On Dangerous Ground

(Nicholas Ray, USA, 1951)


I remember a time when, in one of four cafes of the Trocadero, someone (some Cinémathèque rat) would assert that, while X or Y was the greatest film director in the world, Nicholas Ray had perhaps made the most beautiful film. On certain evenings it was Bitter Victory [1957], on others Bigger than Life [1956]. There was always Nicholas Ray and the rest, as if between him and the cinema there existed a privileged line, which it was our duty to watch over.

– Serge Daney, 1980 (1)


On Dangerous Ground: an extraordinary film; so strange, and so moving. And what a great title: on the dangerous ground of identity …


We can really see how Ray was a Hollywood “modern” who stood out for the cinephiles of the 1950s. Perhaps not so much for his style (even though that’s already amazing), as for the beyond-stereotypical emotional moods, structures, tones, moments in his work. And for that anguished poetry of loneliness, which really defines all his films of the 1940s and ‘50s.


When we step back from Johnny Guitar (1954) – an intensely musical (and hence expressionistic) film, like several others in his career – to these moody, less evidently flamboyant films of the late ‘40s/early 50s, such as They Live by Night  (1948), In a Lonely Place (1950) and On Dangerous Ground, we see a different heart to Ray’s cinema. It’s an emotional tone based, above all, on the post-war male protagonist: On Dangerous Ground is among the crucial depictions of a man consumed by anguished, solitary self-reflection, a guilt about male violence (physical and emotional), and finally the forging of a redemptive connection with another person (who is usually a woman). As a matter of fact, if Johnny Guitar were really about Johnny (as its title would suggest!) and not the two women, this is what it would be, too. There is an unmistakably feminine side to Ray’s reflection on masculinity, tied up (undoubtedly) with his bisexual experiences and sensibility (something he somewhat cagily divulges in his reminiscences).


Wim Wenders’ debt to Ray becomes very clear while watching On Dangerous Ground today: the cinephilic worship of pure, limpid, emotional moments at deathbeds, over corpses (especially when involving Ray’s incredible close-ups). Until the End of the World (1991) borrows (even if unconsciously) the journey into the wilderness, the male ensemble of bounty hunters, the sublime moment of heterosexual romantic contact, and above all the blind woman, which in the Ray is Ida Lupino as Mary Walden (who loses her “eyes”, i.e., her companion).


It is a quietly psychodramatic dream-film, with almost a touch of Maya Deren: the man (Robert Ryan as Jim Wilson) must journey into the snowy landscape of rural New England (extraordinary “passage” sequences in and out, shot through the car windscreen) and discover his own heart; but, even more profoundly, he will encounter the various part-projections of himself (recall Raymond Durgnat’s analysis of the character-mosaic structure in Johnny Guitar): the blind, lonely one, who has only one “fear”; the crazy, ever-raging revenge killer (Ward Bond’s role defined almost exclusively in terms of delirious, obsessive hyper-activity) – oddly, this is the only “double” for Jim noted by Colin McArthur; (2) and the lost, confused, equally murderous blonde teen … Greek-Armenian-American Screenwriter A. I Bezzerides, of Kiss Me Deadly  (1955) fame, remains a subject for further research.



Traces and prints everywhere in the snow.


It’s an astonishingly “underspoken” film; much of its modern ambience is played out in looks, those special, uniquely characterised gestures that are a big part of Ray’s greatness as a director. There’s fine work, in particular, done with Ryan’s long, troubled face; and a brilliant bit with his “good”, i.e., pitiless, behaviour towards Mary (Lupino is the top-billed star here as she approaches her mid 30s, after an already long and distinguished career).


Jim’s psychosis: the “trash” of the world has got to him, he “takes it home”; dishes it out to the bad guys who “ask for it”, who (in his mind) make him do it – but later he must restrain Walter (Bond) who is about to whack Mary. The psychosis of Mary’s brother, young Danny (Sumner Williams): women won’t smile for him! Everybody has something to learn, and usually has to learn it from somebody else, some parental or tutelary figure, however weirdly posed; for Daney, education is “the great Rayian theme”. Ironic touch of street scene with innocent citizen: “Dumb cops!”


