“On Dangerous Ground” (1951)

by A.J. Hakari

"On Dangerous Ground" poster


For cops, shaking off the darkness of the job is no easy feat. So much time immersed in the criminal element is liable to mess up anyone but good, with many incensed by the rampant evil and driven to sacrifice their own principles in pursuit of justice. When pushed to the right extreme, an officer of the law can be hard to distinguish from the scum they’re supposed to put away, a position claimed by the protagonist of 1951’s On Dangerous Ground from the film’s very outset. Its is a world wherein the sight of a flatfoot’s fedora strikes just as much fear into the public’s heart as a mugger’s snubnose, the nightscape abuzz with pleas for some semblance of mercy from those being beaten senseless for a morsel of information. But is it too late to suss some good out of those who’ve seemingly given morality the kiss-off? On Dangerous Ground aims to address such a query, and, in keeping with the proper film noir tradition, it ensures that both its journey and the answers it comes to aren’t necessarily pretty.

New York City’s police can already be as mean as the streets they patrol. But when one of them is cut down, the boys in blue are a force to be reckoned with. Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is a hard-boiled brute gunning for the lowlifes who killed a colleague, and it’s his resolve that eventually leads to a break in the case…at the cost of landing a suspect in the hospital. In hopes of avoiding further scandal, our man’s superiors send him upstate, assigned to join in the manhunt for a girl’s alleged murderer. There, Jim finds that the victim’s father (Ward Bond) is even more unhinged than he is, hell-bent on blowing away the culprit, no matter what the law says. However, the plot thickens once Jim encounters the suspect’s blind sister (Ida Lupino), who asserts that her brother isn’t sane enough to know what he’s doing. But will her words be enough to inspire the big city cop to bring the boy in unharmed, or will he once more allow his unbridled anger do the talking?

From the start, On Dangerous Ground maintains a vigilant perch atop a gaping chasm of cinematic nihilism. The audience is inundated with grim imagery as soon as the opening title cards wrap up, as Jim and his partners leave their squalid living conditions to commence the night’s patrol. It’s a sequence that, at any other time, could be mistaken as the beginning of a heist thriller, yet it’s just one of many scenes here that succinctly blur the thin blue line. The characters needn’t even breathe a word, for the camera — which moves with a ferocity throughout the Big Apple’s side streets and fixates on Jim’s gleeful mug as he takes out his latest aggressions on some goon’s ribcage — communicates the picture’s downbeat tone just fine. On Dangerous Ground is alive with grit and virtues chucked in the gutter, which makes it all the more impressive when the film nails its transition into a redemption story. After meeting Lupino’s character, Ryan’s Jim slowly comes to view crime in less black-and-white terms, realizing that there’s more to particular cases than meets the eye. However, director Nicholas Ray (with a reported assist from Lupino herself) isn’t so quick to forgive, using our lead’s rage to tease us as to whether or not he’s truly atoned for his personal demons until the very end.

On Dangerous Ground also has in its corner the added bonus of actors wholly invested in bringing to life a range of complex characters. Already a noir veteran thanks to appearances in films like Crossfire and The Set-Up, Ryan turns in quite the hefty performance as Jim, presenting a formidable edge while playing his emotional transformation close to the vest. At first, Jim doesn’t even try to interfere when Bond sets out on the warpath (even smiling as the latter proclaims his bloodlust), and as he gradually warms up to the notion of exercising some restraint, Ryan is there to help hammer home what a tough ride it is. The importance of Lupino’s role can’t be overstated either, what with the actress and filmmaker putting on an incredibly effective show as a woman who tries her damnedest to diffuse the human time bombs who arrive on her doorstop before someone she loves gets hurt. Bond gives us one heartbreaker of a performance as a grieving and furious father, and seeing classic character players like Ed Begley and Charles Kemper round out the periphery is very much welcome. However, some disappointment is incurred as our story reaches a finale that, by noir standards, is conspicuously clean. Ray’s intention was for a more cynical cap-off to Jim’s travels, but studio intervention led to the current ending, which, while not a significant damper on the movie at large, comes across as a cop out nonetheless.

Generally admired by those who’ve seen it but not as prominent as others in the noir scene, On Dangerous Ground is, to put it lightly, the good stuff. As captivating and accomplished on a psychological level as it is on a technical front, the picture combines sensationalistic visuals and subtle storytelling with an expert touch. Clocking in at a hair over eighty minutes, On Dangerous Ground conveys a good deal of attitude in a lean package.

(On Dangerous Ground is available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection.)

(This review is part of CineSlice’s Noirvember tribute, featuring a different film noir review every week throughout November. For Noirvember reviews from other critics, check out the official community Facebook page or follow the #Noirvember hashtag on Twitter.)