Hollywood Character Arcs ~ On Dangerous Ground

On Dangerous Ground
Released December 17, 1951
RKO PicturesWord
82 minutes

Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides; based on the novel Mad with Much Heart by Gerald Butler
Adaptation: A.I. Bezzerides and Nicholas Ray
Directors: Nicholas Ray; Ida Lupino (uncredited)
Stars: Robert Ryan, Ida Lupino, Ward Bond
Adding Character: Charles Kemper, Anthony Ross, Ed Begley, Ian Wolfe, Olive Carey

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Any film with the title “On Dangerous Ground” calling itself “noir” could fall back on preconceived notions held by the movie-going masses and take audiences down dark alleyways on the heels of hard-bitten cops chasing criminals of the Underworld—the purported and proverbial “dangerous ground” of the title. Nicholas Ray, who surprised 1950 filmgoers with Humphrey Bogart’s mental instability in In a Lonely Place—showcasing a Bogart Breakdown of epic, Gloria-Grahame-slapping, lover-stalking proportions—and who made teen angst the centerpiece of 1948’s They Live by Night, an unusual focal point for the time that he would repeat in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, doesn’t allow On Dangerous Ground’s title to lure him into plot-feeding Big City Tenements full of desperate types whose actions provide the dangerous ground or through Twist-and-Turn Gun Crimes. Nor does he threaten the movie’s population with a cop gone so bad, he locks up anyone who gets in his way, another kind of dangerous ground, and a cliché one at that.

Instead, Ray takes us through what is arguably more perilous territory than anything described above: the stressed-out, burned-out mind of a cop, played here by Robert Ryan. In fact, if Ray had swapped the title of this film and that of In a Lonely Place, both films may have ended up more aptly titled, for Bogie set those around him on dangerous ground in his vehicle, and the world of Ryan’s mind in this one borders on treacherous—causing him at one point to beat up a suspect and scream, “Why do you make me do it?!”—because, well, he’s in a lonely place.

No spoilers—we’re concerned only with well-drawn character- and story arcs and the occasional event that demonstrates them, and not plot reveals or summaries—but the film opens with three plain-clothes policemen—partners—preparing to leave home for a long night shift that will include hunting for a cop-killer. One of the men is surrounded by his seven children and a wife who practically “tucks him into” his night duty, while the other, who is stoic and aloof, nevertheless leaves a concerned wife who clings to him all the way to the front door as he heads out for his shift. There’s a cop-killer out there, and these women want their husbands to return home at the end of their shift.

Ray juxtaposes these men’s lives with an eerie detail from Ryan’s life that shines a quick light on Ryan’s isolation. We’re introduced to Ryan at his dinner table. He sits alone and reviews several mug-shot cards as he eats and waits for his ride to work to show up. When his partners honk the horn for him, Ray first shows Ryan scrape the remnants of his dinner plate into the tiny garbage can of his almost dingier apartment, and then Ray shows Ryan slide the remains from a serving plate into the same can. It’s not a casual moment, for it is repetitive and eats up (pun apologies) a valuable bit of screen time.

With this gesture—the scraping of a second plate—Ray has gone out of his way to show us a free-wheeling bachelor who took the time load up one plate, then quaintly serve himself from it using another. It’s as if Ray wants us to see that Ryan desires a domestic life he can share with someone with whom he could engage in the niceties of eating from a common serving dish at a formally set table. He almost self-consciously glances around the room as he cleans the second plate. Aside from looking a tad distracted by the “nothing” going on in the room, it’s as though he knows we’re there and just caught him in a moment of unnecessary domesticity he doesn’t want us to see, for we’ll know right away that he’s lonely before we’ve even gotten to know him.

