Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground (1951)


(director/writer: Nicholas Ray; screenwriters: from the book Mad with Much Heart by Gerald Butler/A.I. Bezzerides; cinematographer: George E. Diskant; editor: Roland Gross; music: Bernard Herrmann; cast: Ida Lupino (Mary Malden), Robert Ryan (Jim Wilson), Ward Bond (Walter Brent), Charles Kemper (Pop Daly), Ed Begley (Capt. Brawley), Sumner Williams (Danny Malden), Cleo Moore (Myrna Bowers), Anthony Ross (Pete Santos), Ian Wolfe (Sheriff Carrey), Anthony Ross (Pete Santos); Runtime: 82; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: John Houseman; RKO Pictures; 1952)

“Overcomes its artificial contrivances to become a touching psychological drama about despair and loneliness.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A schematic film noir by Nicholas Ray (“They Live By Night”) that overcomes its artificial contrivances to become a touching psychological drama about despair and loneliness–one of the best of this sort in the history of film noir. It touches a raw nerve as the story veers from one about a loose cannon cop to a cop who suddenly changes for the better when he finds tenderness and love in an unexpected place. It’s adapted from the book Mad with Much Heart by Gerald Butler; it’s cowritten by Nicholas Ray and A.I. Bezzerides. There’s a fine musical score by Bernard Herrmann, and a stunning wintry atmospheric black-and-white look to it thanks to the photography by George E. Diskant.

Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) was a local schoolboy football hero and for the last 11 years the bachelor has been a New York City policeman, currently living alone in a depressing tenement apartment. The dedicated workaholic cop has a reputation for making a lot of collars, police brutality and being unstable, and his detective partners Pete Santos and Pop Daly think he’s on the verge of a mental breakdown and better get a life away from the force or his life will fall apart. Pop talks to him from the heart, and tells him not to let the job make him a misanthrope–he should understand the job means dealing with scum and the worst of people, and one must learn how to separate work from their personal life.

Wilson is threatened with a law suit by a punk criminal whom he roughed up in order to obtain information about the murder suspect of a cop, which resulted in the arrests of the cop killers; but, Wilson’s brutality displeases the brass. The beleaguered cop doesn’t heed Captain Brawley’s (Ed Begley) warning to lay off the rough stuff–afterwards he beats another suspect–and is reprimanded by the captain and sent as punishment upstate to a small rural town where a young girl was just raped and knifed to death.

Wilson comes into contact with someone more hateful than he is, in many ways a frightening mirror image of himself, the victim’s rifle-toting father Walter Brent (Ward Bond), who bellows with rage and aims to kill the suspect without waiting for a trial. The chase leads them to an isolated cabin tucked away in the snowy hills, where the blind Mary Malden (Ida Lupino) resides with her disturbed teenager brother, Danny Malden (Sumner Williams), who did the crime and is now hiding out on the grounds. All Mary is asking is for a chance to get her sick brother to peacefully surrender and be sent unharmed to an institution where he can get the help he needs. Mary trusts Wilson, but is fearful of what Brent would do if he catches her brother.

The film begins as your typical hard-boiled noir tale about the protagonist stuck in a despair he can’t escape from, but when he gets out of the city and breathes the clean country air and through Lupino’s serene outlook on life–he is miraculously able now to freely search within himself for the violence that stirs inside him and is smart enough to know that he can’t return to the city with his same hostile attitude. Even though through Brent’s interference Mary’s retarded brother is harmed, the Ryan character becomes redeemed by learning to care about someone else in a way he hasn’t been able to do until he was influenced by the healing powers of Mary (the names and the situation are not accidentally connected to the Bible).

Robert Ryan’s fierce performance is superb, as he’s able to convincingly assure us he has a real spiritual awakening; while Lupino’s gentle character acts to humanize the crime fighter, who has walked on the “dangerous ground” of the city and has never realized before that there could be any other kind of turf until meeting someone as profound and tolerant as Mary. He can’t stop thinking about what Mary told him: “Sometimes people who are never alone are the loneliest.” With that in mind he returns to see the courageous Mary in the country, and it looks like Wilson’s going to start over again on a new track, in a new place, and with a new hope for survival.