In this weekly series, The Lonely Film Critic highlights an older release of interest, whether it be an oft-overlooked gem or a classic worth revisiting. On tap for this week is another lesser-known noir from the 1950s, lushly directed by the great Nicholas Ray and with uncredited assistance from star Ida Lupino.
My experience watching On Dangerous Ground was quite the ride. When it began I thought it was going to be a full-blown noir since all the usual elements were there: the hardnosed antihero, a femme fatale with secrets, tons of world-weary dialogue about the scummy ways of the criminal underworld and chiaroscuro for days. The antihero is a disillusioned cop with anger management issues who uses his fists to pummel the so-called lowlifes he viciously disdains. However, instead of tracking him on his beats so he can progressively get worse and worse as a human being, the film puts the brakes on all the noir trimmings and shuffles the cop to an upstate town with a lot of snow and mountains in order to literally cool off. Noir becomes a frosty Western; the cop is now asked to find a little girl’s killer alongside her vengeful and grieving father—in actual fact, the cop’s shadow self, since the father’s volatile temper and lust for violent retribution are all traits the cop has been asked to purge. In order to bring about such change, both the cop and the father need to acknowledge the wrongness of their approach.
They do so when Ida Lupino makes her entrance as a blind woman living in a remote part of the town. The plot turns again. It becomes more melodramatic. The darkness of the tale begins to lift like morning fog, replaced by a furrowed kind of sadness as the killer is revealed to be a mentally ill boy rather than a sadistic monster. Our once-aggressive cop learns what it means to pity another human being, and how to diffuse situations with words rather than punches. He also learns that someone in the world believes he is capable of love. Now, I don’t tend to advocate for stories that rehabilitate the police’s image, but I’ll make an exception in this case because our cop comes to possess enough self-awareness to understand he’d lost his way. He lost his way by becoming entangled in the police force when all he needed was someone to assuage his lonely existence. The film basically tells us in so many words that he chose the wrong profession, that he always knew it, and that his negative traits stemmed from all the cognitive dissonance he felt because of it. And, in a way, that’s how you can get away with being anti-police in the 1950s. Show a cop drive into the city, look at it in a new light, turn around, and return to the life he should have been living from the very beginning.
Another thing I unabashedly loved about this was that it wasn’t ableist regarding Lupino’s character, who is incredibly well-written as a whole. The moment she falls in love with Robert Ryan’s cop (and vice versa) is the moment she notes that he doesn’t treat her like an invalid—doesn’t take the tea tray from her hands and make the tea himself as though she were incapable of it. She doesn’t want to be pitied or felt sorry for. She is both independent and happily reliant on her brother to be her new pair of eyes because she misses seeing the flowers outside her window. She is strong, but also vulnerable. The single most intelligent character in the film, but one who also knows that there are some limitations that can’t be overcome. Lupino, in my opinion, is what takes this film from being merely great to being masterful. At first I thought she would drag it down, as her “blind acting” (as it were) was distractingly obvious. Then, as the minutes went by, I fell hard for everything she was doing. I felt she was playing a version of myself. You know the phrase “I feel seen”? It was exactly that.
The compassion flowing from this film is unmistakable. Nicholas Ray (and an uncredited Lupino) shoot it with the kind of rapture reserved for ecstatic miracles, because when looked at in a certain way, it does have attributes related to miracle stories. The close-up of Lupino as she prays over her brother is one of the most beautiful images ever captured on film—one of the most affirming things I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t have the words to explain why. There is a certain kind of beauty that expresses so much in such a short space that no words can capture its essence. All I know is that it stirred the deepest reaches of my soul.
On Dangerous Ground is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Warner, and can also be streamed for a limited time on The Criterion Channel.