Lost in the Movies: On Dangerous Ground

On Dangerous Ground

This is an entry in the Cinema Viewfinder Nicholas Ray blogathon - it contains spoilers

Sometimes a man must go to Siberia to find his soul. In 1849 Fyodor Dostoevsky, a young man already accomplished and acclaimed as a writer, was sentenced to death. He and his co-conspirators prepared to die, to become martyrs for the cause of liberalism, crushed in the reactionary repression following the failed revolutions of the previous year. It was to be a brutal end, but a noble one. However, the czar had something else in mind.

Almost the entire year passed before Fyodor and his co-conspirators were marched out on a raw, brutally freezing December morning. A cutting wind howled through the site of the execution, obscuring the officer's orders and perhaps making it seem as if God himself was cutting down these youthful rebels. The orders were given. The masks dropped over the prisoners' faces, the guns lowered. And then, nothing. The entire execution had been a cosmic joke - and the prisoners were to be sent east to toil in hard labor for several years.

Some praised their deliverance, others resented their chains, a few went mad. Dostoevsky, already a talented artist, became a genius and a deeply spiritual man. In a sense, he had died and was born again, discovering the bedrock of his self in the wilderness, like Jesus emerging from the desert after 40 days.

On Dangerous Ground begins with another journey into the wilderness: a breathtaking vista viewed through the windshield of a car chugging along the dirt road. At first the view is obstructed - by a gang of vehicles cluttering up the path, doing some sort of construction work. An appropriate enough image, as Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), cop with a chip on his shoulder, is voyaging into the countryside to construct a new identity for himself, or rather to build upon, repair, and strengthen the foundations of the identity he already has.

He doesn't know this, of course, but the filmmaker certainly does. As Wilson clears the construction crew, the vista opens up before him and all we see of the driver are his eyes reflected back in a rectangular mirror - a favorite motif of Nicholas Ray's (the same shot kicks off In a Lonely Place). Now that we're in the belly of nature, the mirror is not crowded in by headlights or street lamps but seems to float eerily in the sky, amongst the mountains, as if Wilson is already starting to become one with the elements.

I said that the movie begins with this journey, but it does not open with it. Indeed, for the first half-hour or so, the film is an entirely urban noir, with Wilson a classic antihero, a pro who knows how to do his job yet gets a special pleasure from beating on the crooks and lowlifes whom his work throws in his way. His partners worry for his mental health, his boss frets over potential lawsuits, and yet it's worth noting that Wilson is very good at what he does.

While his co-workers bellyache about sore shoulders and daydream about their wives and kids back home, Wilson spends even his free time focusing on the streets. He lives alone - humbly but neatly (he carefully empties his plates after a meal, but then throws them into a small, bathroomlike sink to clean). Unlike his partners, who are introduced kissing their wives or watching a television show, he is studying lineup pictures while he eats. He professes to hate his job, blames it for his psychological stress, and washes his hands bitterly when he gets home from work - but its pressure and agony seem to be all that remind him he's human.

When his violent outbursts threaten the department's reputation, Wilson is finally sent into a temporary exile. Just over a hundred years after Dostoevsky's banishment, Wilson is told politely that there's a murder case up north and he's been assigned to help out the locals. "Siberia," growls Wilson. And so it is. Much has been made of the film's dichotomy, the way its change in story structure, ambiance, and physical locale reflect a growing change in Wilson himself. And yet in a sense he never changes - the self he already was merely comes into sharper focus. Each character he meets in the case (which quickly assumes the character of a chase, and never loses it until the climax) is a reflection of himself, or one aspect of himself.

First there's Walter Brent (Ward Bond), the ferociously aggressive father who wants to avenge his baby's death and drown his own grief in the blood of her killer. He is a clear exaggeration of Wilson's own tendencies - so much so that in relation to Brent, Wilson suddenly becomes the cool, composed one. He hasn't changed, but his environment has and so we view and appreciate a new aspect of his persona.

And then we meet Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), a blind girl living alone in an isolated cabin. On an open plain, in the shadow of the ominous mountains, she seems the most vulnerable character in the film - even more so than her brother, the young and mentally confused killer, whom she is protecting from her pursuers. She begins to open up Wilson, so that we can see his softer side - sensing that there is no malice in this young woman, he shields her from Brent's outbursts and gently guides her into a confession.

The confession leads to the discovery of Danny Malden (Sumner Williams), who is hiding out back with a knife, terrified of what the strangers will do to him and seemingly unable to grasp what he himself has done. Wilson will talk to him in a way that probably no other character could - with a voice of authority but also comfort. He almost leads Danny to surrender before Brent comes barging in, leading to an escape and pursuit that ends when Danny plummets from a cliff.

