By Philip Schweier
On Dangerous Ground (1952) is a rare case in which I can’t wait for a movie to end. It is part of a film noir collection I received for Christmas, but it represents the low end of the five films in the collection, in my opinion.
Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is a reasonably honest plainclothes cop who spends his time cruising the city with pals Pop Daly (Charles Kemper) and Pete Santos (Anthony Ross). When we meet the trio, we also meet their families – except for Jim, who spends his free time going over mug shots of the local crooks. This only reinforces Wilson’s distance from humanity.
After roughing up one too many suspects, Wilson’s captain, Brawley (Ed Begley) sends him on a special assignment upstate. A sheriff there by the name of Carrey (Ian Wolfe) needs help with a manhunt for the murderer of a young girl. It’s rural, mountainous country, and the locals are content to run the scoundrel down like the animal he is. Apparently Sheriff Carey would prefer a more civilized outcome before they execute the perpetrator.
(A word of note about character actor Ian Wolfe: the man was just born old. Star Trek fans may recognize him as Mr. Atoz from the episode “All Our Yesterdays,” but he had been acting for many years before that, usually playing older gentlemen. By the time he gave his final performance in Dick Tracy (1990) he was 95 years old.)
Ward Bond plays Walter Brent, the father of the murdered girl, and with Wilson’s help they pursue the culprit over hill and dale until they come to the lonely farm house of the even lonelier Mary Malden (Ida Lupino). Despite her blindness, Brent is convinced she’s hiding someone, which Wilson confirms while Brent is outside searching the outer buildings. She begs Wilson to do what he can to protect her brother Danny (Sumner Williams) from mob violence. He’s not evil, just mixed up (uh-huh).
Mary convinces Wilson the hour and the weather won’t help them in their manhunt, so he and Brent bed down in the living room. The next morning, Wilson spies Mary heading outside with a sandwich. He follows and corners Danny in a shed, only to be interrupted by Brent. A fight, another chase, and Danny meets his come-uppance, though not that the hands of the vengeful father, whose rage passes when he realizes the “man” they’d been pursuing was little more than a boy.
Wilson returns to the city, thinking over the lines of dialogue from earlier in the movie regarding Mary’s loneliness and Pop Daly’s attitude toward police work: “I live with other people. When I go home I don’t take this stuff with me, I leave it outside.”
Initially the movie starts out as a nice little police drama, complete with low-lifes and good cops and bad. But once Wilson is sent to the country, it becomes a chase movie (which wouldn’t be so bad had it stayed a chase movie). Instead it takes yet another turn, becoming a long, drawn-out melodrama, as Mary’s blindness becomes the catalyst for Wilson’s sudden and dramatic (and unbelievable) transformation.
I’ve always felt blind characters in movies (Gene Hackman being the exception) to be a cheap ploy to elicit sympathy from the audience. It’s as if somewhere there is a filmmaker’s rule book which states, “If you want laughs, kick someone in the groin. If you want sympathy, introduce a blind person, preferably a young and beautiful woman.”