Superlatives are easy and get us nowhere. In intellectual property law, the dilution of a brand name to the point where it’s synonymous with the actual product is commonly referred to as “genericide.” The result is for the trademarked name to become essentially worthless, harboring no actual value due to its overuse. The same should go for sliced-out blurbs that deem something, often a movie, to be “great” or “amazing” or, heaven forbid, “powerful.” If you hear these words enough, they lose any and all meaning. It tells us nothing aside from one person’s struggle with a limited vocabulary of populist signal phrases.
If Nicholas Ray still made movies today, considering the vast number of blurb-happy reviewer monkeys, he’d have no problem rounding up a few eager admirers with bylines. Lot of good that does him now. Those guys were nary to be found during his time in Hollywood. When he started out at RKO in the late 1940’s, audiences hardly noticed the unique auteur stamp he applied to his very best films. His debut They Live by Night sat on the shelf for months before getting a quiet, unnoticed release. Critics too were not entirely enthusiastic in his native country. If he had a champion among the American contingent of reviewers, I’m not aware of who it’d be. Years later, Andrew Sarris picked up the ball, but he didn’t originate the play. Overseas, it was the French, specifically the lads at Cahiers du Cinema, who were responsible for elevating Ray to the status of major filmmaker. Jean-Luc Godard put Ray’s Bitter Victory as his top film of 1957, ranked The Savage Innocents #2 in 1960, and had Bigger Than Life at number 7 in his list of the best American sound films that was published in the last issue of 1963.
The periodical also put Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without a Cause and Bigger Than Life in its year-end top 10 lists. How did Ray fare stateside? He picked up an Oscar nod for Best Writing on Rebel in 1956. That’s it. By the end of the decade he was done in Hollywood, essentially unemployable and on his way to a heart attack on the set of his last studio-financed film, 1963’s 55 Days at Peking. He’d go on to teach at New York University, where his most famous alum was the director Jim Jarmusch, before succumbing to cancer in the summer of 1979.The movies, of course, remain, and gloriously so. Ray’s decade was the 1950’s. You can look at and appreciate the output of Hitchcock or Billy Wilder or anyone from Sam Fuller to Douglas Sirk, but the ’50s were Nick Ray’s. No other director working in Hollywood was able to place America on the screen like Ray did. Our postwar fears, the veneer of happiness when disenchantment lurks barely beneath the surface, the basic decency we all struggle to maintain and the mistakes we’re doomed to make – these subjects fascinated Ray and they reveal themselves in the subtext of all his best efforts.
After They Live by Night, Ray got kicked around by RKO and eventually jumped to Columbia for a couple of Humphrey Bogart pictures. He made one of his best films there, arguably his masterpiece, with In a Lonely Place in 1950. He then returned to his home turf of Howard Hughes’ RKO to helm On Dangerous Ground, inspired by a British novel by Gerald Butler called Mad with Much Heart, which Ray had read prior to filming Born to Be Bad in 1949.
Made (reluctantly) by RKO and produced (reluctantly) by John Houseman, who had a relationship with Ray that preceded the director’s time in Hollywood, On Dangerous Ground found life with the support of star Robert Ryan and a script Ray wrote with A.I. Bezzerides, whose novels had earlier served the bases for the films They Drive by Night and Thieves’ Highway. The result was a quintessential Nicholas Ray film, one that allows for playing within the margins while still doing so at his own rhythms. It’s structured into two entirely different story segments and comes complete with a bold score by Bernard Herrmann that disorients as much as it thrills. The film’s top-billed lead, Ida Lupino, doesn’t appear until over half an hour has passed, and that initial portion has no determinate structure or plot. Lean yet unhurried at just under 82 minutes, the film noir doesn’t always adhere to convention, doesn’t worry itself with backstory, and can’t be bothered to explain much. And we should be thankful.
The initial thirty minutes, wherein Ryan’s Jim Wilson struggles with the big city filth and trash like a sane Travis Bickle, apparently came mostly from Ray and weren’t in the source novel. Wilson is a cop who’s lonely, lives by himself, and is fixated on the criminals who roam the perpetually wet streets. His isolation consumes him like all the best Ray protagonists. First seeming like a sadist, he’s later revealed to be someone who can’t separate his life from his job. The violence he accumulates inside manifests itself as the way to combat suspects. He beats and punches the perpetrators until they talk. We see Ryan deliver the immortal lines: “Why do you make me do it? You know you’re gonna talk! I’m gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk! Why do you do it?” In this scene, Wilson is not a power-mad monster, but a good man whose methods have grown increasingly violent and desperate. Ryan plays it with a sad compulsion to conquer his demons through brutalizing the uninnocent. He’s never off-duty.
straw display of violence against a suspect becomes almost unthinkable in the comparatively placid landscape of emptiness. The color white is used to establish purity and cleansing of the soul from the grimy alleys of the city. Ray brilliantly conveys the secluded openness of the new environment by blanketing everything in snow. The depth of uniformity seems to spread as far as the eye can see. Ray had actually studied under Frank Lloyd Wright and was greatly concerned with the architecture of his films. This interest is on display in the utter vastness of how lonely the single house where Ida Lupino’s character Mary, the blind sister of suspected killer Danny, resides. The modest home seems to be located in the middle of nowhere, covered in darkness and infected by the cold. The metaphor both for Wilson and Mary, two lonely souls that fit so well in the Nick Ray firmament, doesn’t go unnoticed.
Wilson has inadvertently closed himself off through his prickly demeanor and questionable actions while Mary’s distance from the outside world is geographic, but also somewhat self-inflicted. She refused to explore the possibility of regaining her sight to instead stay close to her younger brother. Through their own inactivity, Wilson and Mary have both trapped themselves inside self-built walls and only a major alteration will allow for the change they both desperately, if passively, desire. These are classic Ray characters, soul mates so disaffected with others that they struggle to recognize their path to redemption and contentment. Sometimes Ray (and the Production Code) let his lovers meet a happy ending and sometimes they were destined for a more somber fate. This film allows for the ending most viewers will feel is deserved. Danny’s death serves as a tragic sacrifice for Mary to now fully occupy her own life. Wilson, too, has found a companion to divert his attention away from the crime found on the streets. The missing pieces necessary to fix their troubles are simultaneously located in the form of each other. Ray’s deeply humanistic conclusion, wherein a man on the verge of imploding and a woman whose life has been undone find happiness together, is perhaps his most satisfying across the entirety of the director’s filmography.
When exiting a Nicholas Ray film, the viewer may feel punch drunk with emotion and feelings not fully digested. What I find so enchanting about Ray’s films, with On Dangerous Ground qualifying as a favorite, is how much heclearly cares about his characters. Objectivity isn’t feigned or wanted. Ray unapologetically set out to make films where imperfect protagonists like Jim Wilson could flourish against the typical Hollywood storybook portrayals. It’s not realism that Ray strived for so much as compassion in the face of fantasy. He sometimes comes across as a social worker with a camera and a studio budget. Nonetheless, these are multi-dimensional characters suddenly breathed life into when it wasn’t the popular thing to do. Wilson’s problems are appropriately isolated, but still embedded within that character. The choice Ray makes is to present Wilson as a man who simply can’t take what he witnesses on a daily basis. When he changes settings he also improves his mood and finds in Mary what he couldn’t in the city. By giving Wilson this catharsis, Ray begins the cop’s life anew, curing him of his lonely ailments. It’s the ending we want and the one Ray says Wilson deserves.