"How do you live with yourself?"
"I don't. I live with other people."
-On Dangerous Ground
There's a passage in a Peter Straub story about someone trying to write the perfect version of a story, where every paragraph, every line, every word would be a microcosm of the whole. Where every sentence would be an arrow to the secret heart of the matter*. That's a phrase that's stuck with me for some reason, and it's one that I thought of a lot while watching On Dangerous Ground. This is a film rife with symbolism both obvious and subtle, all of it in service of one simple theme, which is perhaps most explicitly stated in the dialogue I quoted above. This film is about loneliness and desperation, and the heated exchange above comes from a tightly wound detective asking his senior partner how he lives with all of the crap they see on the job.
Robert Ryan plays Jim Wilson, a big city cop who's beginning to come apart at the edges. He's wound too tightly and takes the job too seriously. He lashes out at everyone he meets in the course of his job, has little time for conversation with his partners, and keeps looking through mugshots even while having dinner. He's clearly devoted, and it's clearly eating away at him. Several times we see his brutality on the job, first as he attempts to rough up a civilian who dares complain at less-than-polite treatment when he's stopped for matching the description of a burglar, and then later as he sends a man to the hospital in the course of an interrogation. Our tendencies here, and especially with the popular distrust of police officers these days, is to view Jim as the villain of the piece. Or at least the anti-hero, like Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant. A cop whose dedication to the job has pushed him over the edge and made him worse than the criminals he chases after. But really, Jim isn't that bad of a guy. He's not naturally cruel or brutal, but has been corrupted by the brutality and cruelty he sees everyday, where everyone he deals with is either a victim or a perpetrator. And from the very opening scenes we get an enforcement of that exchange quoted above. While his partners get ready for work, they are shown surrounded by loving wives and children. As Jim is picked up for work, he's eating dinner alone while perusing mugshot photo in an efficiancy-with-a-capital-E apartment. He may be losing it, but he still takes the time to play a good natured game of catch with the paperboy outside his apartment.
Jim's commanding officer, played by Ed Begley, certainly senses this growing brutality in Jim, and transfers him temporarily to a rural community up north(I thought the film took place in New York, but the upstate community was filmed in Colorado, so I'm not really sure) to help with a murder case. At this point I thought the film would become a story of a brutal cop butting heads with more laconic locals, but the film swerved a bit by dropping Jim into the middle of a community thirsty for biblical eye-for-an-eye revenge. I'm going to point out a small plot hole here, that may be addressed in the film but I didn't catch it. When Jim is in the city, his captain tells him of the murder and that he'd like Jim to go and help investigate. Jim drives several hours to the rural community, and arrives seemingly just after the murder, as people are chasing the killer away from the scene of the crime. I bring this up to point it out, not to say that it ruins the enjoyment or believability of the film. I've never allowed a plot hole to ruin my enjoyment of an otherwise great film, and would suggest a similar outlook to all who would consider themselves cinephiles. I often point out boom mics in shots, mismatched continuity, or other mistakes, but those alone don't reflect on a film's quality.
Here in upstate wherever, Jim suddenly finds himself the true voice of reason as he hunts down the murderer alongside the father of the victim, who plans on shooting on sight. Jim's first instinct is probably to sympathize with the father, possibly even to assist him, but he's also a decent enough cop that he does try to rein him in. The two steal a car together-sorry, commandeer a car together- and chase after the killer, but the chase ends when they drive the car off the road, where they come across a farmhouse where Mary, a blind woman played, sorry to say, a bit too mawkishly by Ida Lupino, lives with her brother who has been on another ranch for several days. It doesn't take long for the two men to come to the opinion that Mary's brother is the murderer, and they decide to wait for him to return.
At this point the movie starts to get even blunter about it's meanings and messages, as Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan become opposite poles on the scale of humanity. Ryan has been turned callous and distrusting by his job, all the things he's seen, while Ida Lupino is more emotional, and says she must trust everyone because she can't see. This segment here, between tough cop Jim, sensitive blind woman Mary, and aggrieved vengeful father Walter, form the backbone of the film. Jim sees the two options available to him; close yourself off or open yourself up, and begins to sympathize with the latter.
Skipping past the specifics of the plot, the film ends with Walter realizing his daughter's killer is just a kid himself, maybe not deserving of death, and Jim heading back to the big city. Where earlier in the film Jim would sit in the backseat while driving around with his partners, here he is sitting in the front seat along with the aggrieved father. Between them we can see the rear window, which has been partially busted out, giving us a clear sign that a crack has appeared in Jim's shell. He may be closer to letting the outside world in. There's a neat dissolve here, from the POV of the father's truck driving down country roads to another POV shot of more urban neighborhoods, and a cut back to Jim, driving alone in his car. As he heads away from farmland and into the city, we stay on his face as he plays over the things people have been telling him throughout the movie. About how the loneliest people are those who are always around people, and about how you need to give in order to get in this world.
The ending comes suddenly, so suddenly that I was almost tempted to write an argument here in favor of it being a dream sequence. A wish fulfillment daydream for a man who's just going to return to the cycles that have been destroying him for years. But I think that's too simple, and cynical, a reading. Sure there are themes in the film to support it, but I think it's best to take it on face value. This film seems to be a retort to the nihilism and cynicism of most film noir. It looks past the hardboiled detective cliche, the man we root for when he uses his fists to get info from a thug, and exposes the wounded lonely boy at heart. This is a film about the need to connect in order to combat the evils in this world, and cares enough to give it's characters a shot at that connection.
*I went looking for the story in particular, hoping to quote it exactly, but couldn't find it. I'm pretty sure it comes from one of the stories in Houses Without Doors. Maybe The Bufallo Hunter.