ON DANGEROUS GROUND

Dir. Nicholas Ray. USA. 1951.


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On Dangerous Ground is currently being shown at the British Film Institute as part of their ‘Psycho Season’ that is – as part of a selected plethora of film that delve into the same territory as Hitchcock’s classic thriller.

ODG is a ‘noir’ – belonging to the world of seedy gangsters, urban jungles saturated with immorality and duality, femme fatales and skewed psychological mindscapes. The hero in this instance is a policeman ‘Jim Wilson’ (played by Robert Ryan) who epitomises the lone cop on the edge that would later become central in modern thrillers in both film and television (see Manhunter, Basic Instinct, NYPD Blue and more recently, The Wire.
The enemy is within and without – is both a creature full to the brim of inner demons and externally a tour de force. In the opening sequence, the patrol Jim works for, with, and often against are being rounded up to go out on the hunt for a cop killer. All the impetus Jim needs to go on a rampage. Even before Jim’s vulnerabilities are explored though, the issue and theme of loneliness in complex surroundings is shown in the opening unfolding drama: a colleague of Jim is at home, putting on his gun and holster ready for the night ahead – his wife holds tightly onto him telling him how she hates to be alone.

The dialogue, characters and strong, strong script never give over the sense of moral ambiguity as is the norm in cop-on-the-edge fare: Jim Wilson is undoubtedly in trouble. His colleagues know it, as does he – but he keeps it buried somewhere safe with the scant and slender justification of the job’s demands. There’s a lead – he goes with others, to the apartment of the suspect with a fatal looking blonde awaiting as though she expects them. She doesn’t resist the interrogation:

“ If I don’t tell – you’ll squeeze it outta me with those big arms……..won’t you?”
 …..that’s right sister..” Jim replies with evident relish. Ryan, playing the part of Wilson, is taught, intense, masculine and exceedingly handsome. A definitive man’s man, absolutely perfect for the role and utterly convincing. He beats up a suspect – an inevitable move he’s been building up to and the force he works for now recognise the trouble he is in….”make up your mind to be a cop – not a gangster with a badge,” he is advised by his superior. “If you want something outta life – you gotta put somethin’ in – from the heart.”It is these words that come from a colleague – a best friend who evidently cares for Jim

A new case sends Jim North – to ‘Siberia’ as he calls it sarcastically. There is a search going on there – for a killer. Reaching North alone, Wilson meets with a man loaded with vigilante fever, Brent (played wonderfully well by Ward Bond), out to catch a guy he knows is out there hiding in the woods. He is Wilson – but without a badge to hide behind. 
This is a refreshing step away from the killer and cop sharing the same mentality theme that so pervades stories of this ilk: instead with ODG we have a subtle mirroring of hotheads. Wilson finds Brent instantly problematic and serves as a calming influence – at one point emptying his shotgun.

 Ida Lupino (stunning) plays Mary Malden – a blind woman living in a remote lodge. Beautiful, vulnerable and utterly alone. Brent rampages through her quiet gentleness which proves the major influence in the gradual moralisation of Wilson. “Most lonely people try to figure it out – about loneliness.” Mary sees Wilson, but this is not the usual hokey blind person as the most perceptive in the room stunt. They are both of them isolated: her in her blindness and location, him in his self elected self preservation. The matter of what and who Mary is covering for ends in tragedy – leaving Mary now totally alone. The scene where she realises her needs and begs Wilson to please leave is extremely moving.

It makes sense that echoes of sentiments passed to Wilson would prove to dawn on him at last – he was never a bad man but a lonely one who just needed some love – or the prospect of it to justify turning the corner. The ending of the film is hardly surprising, but satisfying without being schmaltzy.
ODG is showing again this forthcoming Friday. For anyone interested in noir classic – or psychological melodrama, it is one not to be missed.

Gail Spencer

Dedicated to the Management and staff of Housing and Environment, London Borough of Southwark.

Safe Ground with Urban Cats in the Big City……

April 2010
 
 
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