Cops with an attitude problem. Wet city streets at night highlighted by small pools of light.Lingering smoke. Shady characters caught in shady dealings. This is the film noir atmosphere I love with all of my heart.Many directors and stars made film noir during its heyday, but nobody did it better than Nicholas Ray. Not only did he set up the conventions of the genre, he also worked very hard to subvert them. There is no better example of both of these tendencies then his movie from 1952, On Dangerous Ground.
The first part of the film is set in the seedy underground of New York City at night. Jim Wilson is a hard cop working a beat he is tired of. He has severe anger issues that put key witnesses into hospitals and strain the relationships he has with his partners. This section is where Ray throws the film noir tropes at you. Disaffected detective? Check. Night? Check. Super rainy for some unknown reason? Check. Angry outbursts and awesome dialogue? Check. Loose women with loose morals? Check. However, this landscape changes abruptly about thirty minutes into the movie. Wilson gets sent out to “Siberia” as he calls it because of his anger issues to investigate the murder of a young girl. By the time he gets there, the local sheriff knows who did it, but is having trouble finding the man. Through a series of events, Wilson ends up in the house of a blind woman who happens to be the sister of the murderer. This blind woman is unlike any woman he had ever met before. She seems almost self-sufficient and frank in her ideas about life. She wants nothing more than to protect her brother, even though she knows that he is not quite right.Through the interactions between Wilson and this blind woman and the town around them, Ray subtly subvert our expectations. He takes the woman of noble virtue and makes her blind. He photographs the snowy landscape in almost the same way he photographed the noir landscape. He takes a detective that was embittered with his occupation of always failing to get justice in the only way he knows how (by beating snitches up) and injects a caring streak that keeps him from going off the handle when he doesn’t get his way. Above all he gives the story a happy ending, something that is actually an exception in this bleak genre.
Nicholas Ray was able to take characters that seemingly don’t deserve any pity and make them likable. As an audience member, I was with Wilson the whole time. I balked when his partners displayed frustration with him, sympathizes with him when he sees that he has nothing left except his physical abilities and rejoiced when he found some peace and quiet in the blind woman. Ray loves his characters and therefore makes a lesser film grander. This affection for his characters give Robert Ryan (Wilson) and Ida Lupino (the blind woman. She also directed some scenes in this movie, but I don’t know which.) plenty of room to explore their characters. They do so in cramped quarters, whether it is Wilson’s apartment or the blind woman’s living room. But these spaces seem grand when these two decide to inhabit them. Everything Ryan does is in service of his character. He even makes coffee in an angry fashion. He says what he means and boils over at even the slightest indication of rejection. He feels like his a social pariah because of his profession and yet there doesn’t seem to be anything other than what he does to him. On the surface there seems to be little else to Lupino’s character other than she is blind. But once you dig a little deeper, she is able to express her ideas about being alone, about caring for other people and about continuing to live no matter what life throws at you. She mentions that she could get the condition reversed, but I can’t see her not blind.
This is probably one of the quintessential film noirs ever produced. If you have not seen it and love the genre as much as I do, I suggest you hurry up and watch it.