Here the narrative, already unusual in its focus on human interaction rather than hardboiled detective work (though the two turn out to be the same) becomes even stranger. Brent softens at the sight of the dead Danny, murmuring, "He was only a boy!" and volunteers to gingerly carry the corpse of his daughter's killer to a neighbor's. Wilson and Mary discuss what she will do now - with her brother not yet in the ground, Mary seems already resigned to his absence.

Wilson departs, unable to convince Mary she should see a doctor who may be able to restore her sight, and goes back to the city - established by a weird dissolve in which he and the car seem not to have travelled through any space or time, and yet the landscape outside the windshield shifts from one world to the next. (The lights of the skyscrapers hover half-translucent on the twilit mountainous horizon, as if the city is being approached in a dream rather than reality.)

Wilson recalls his supervisor's admonitions, about living in the world without a heart, and then - with another dreamlike dissolve - we are back at Mary's house. In the film's most controversial passage, Wilson enters, Mary comes down the stairs and they reach towards each other, grasping hands as the movie draws to a surprise happy ending. Ray supposedly hated this studio-imposed conclusion, and may not have even shot it himself. Nonetheless, it is the proper ending for a film that has always been more psychodrama than realistic police procedural.

Brent was the side of Wilson most pronounced in the opening third of the movie, the aggression divorced from any sense of restraint or logic - masculinity as the pure drive of the hunter (without the tact). Mary is, in a sense, Wilson's anima, his feminine principle in its highest aspect - one of wisdom, for in her emotional vulnerability combined with a need for self-reliance and stoicism, she is the strongest character in the movie. Danny is also a part of Wilson - the fear and confusion and sense of helplessness from which all of his anger and aggression arises. He is the shadow - the one Wilson must confront and lure out into the light of day to become whole once again.

Seen this way, the reunion of Mary and Wilson is necessary on a symbolic plane, if not a literal one (and indeed, that dissolve - along with the simplified mise en scene resulting from Ray's disengagement - suggests to the viewer that this is not happening in "reality"). Even as he failed to protect Danny or help Mary, the detective was able to submerge his own recklessness, balance the various pulls on his personality (intelligence, emotion, and physicality are all marvelously integrated as he closes in on the killer), and emerge a wiser, if sadder, man. Maybe he will continue to be alone, but he will no longer be alienated from the world or, more importantly, from himself. In that sense, the exile to Siberia achieved its purpose after all.

On Dangerous Ground is a wonderful film, maybe Ray's best, because it so perfectly foregrounds the way he was able to take genre conventions and apply an emotional intensity so heated that the conventions crack at the seams. The film breaks open when Wilson goes to the country - this is not just a transformation of style, but a completely different film in its mood, tone, and approach. It's easy to see why the French auteurs cottoned to it, not just Truffaut in Shoot the Piano Player (whose snowy climax seems a blatant tribute to Ray) but Godard in the moody rusticality of the suburbs in Band of Outsiders.

Those were films of a more hopeful, if still melancholy, time (one film ends tragically, the other does not, but both impart a burst of youthful energy). Perhaps Ray wanted his own snowy psychodrama to end pessimistically because of his, and his world's, situation in the early 1950s: like the repression of Dostoevsky's time, the anticommunism and informant culture of Ray's period had crushed an idealism of the past and left a generation rudderless and confused, left to their own devices without the cause or the community to hold them up. The source of Wilson's own angst is never examined, but maybe for Ray it was the sense of being thrust into the wilderness with no more compass and no companions (his marriage had just ended), only himself to fall back upon.

The detective in the film is on a quest but it's not the one he thinks he's on, nor the one we in the audience perhaps expect. The dangerous ground upon which he stands is not external, but internal - the ground of his own psyche, a "Siberia" which Ray knew all to well, and one which he had the unusual and brilliant gift to unlock for us: a region of profound spiritual unrest, and uncanny beauty.


Sam Juliano said...

I saw this film on the big screen at the Film Forum last month and fell in love with it all over again. I think it's my favorite Ray of them all, and it vies with Dassin's NIGHT AND THE CITY as my favorite noir. You have sized it up beautifully both narratively and thematically. I'd only pose to add that Bernard Herrmann's ravishing romantic score may well be the greatest in all of the cinema; certainly it's my own personal favorite, as well as Herrmann's favorite. It's one of those rare instances where music can actually govern a viewer's emotionally reaction to a film. It's suffused classicism with piercing beauty.

Joel Bocko said...

It might be my favorite Ray too. Originally I was going to review Kind of Kings for the blogathon but Netflix mishaps made that untenable. And I'm glad because when I finally watched it I found it largely a bore. I like Johnny Guitar & Rebel (I haven't quite warmed to Bigger Than Life) but by & large I think it's the b/w Rays that most excite me rather than the colors. That said, I recently borrowed Rebel from the library; I haven't seen it for years, and when I first saw it didn't know Ray from Adam so I'll be interested to see it now knowing more about his work.

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