This is an interesting entry in the Film Noir canon and that's not surprising coming from director Nicholas Ray. If you've seen a lot of noir from this period and before, you'll be accustomed to lots of dark cityscapes and the general urban setting which is extremely common in this type of movie. ON DANGEROUS GROUND starts that way, but pivots about a third of the way through and shifts to another locale entirely - the snowy wilderness far outside of the city. Before that though, Pimps, prostitutes and other seedy types are on display early and the police officers (including one played by Robert Ryan) who are out to track down a cop killer, find themselves wading through these undesirables trying to pick up any clues they can to the whereabouts of the killer. There's a lot of perversity hinted at here - the metropolitan night is filled with sleazy characters that the cops have to deal with to get information. Robert Ryan's Detective Jim Wilson has anger management issues to say the least and is sent into a rage even at being called a "dumb cop" by an erroneously detained man. He's apparently been embittered and made unrepentantly cynical by years of dealing with the scummiest scum that the city has to offer and the first section of the movie is setting up who he is and how he handles his work. Unstable detective noir (Otto Preminger's WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS for example) was not totally uncommon, but ON DANGEROUS GROUND doesn't justify it's main character's behavior by revealing him to be justified in his violent treatment of suspects. It's rather intriguing and oddly timely to see this film again now, in light of much justified uproar in the U.S. over police brutality. In ON DANGEROUS GROUND, Jim Wilson's methods are only discouraged in as far as he is instructed to "take it easy" by his police chief (Ed Begley) after he a suspect he has beaten for information suffers a ruptured bladder.
Interestingly, ON DANGEROUS GROUND is more a study of one troubled man than a traditional cop film and much time is given to Jim Wilson as we watch him deal with his own feelings of animosity and isolation. At one point when one of the other cops asks him if he wants to get thrown off the force, Wilson exclaims that all they handle is garbage. He truly sees the streets he works in as filled with human refuse. Nicholas Ray was very fonder of isolated "loner" characters and one can be found in many of his best films. Ray plays much more with emotion and the impact of violence than reveling in the action set pieces common to this kind of hard boiled tale. Robert Ryan never even fires a gun in the movie - leave it to Nicholas Ray to make a cop flick this way.
So Jim Wilson has issues and we are made to examine them and him as a person. What could possible melt the cold heart of a world-weary cop like this? A blind woman (Ida Lupino) living in a remote cottage in the woods that Wilson stumbles across while looking for the murderer of a young girl in the main section of the film. I've been a Lupino fan for a long time and I've always marveled at her ability to play both hard-boiled dames and innocent females with equal adeptness.
Nicholas Ray used cinematographer George E. Diskant on this film, who also shot THEY LIVE BY NIGHT for him. Diskant also did films like THE RACKET, THE NARROW MARGIN and KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, so he was more than familiar with the murky shadows that are always associated strongly with the genre. ON DANGEROUS GROUND has a stylish blackness about it and Warner Archive's new transfer for this Blu-ray makes it look pretty fantastic. We're talking OUT OF THE PAST and MURDER, MY SWEET good-looking (I thought both of those Blu-rays were quite stunning). It's well worth the upgrade and is a sign of Warner Archive's continuing dedication to gorgeous black and white on Blu-ray.
Warner Archive has ported over the DVD commentary from Film Historian Glenn Erickson (DVD Savant). It is a well-researched and academic track that moves a long at a sharp clip and has a lot to offer in the way of information about the production and its cast and crew.
Buy ON DANGEROUS GROUND on Blu-ray here: