220) On Dangerous Ground (1952) Dir: Nicholas Ray Date Released: February 1952 Date Seen: July 23rd, 2009 Rating: 4/5
On Dangerous Ground might have been a less impressive film thanks to if it weren't as aware of the film-noir milieu it operates within. Based on a novel by Gerard Butler, the film is at worst skillfully manipulative thanks to screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides stark dialogue, capable performances by Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan and most importantly, director Nicholas Ray's vision of landscape as a turbulent emotional map. Mary (Lupino), a blind woman, protects her simple-minded kid brother from crooked cop Jim Wilson (Ryan) to introduce moral ambiguity into the life of Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), a man so far-gone that he pounces on a suspect with the immortal line "Why do you make me do it," and the leer of a wounded animal. Mary's disability forces Jim to quell his bloodlust for her brother, suspected of two murders and rediscover his last remaining dregs of compassion.
Having a blind girl teaching Ryan's Sterling Hayden-esque gorilla-type a lesson in sympathy is cheap sentimentality any way you slice it but in the hands of Ray and co., it's understandable within the context of the operatic drama that Jim imagines his life to be. The firefly lights and overcast shadows of the film's perpetual night-time city bring to life the character's view of a city without hope. The only thing he's sure of, as he whines to that poor anonymous suspect, is that the city's darkness will always be there, waiting for him to sift through it like his trusty index cards of names and photos. Their names are interchangeable but they'll always be there.
Mary frustrates that mentality by forcing him to drive down icy roads and climb over snow-covered mountains just to get to his man, whose youthful face Ray initially hides even from the audience in shoe-gazing glances and pitch-black corners. Discovering that the killer is in fact a boy is the kind of revelation that Clint Eastwood fans know and continue to be affected by, namely that thorny realization that judgment is an inherently corrupting act. Couched so firmly in the ethical morass of Jim's world, this is no mere platitude but a shock to the system, a pulp epiphany from a master of genre storytelling.