The second plate furnishes an excellent story-telling shortcut. One plate makes the Ryan introduction perfunctory: a bachelor is headed out for work and cleans up before he leaves. Two plates tells us the bachelor has the capacity to share his life but no person actually sharing it. This is all the more highlighted by the fact that the mug shots occupy the space where a live mate would sit. Ryan is stuck with the perpetrators he chases down at night. (We also see that he started his meal far too late since much of it is scraped away once he must leave for work, something a mate may have helped him avoid. To be sure, Ryan’s life is less organized than are the lives of his attached partners.) We’re no more than four minutes into the movie, but there will be nothing Ryan can do in the medium-term to convince us he likes his life and that he doesn’t long for more. Looking at character arcs, Ray has set up Ryan’s brilliantly within the span of just a few minutes of screen time.

Quickly building on that foundation, Ray doesn’t imply there’s nothing wrong with Ryan and ask him to try to cajole us into accepting his isolated and brusque ways, in noir-cop, “I’m bad, but I’m good at what I do” fashion. Ray shows us a Ryan who is almost determined to make us not like him so that as others in the film reject him, we’ll know he expected it and we won’t pity him, even as Ryan displays an almost child-like wonder and dismay at any disapproval sent his way. His face says, “You mean me?” when he’s scolded by a colleague or a superior. Ray’s approach also reinforces Ryan’s malcontent. He’s so irritated that he’s too irritated to hide it.

Ray breaks with other noir stereotypes to draw a non-clichéd cop. Ryan isn’t “disappointing dames”, sparring with criminals in smooth-detective fashion, or lighting the cigarettes of femme fatales he later arrests. Instead, On Dangerous Ground is a visceral look at a strong man in undefined—at least to him—emotional pain that’s all the more threatening for that lack of definition and that places his temperament on tenterhooks. He’s like no other cop moving about in upper-case Noir, a culture in which, no matter how toughened the detective, cop, or unwilling do-gooder, there’s a sense that the person enjoys his or her plight to do right, even when it’s dangerous. Rarely in the land of Noir do we see a cop griping about being one. It’s the perps, the dames who won’t cooperate, and the interfering police chief/captain/lieutenant who form the source of the grumbling, who are the reason for any turmoil. It’s not the act of being a cop that causes the traditional noir hero grief. It’s the people around the policeman who make life miserable.

In On Dangerous Ground, we sense that at any moment, Ryan may snap because he’s a cop. Yes, it’s those same folks who agitate him, but his response is to blame the job and not the people it brings him in contact with. It’s a bit of chicken-and-egg hair-splitting that in the hands of Ray becomes a distinctly different complaint. The people bothering the cop aren’t the problem. Being a cop who has to deal with bothersome people is. As Ryan laments and rants about “the job”, we see a personally tortured cop, whose job is doing a number on him, and somewhere in the back of our minds, we factor in, even if we don’t outright remember, the lonely scene at the dinner table, the meal Ryan shared with mug shots in the dank apartment and sense doom. We also don’t notice outright but “take in” that while On Dangerous Ground is a cold, wet movie—it takes place in winter—Ryan never takes off his coat, not even in the car, in the squad room, in a pharmacy where his partner, the tucked-in father of seven, removes his shirt and receives a cozy rub-down for a very sore shoulder, or, later, in Ida Lupino’s house. The coat doesn’t just function as armor. Ray’s sensitive approach gives it away that the coat is keeping Ryan in a safe place as much as it is repelling those around him.

Just as Ray shocked us a bit in In a Lonely Place when he cut open Bogie and let his psyche bleed all over the reels, Ray adds a refreshing and noir-unusual touch of the elements often seen in female friendships to the interaction between Ryan and his partners to add to Ryan’s isolation. For starters, there’s three of them and not the traditional yin-yang of two cops “working a beat” together. The two make Ryan’s one stand out and allow Ray to bolster his portrayal of Ryan’s cop: One partner criticizing Ryan is a disagreement between the partner and Ryan. Two form a consensus about Ryan—and they are close to determining he’s too unhinged for the job.