Beautiful, powerful moments of melodrama in Ray: Mary smashing up her support-structure of a home (a branch, a tree …). And the incredible (again, Derenesque) abstraction of spaces and places: a painting of a house with a mountain, and behind that a deadly sheer cliff face … the snowy landscape with this one house in it … the labyrinth of city streets (particularly in the chase scene). Bernard Herrmann’s remarkable “narrative music” score has a key role to play in this stylistic ensemble: it’s all sudden cuts from one musical/narrative space to another, plus a limpid emotional theme.


The film has that classic Lewtonesque or Premingerian B movie abstraction, too, in its articulation of a reduced number of starkly organised characters, events, places (a link through to Ryan’s role in Jean Renoir’s haunting The Woman on the Beach [1947], another film about male melancholia and post-war sickness … and on through to another noir-tinted melodrama of evil masculinity starring Ryan, Max Ophüls’ Caught [1949]). In this strange succession of places, new characters suddenly emerge quite late in the plot: Walter, Danny, even Mary herself.


A classic Ray beginning that does much work beyond simple plot exposition (a little in the vein of how Victor Perkins analysed the three hand-clasp gestures at the start of In a Lonely Place): the tacit comparison of three cops in three different ways of life; the vast family (with TV!) as distinct from the solitary obsessive anti-hero (think also of the later moment in which he literally washes his hands of his violence, and of the world). Ray’s great gift for the telling gesture: the grim, powered way Jim puts on his coat.


There is a fantastically ambiguous moment of elision after the scene in which a sultry woman says Jim can “squeeze” the info out of her: is it sex or violence, both or nothing? Note how that word “cute” here links sex and violence, Scarlet Street (1945) style. This event introduces an ethical theme: Jim uncaringly puts the woman in place for a gangland beating. It also ties in with the barely hinted-at theme that the young double is, after all, a sex murderer.


The style is in many ways pretty straightforward throughout here (notwithstanding those shots, cuts and spatial arrangements that are fantastically expressive in quiet, unobtrusive ways, as Perkins has long pointed out); the high-style, violent moment of making-the-viewer-a-participant (as Jim is about to beat the link) – a device that McArthur makes central to his discussion of Ray (3) – is about the only such moment in the whole film. But there are also anticipatory flashes of a New(er) Hollywood style, of which Ray would later be a big part: bits of hand-held action-confusion, disturbance of the centred, usually crystal-clear, classical parameters.


Another modern, dialogical aspect of Ray’s cinema is its rigorous interweaving of the domestic and the spectacular-melodramatic, caught with some humour in the rituals of police rounds (“Tell his wife to roll over”); the details of one cop’s sore arm; various secondary characters dotted through the journey (like town sheriff, other cop, shop owner who attends to arm) … We note Ray’s tremendous skill in blending Old Hollywood style contract players/character actors with modern, brooding stars, as well as with others who seems less actorly, more naturalistic (like the ethnic-type punk who is raided and beaten).


On Dangerous Ground has that fragile poetry of an intensely personal film rising up from within the bounds of genre and stereotype – an intensity that radiates very touchingly. According to McArthur, Ray wanted to end on the “ambivalent image of Jim Wilson returning to the bleak city” (4) – which would have been quite something, totally true to the solitary, reflective, psychodramatic line of the film. But the happy ending, the sudden return to that other space, has a remarkable power and poetry, too – particularly in the Utopian gesture of achieved, magical love-connection. Another moment for the collective cinephiliac imaginary!


MORE Ray: We Can’t Go Home Again




1. Serge Daney, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 310 (1980). back


2. Colin McArthur, Underworld USA (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), pp. 124-137. back


3. Ibid., p. 125. back


4. Ibid., p. 132. back

© Adrian Martin 14 January 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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