Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 18, 2016)
From director Nicholas Ray, 1951’s On Dangerous Ground brings us a thriller in the film noir vein. City cop Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) uses violent tactics to get what he wants from those he apprehends, and this eventually lands him in trouble.
Wilson remains on the job, but he needs to go far from the rough and tumble city to deal with a murder. Sent to “Siberia” until matters cool down, Wilson finds himself in the wide-open countryside, where he investigates the murder of Sally Brent and prime suspect Danny Malden (Sumner Williams). This becomes more complicated because Julie’s father (Ward Bond) demands revenge – and Wilson starts to fall for Danny’s vision-impaired sister Mary (Ida Lupino).
The decision to make Mary blind creates a massive potential pitfall, especially given the romantic path the story takes. A movie like this could get sickly-sweet when love enters the narrative, but the mawkishness of the “lonely blind girl” elevates possible problems tenfold.
In Nicholas Ray’s hands, though, Ground stays focused and without exaggerated emotions. Some of this comes from the film’s slow build-up of the Wilson character.
Ground takes much longer to “exile” Wilson to the boonies than I expected, and that factor could have proved fatal. Viewers who know that Wilson will end up in the country might feel impatient to send him there, so the film’s long path to that point could make the tale drag.
Happily, it doesn’t, mainly because Ground builds Wilson so well. We follow him as he does his violent rounds, so we get a good sense of his vicious world and the psychological toll all this takes.
These moments don’t feel gratuitous. Instead, they set up Wilson as a character with clear strengths and weaknesses, and we understand what pushes him to behave as he does. We don’t excuse his brutality, but we comprehend it, and the movie turns him into a strong personality.
Wilson’s time in the country and especially his romance with Mary soften him, but not to a mushy degree. Wilson retains his rough edges even when he finds himself in love, and that darker side keeps the film away from the soppiness that could mar it.
The credit for the film’s absence of gooey sentiment goes to both Ray and the actors. Ryan certainly deserves a lot of praise for the human tone he gives to Wilson. He doesn’t make the character a cartoon sadist at his worst, and he doesn’t turn him into a love-struck goon at his best. Ryan keeps his cards close to his vest and delivers a strong performance.
Ray also ensures that drippy tendencies stay away from the screen, as even when the movie goes more sentimental at the end, it still feels like it’s on firm ground. In Ray’s hands, the characters get real strengths and weaknesses, so we neither fully adore nor loathe anyone involved. This allows the film to form a realistic tone that makes the drama more impactful.