It’s something of a paradox that one of the greatest and most central works of film noir, a genre marked by its dark and often cynical worldview, becomes a kind of ecstatic parable about spiritual epiphany and moral regeneration in the hands of Nicholas Ray. On Dangerous Ground (1951), Ray’s eighth feature, is usually overshadowed by his previous noir classics, They Live by Night (1948, his debut feature) and In a Lonely Place (1950), and while those are certainly two very great, essential films, my own favorite among Ray’s early work is this later, somewhat more underrated masterpiece. At first glance, the film looks like an amalgamation of two very different movies. It opens within a shadowy, deeply corrupt urban underworld of twisted alleys and desperate characters – this is the environment inhabited by Jim Wilson, a violent cop portrayed by Robert Ryan – only to move toward a kind of icy romanticism in its emotionally charged later passages, as Wilson is sent out beyond city limits on a homicide case upstate.
Ray delineates this harsh, snowbound realm into a kind of feminine space, embodied by the figure of Mary Malden, a blind woman played by Ida Lupino, and by the moral dimension she brings to this scarred, troubling narrative. The external conflict here deals with a hunt for Mary’s mentally disabled younger brother, who may have killed a young girl, made by Wilson and by the victim’s father (Ward Bond). Ultimately, though, what becomes most crucial to Ray’s overall vision is related to an inner struggle, of characters trying to overcome their violent, abusive tendencies and feelings of lonely desperation – it’s through this sense of spiritual search, which the film actualizes so effectively through form and performance, that On Dangerous Ground becomes a profoundly moving work of cinema. [Ed. note: spoilers ahead!]
On Dangerous Ground brings together three great film artists at the height of their respective powers, all of whom deserve to be discussed more often today. Ward Bond, who plays the vengeful father of the lost little girl, was one of the great heroes of American character acting, appearing in over 200 films between 1928 and 1959. A member of John Ford’s stock company of actors, he’s perhaps best remembered today for his role as Reverend Captain Clayton in The Searchers (1956), and he appears in many of Ford’s greatest movies, including 3 Godfathers (1948) and Wagon Master (1950). Bond is one of those magical presences who just seems to improve every movie that he’s in, and here he’s given one of the most emotionally robust roles of his career. Near the end of the film, after Bond and Ryan find Lupino’s brother dead in the snow, Bond looks upon the boy that killed his own daughter, cradles him up in his arms like a baby, and remarks, “He’s just a kid. That’s all he is, just a kid.” Unassuming moments like this one serve to re-contextualize our entire understanding of a potentially one-dimensional supporting player; that Bond makes it look easy is a sign of his greatness as an actor.
Robert Ryan had a penchant for playing hardened, violent men, usually either cops or criminals. The figure of the “man with a troubled past” on the run from something or someone, only to reach some semblance of redemption or renewal by the end of the film, became an archetypal male character of sorts in the American cinema of the ‘50s; one can observe this strain of characterization permeating the neurotic roles James Stewart was given in Anthony Mann’s westerns of that decade. Ryan here provides one of the most haunting and nuanced examples of such a performance. The wretched violence he displays during the first half of the film, comparable in its unbridled fury only to his subsequent part in Andre De Toth’s Day of the Outlaw (1959), is tempered gradually and gently by the series of mysterious inner stirrings he experiences during the second half, which arise through his experiences with Lupino’s character.
Though both Bond and Ryan each turn in excellent work, and remain essential features of the film’s enduring appeal, for me they are overshadowed even still by the work that Lupino displays here, which surely must be regarded as one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema. Her character, Mary, lives in darkness in the middle of a frozen valley. She loves her brother, whom she believes does not fully understand what he has done, and at one point says that he functions as “her eyes.” Like Ryan’s character, she’s a quintessentially lonely figure. As the critic Doug Dibbern wrote, “You have to be wise, you have to be cavernous, to give a performance like this.” In her attempts to communicate with a god that we’re never given any reassuring signs of, she embodies the remarkably painful yearning which sustains the film’s emotional core, and which generates a kind of moral reawakening in the Ryan character. As someone who’s interested in the presentational, physical, and material qualities of cinema, I’m usually one to shy away from overtly transcendental readings in art, and yet I find her performance, combined with Ray’s filming of it, so convincing that I’m inclined to call this one of the only films I’ve seen that successfully attempts to document the vagaries of the human spirit.
Ray’s classic film noir In a Lonely Place was previously scheduled to screen at the IU Cinema on April 5 as part of its Sunday Matinee Classics: The Industry Plays Itself series. Unfortunately, this screening has been cancelled due to public health concerns over COVID-19.
Previous Nicholas Ray films that have shown at IU Cinema are Rebel Without a Cause, They Live by Night, and We Can’t Go Home Again, all of which were part of the 2013 series Nicholas Ray: Accidents of Imagination.
Ida Lupino’s directorial career was spotlighted at the Cinema in 2018 with the 5X Series, which featured screenings of such films as The Trouble with Angels, Outrage, The Hitch-Hiker, and The Bigamist.
On Dangerous Ground is available on DVD and Blu-ray through Warner Archive.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He studies literature, and has been a habitué of the local film revival scene since he moved to Bloomington a few years ago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.