Detective James Wilson (Robert Ryan, brilliant) has been a cop for eleven years. ”All we ever see,” a fellow L.A.P.D. officer explains, “is crooks, murderers, winos, stoolies, dames all with an angle. You get so you think everybody’s like that. Till you find out different, it’s kind of a lonely life. . . . Jim just takes it harder than the rest of us.” Wilson is an especially brutal cop in extracting information; “Why do you make me do it?” he pointlessly asks before pummeling someone sleazy under arrest. His captain warns him not to act “like a gangster with a badge.”
Point-of-view shots through the police car windshield at night suggest that Wilson is being propelled through an urban nightmare in Nicholas Ray’s superlative On Dangerous Ground, adapted by A.I. Bezzerides and Ray from Gerard Butler’s novel Mad with Much Heart. The principal crime that Wilson investigates, on special assignment, is in the wintry country, where he “find[s] out different” by meeting Mary Malden (Ida Lupino, terrific), a gentle blind woman who is as proud as he is, whose loving though disturbed younger brother, Danny (Sumner Williams, Ray’s nephew, wonderful), sensitively sculpts wood and has killed a schoolgirl with his sculpting knife because she mocked him. Mary doesn’t want her brother killed; the victim’s father, armed with a shotgun, aims to kill the boy. Wilson trusts no one; no-nonsensically (in other words, without savoring the irony), blind Mary notes, “I have to trust everybody.” Mary detects a kindred spirit in Wilson, whose admiration for her draws his unexpected compassion for Danny, culminating in Wilson’s redemption. Both mise-en-scène and the framing of shots in and around Mary’s home project Mary’s blindness—the darkness in which Wilson must grope in order to touch the light.
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