with the murdered girl’s father Walter Brent (Ward Bond), have the suspect cornered in the woods when Wilson arrives. However, no sooner does Wilson arrive than the suspect makes a daring escape, stealing a car. Wilson and Brent commandeer their own transport and pursue the suspect. When Wilson first arrives, Sheriff Carrey (Ian Wolfe) takes him to meet and interview Brent’s family. This brief encounter (cut short by Brent’s appearance and announcement that the suspect is on the run) has a tremendous mise en scene. Ray carefully choreographs all the children so that they are constantly moving about in the background of shots. The close-knit family quality this scene conveys is designed to counterpoint the scene of Wilson in his own apartment. The children’s faces, and their off camera mutterings, indicate how deeply the murder has effected them, a reaction that Wilson has become totally incapable of. Robert Ryan plays the scene subtly, using only his face to express how uncomfortable the compassion, love and caring the Brent family is exhibiting makes him. In fact, Wilson appears relieved when Walter Brent arrives, finding he is able to relate to Walter Brent’s appetite for revenge.
After pursuing the suspect into the night, Wilson and Brent find the stolen car crashed into some trees after they themselves have wrecked their car. Brent hurries to the suspect’s vehicle, firing his shotgun into the driver’s seat only to realize no one was there. Wilson picks up the suspect’s trail in the snow, so the two men head through the woods in pursuit.
The music becomes minimal as night falls, as does the dialogue. The film becomes almost silent as Wilson and Brent navigate the woods. Shortly, off in a field, Wilson spots an old farmhouse with a single light on. Once the light catches Brent’s gaze, it shuts off, and the two men hurry to the building.
It’s in the farmhouse that Wilson meets Mary Malden (Ida Lupino, an incredible director in her own right). Mary has gone blind, having had to give up her treatment to look after her brother Danny (Sumner Williams). At first, neither Wilson nor Brent are convinced of Mary’s blindness or that her brother is away. Brent storms through the house while Wilson interviews Mary. Frustrated, Brent almost hits Mary across the face when Wilson intervenes. The two men decide to search the grounds, but Wilson decides to return and resume interviewing Mary.
During the second interview is where the major change in Wilson occurs. Earlier, it had been Brent who acted out his frustration with violence, prompting Wilson to come to Mary’s defense. This is a reversal of roles for Wilson, who, at the out set of the film, had been prone to violence. Now, during the second interview, Wilson begins to understand his own feelings through Mary, who is articulate enough to give words to her experience as a blind woman and a person dogged by loneliness. Wilson had been living in denial of his feelings, defending himself from the experience of being a cop. But Wilson provides something for Mary as well. Wilson is reassurance to Mary, that there are others inhibited by their experience, made lonely by events that they cannot control. Mary cannot control the pace at which she went blind just as Wilson cannot control the cases he gets or the crimes he’s scene committed.
This recognition on the parts of both Mary and Wilson allows Mary to trust Wilson. She informs him that her brother is guilty, and that if Wilson promises not to allow Brent or anyone to hurt her brother, she will turn him in. Wilson agrees just as Brent returns. The two men sleep in the living room, Wilson having come to the understanding that Mary will deliver her brother in the morning.
When morning arrives, Mary sneaks out of the house as Wilson follows at a distance, not quite allowing himself to trust her entirely. Mary opens the storm cellar door of the barn and informs her brother Danny about her arrangement with Wilson. Having gotten Danny’s consent, Mary begins to walk to the house. When Wilson approaches her, she becomes startled, and Danny runs to a shack at the back of the property at the foot of a rocky hill. Wilson pursues and traps Danny inside. In the shack, Wilson does not revert back to his violent methods of intimidation; instead he approaches Danny with compassion. This method calms Danny, though it is short lived. All of the sudden, Brent bursts in. Brent’s threats an violence scare Danny, who runs up the rocky hill. But first, Wilson tries to disarm Brent.
Brent’s sudden appearance and behavior is a sort of betrayal to Danny. Wilson had promised him there would be no violence, but Brent brought violence. Similarly, Wilson’s frustrations with Brent come not from Danny’s escape, but from Brent’s behavior that reminds Wilson of his own violence earlier in the film.
In pursuit of Danny up the rocky hill, there is an accident on some ice, and Danny falls to his death. Brent changes his vengeful attitude when he sees that the murderer is just a boy. The remorse Brent exhibits, though superficial, is mirrored by that experienced by Wilson. Danny’s death means that Wilson had betrayed Mary.
It is these emotional stakes that change Wilson. First, there was the grief and anger of Brent’s family that gave a face to the victim, reminding Wilson of the severe ramifications murder has. Secondly, Wilson confronted his own psychological inhibitions and loneliness through Mary. And now, with Danny’s death, Wilson has to face his own failure and Brent’s remorse. Each of these three incidents works as a sort of catalyst, restoring different human elements and emotions to Wilson’s jaded psyche. These elements, though abstract, are understood by the audience due largely to the emotive quality of Robert Ryan’s close ups. They allow the audience to intuitively associate the visual experiences of the narrative with Wilson’s psychological growth.
In this rather sensitive condition, Wilson informs Mary of what has happened. Her pain is not entirely a result of Danny’s loss or even Wilson’s alleged betrayal, but due largely to a lack of purpose. To avoid the trap of loneliness, Mary needed to have an emotional connection with another human being, someone to give her direction. Without Danny, Mary has neither love nor direction. Likewise, Wilson, having found himself through carrying out Mary’s request that her brother be apprehended without violence, has no direction without the case or the manhunt. The stakes may be higher for Mary, but the experience, with all of its gravitas, is a shared one.
Wilson begins to drive back to the city, but is unable to make his trip. He returns to Mary, and in a moment of pure allegory, takes her hand, filling the void in both of their lives. In the final moment of On Dangerous Ground, Nicholas Ray forsakes the realism of the entire film in favor of an allegorical ending, with all of the plasticity of a melodrama. However, the effect works, largely because of the nature of loneliness itself. Ray understood that loneliness was an emotion experienced by all, and that articulating that experience for a fictional character in a dramatic narrative would prompt the audience to suspend all disbelief if that character had the opportunity to remedy their condition. It’s a subliminal tactic, but an effective one.
On Dangerous Ground also represents some new trends in Nicholas Ray’s work. The melodramatic ending would be the entire tone of his most famous films Johnny Guitar (1954) and Rebel Without A Cause (1955). But the film’s cinematic style, its long shots of barren fields of snow indicate a greater trust on his part in the power of the film image. Ray’s previous films had moved at a quick clip, pausing only over scenes with a long dialogue exchange. This would prove essential to the visual structure of Ray’s biggest production King Of Kings (1961). Yet, On Dangerous Ground itself is a transitional film in Ray’s filmography. His personal films would become more and more complex in their approach to the same basic thematic elements, articulating a more natural human psychology. Ray’s later films would also improve on his skills to manipulate genres, and subvert audience expectations. That doesn’t mean On Dangerous Ground is insignificant, on the contrary, it becomes essential to understanding Nicholas Ray’s development as a film artist.