A minor Nicholas Ray film that lacks the biting satire and edge of his better films (In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar, Bigger Than Life), On Dangerous Ground still has its moments. Featuring a really awesome Bernard Herrmann score, and with an uncredited director nod to Ida Lupino, the film – about hard-boiled detective Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) – is oddly structured.
Ostensibly split between the city and the countryside, much of the failings of the film fall to the script, adapted by Ray and AI Bezzerides, who also wrote the script for one of my favorite noirs, 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly. Filled with a few emotional and psychological gaps and leaps, and the aforementioned structure that compares the evils of both locales but does little else with it, the story never really finds its rhythm. Couple that with some of Ray’s least interesting direction, and On Dangerous Ground doesn’t at first do a whole lot to separate itself from other commonplace mid-period noirs.
Still, the sense of place (though underused), the romance/thriller/chase hybrid, and Ryan’s character (though not fully three-dimensional) make it at least a noteworthy entry into the noir canon.
Wilson is a city cop (he’s frequently called “city cop” by his second-act, country counterpart) who has let the evils of the street get to him. He’s on a violent streak and a mission to rid the city of filth, not unlike a Travis Bickle. When he goes overboard he’s sent away to aid on another case, where he meets Mary Malden (Lupino), the blind sister of a suspected killer.
Some of Ray’s better touches involve an ending sequence where he tries to drive home his city vs. country theme. It’s a simple sequence, made up mostly of the following shots. First, a POV shot from the car of the road:
After a cut back to Wilson, Ray goes over his shoulder on the road, making it obvious that he is still in the frame, and starts to dissolve from the countryside to the city. The strategy of keeping him in the frame seems to be to visually put he, the country and the city in the same shot at the same time. This is a decision process. Which will he go to? Is he driving home or backwards? That the dissolve never completes should be a foreshadowing:
Ray cuts back to Wilson (alongside some egregious voiceover), and the decision is made complete before we even get the final shot (two below). The city literally could not overlap the country (the dissolve didn’t finish). We know where he’s headed:
It’s a nice sequence, and the dissolves add to the internal process at work.
There’s another scene – probably the best in the film – that really shows off Ray’s prowess. In this one Mary is talking to her brother, Danny (Sumner Williams), who is in hiding near her house.
The scene starts with a beautifully graphic shot. Mary opens a cellar door. At first it’s just her, framed against a dramatic sky, a very chiaroscuro image, but soon Danny enters the frame and the camera dollies towards her with his movement:
Ray goes to a close-up of Mary, and his reverse shots of Danny hide the boy’s face. It’s sort of literal blindness (Mary’s) and figurative blindness (Danny’s unwillingness to face her). Of course she’s framed very freely, against the wide open sky, and he’s the opposite – there’s not even room for his face, the shot is so claustrophobic:
Ray goes back to the master shot and Mary closes the door. This eking out of light nails home Danny’s prison. She nearly blacks out the frame entirely:
And now notice how free and wide the next few shots are of Mary as she makes her way back to the house. There is freedom in her belief in Wilson and that her brother will be okay. But the composition also anticipates the chase to come by keeping the background – the mountains in particular – as dominant as the character:
Here, a continuation shot of the frame above, the camera dollies into Mary, compressing the space. That moment of freedom she just felt…about to be gone.
Interrupted by Wilson’s hand jarring its way into the frame. No more sky. No more deep focus. Just a flat background and danger:
The contrast is, of course, that now that Mary is at a dead-end, Danny will try to find freedom on his own. The escape that Mary blocked he now opens (appropriately, given that Mary herself is now blocked):
This frame puts it all into perspective. Danger in the foreground and background. The distance emphasizing the chase that is about to begin:
And the chase begins. But oddly, the cross-cut isn’t between pursuer (Wilson) and pursued (Danny). It’s between a different pursuer (Mary) and pursued (Wilson). In the stills below you can see that both are completely engulfed in the landscape, particularly in shots 3 and 4. There’s a ton of negative space and there’s surprisingly little movement for the action that is narratively at hand. Instead, it’s more of a “run and watch” (ironic because of her blindness) scene. The foreshadow here is of course the romance, but this also equates the two beyond that. The frames are unbalanced and offset (when they aren’t together). In frame two below, Wilson very nearly blends into the shirts hanging. Frame three and four find he and Mary basically as compositionally important as a tree or plant. Frame five finds the viewer searching to separate him from the rocks. The point is that the landscape is overbearing and dominant. This is no chase scene. This is the inevitability of the culmination of a crime, where two misfits (and Wilson and Mary are very much misfits) will ultimately unite (and balance the frames):