It is obvious the men, who go straight from their living rooms to a shared car ride to work each night, have a track record of “sharing their feelings” with each other in the safe, dark, small vehicle, but, of late, in movie time, Ryan is stilted and struggles to keep up. Ryan’s relationship with his two partners is full of subtle affection (it is Ryan who insists his partner get his sore shoulder massaged—right in the middle of a response to a burglary), but it is fraught with forced introspection—Ryan’s, upon the demand of his partners—one of whom tells him, “You don’t like people much.” We see glimpses of hurt when Ryan is set on the figurative doorstep like sour milk by his boss (Ed Begley) and his partners, but Ryan uses those incidents as both fodder and excuses to lash out about how tired he is of police work, heartrendingly lecturing the others, trying to make them see what he sees. He’s all the more poignant because he’s right. Those around him, however, view him as a cop who refuses to come to terms with the deep-seeded disconnection he has from everything in his life.

In drawing a sad, hurt, scared, bitter, and sympathetic noir hero, Bezzerides and Ray get an assist from a few sources, chief among them Ryan, who delivers what is arguably the best performance of his career. With not a lot of action to hide behind, Ryan must use facial expressions, silence, and timing to communicate the complexities of cop Jim Wilson’s internal torture and good intentions. Ryan is one step ahead of every shift that the compelling Bezzerides-Ray adaptation requires, so much so that we can’t wait for it to catch up to him so that we can soak up the anticipated culmination of the moment. All movie long, Ryan’s face and body tell us where we’re going, and, minute-by-minute, we can’t wait to get there.

On Dangerous Ground also surprises with its score. Watch the film with your eyes open, and you see Ray noir, even Ray Noir, a culture unto itself within the realms of noir and Noir. Close your eyes, and you hear Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. That’s because Bernard Herrmann, who scored Vertigo, also scored On Dangerous Ground. Since the music for both films was composed long before the days of DVD and DVR, Herrmann was free to liberally borrow from himself when he composed the score to Vertigo in 1958 without reminding audiences of On Dangerous Ground, although, to be sure, the two films clearly have different scores.

Still, there are several points of instrumentation that are eerily similar. Herrmann gives us many of the same emotional, sweeping, yet minimalist strains that make Vertigo such a wonderfully draining journey, rare for a noir film. Noir and raw go well together. Noir and raw emotion are strange bedfellows between whom Herrmann orchestrates a sweet coming together. Even as Ryan wears his coat to keep us out, Herrmann’s visceral music brings us right back in. Again, no spoilers, but as the plot takes a hard right turn and Ryan’s journey becomes something even he wasn’t expecting, Herrmann’s music ushers us in seamlessly with its healthy doses of vulnerability, the same kind that whispered into James Stewart’s ear, “I know that falling for Kim Novak will give you a very different and more dangerous form of vertigo than the physical version you suffer from, but do it. Do it!” Herrmann’s music pushed Stewart over the precipice in Vertigo just as it pushes Ryan here headlong into his destiny. If Ryan’s mind is the vehicle that drives him to face his lonely life, Herrmann’s music is the roadway, the supporting characters the map.

Add to all of the above one of the most realistic depictions of a distraught and infuriated parent ever committed to the screen, courtesy of Ward Bond; the performances of Charles Kemper and Anthony Ross as Ryan’s partners, who provide just the right combination of touchy-feely friendship with hard-reality, co-worker truths; and Ida Lupino, who could play a scene with a rock and exude chemistry, and Ray’s unconventional Noir world is complete. To say more about Lupino both as an actor in and as an uncredited director on On Dangerous Ground would be to spoil the film, for her character is part of the aforementioned hard right turn Ryan’s life takes, and the scenes she directs actually change the trajectory of the plot. Suffice it to say that while Ray directs most of the film, the combination of his work with Lupino’s work behind the camera results in a thorough depiction—with completed arcs, courtesy of Lupino’s contribution—of characters whose inner turmoil sets them on dangerous ground. EL

On Dangerous Ground available here on DVD.

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