On Dangerous Ground

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On Dangerous Ground seems to me to be a different type of Nicholas Ray film, especially in terms of notions of masculinity, because it shows a male character concretely developing and progressing.  Generally, separate characters embody the two types of masculinity we often see in Ray’s continuum of male personality, the active and the sensitive, as with Jim and Buzz in Rebel or Bowie and Chickamaw in They Live By Night.  Even in Knock on Any Door, where Morton’s more mature version of masculinity is compared to Nick’s, though both are “active” type men from the streets, Morton is seen only from this older vantage point.  The film does not show us Morton’s transition from a more violent, hateful young man like Nick to the toned-down, married, fine thing-owning lawyer he is now.  Thus, what Ray presents in the film is again a foiling dichotomy of masculinity that represents the continuum between the older and younger man, the mentor and the mentee, the active violence and the more tempered, thinking man’s type of masculinity.

On Dangerous Ground, on the other hand, shows the transition within a single character from the Nick type of position to the Morton type notion of masculinity.  Instead of merely focusing on a single instance or period of emotional struggled and pressure-cooker tension, here we see a character trajectory, progression from one state to another.  With this Jim, it is as though we get to see the positive transformation, through the magically purifying powers of innocent, blind female love, of a Dix Steele type.  Dix, of course, had to be taken with the bad along with the good, and the pessimistic ending between him and Laurel does not really point towards any such personal transformation.  Maybe if Laurel had been blind and lived in the country…

Well anyway, Jim seems to be rather an extraordinary figure among the males we have seen in Ray so far because he does embody this development, because he offers visible proof of the transformative powers of love.  Bowie is nowhere near such an example, for his innocence and youthful purity are present from the start, despite his criminal past and friends, and he is just looking for a kindred spirit like Keechie to run away with.  Jim, by contrast, explicitly changes when he moves into the snowy white space of the country, when he sees a more intense incarnation of his own violence in the shot gun-wielding father of the murdered girl, and when he encounters the blind, aptly-named Mary.

Like the rapid way that love strikes in Ray’s studio films, Jim’s transformation from out-of-control violent cop, willing to use any brutal means necessary to secure information and his own version of “justice,” to soft-spoken, insightful, empathetic communicator (able to converse, not merely brutally coerce, with both Mary and Danny).  He even takes on Pop’s role, restraining the father from punching Mary in the face just as Pop had to stop him from beating up the “garbage” that had assaulted the woman he received information from.  However, there is something more believable about the hasty, unmeditated and unpsychologized leaps into love, which might only have to do with the romantic conventions of Hollywood story-telling and the necessity of quickly getting the romance plot underway.  Jim’s rapid character turn-around, however, seems much more abrupt, especially in the psychologically-invested, emotion-explosive films of Ray.  Apparently, a single glance at what his own violent future might be and a few miles of snowy road are enough to completely change a man and undo years of callous-building interaction with violence, corruption, and “human garbage.”

What is also interesting about this is the way in which the country father’s very intense violence is still essentially different, in its primary source, from Jim’s.  In the film’s opening shots of the men strapping on their guns to go out on night patrol, Jim is prominently singled out and contrasted as alone in comparison to the other “family men.”  The girlfriend of the first man tells him she doesn’t like to be alone while hugging him and securing his holster.  The second, Pop, leaves his seven children in front of the T.V. to have a private moment with his wife, who though older, quieter and more used to her man’s nightly shifts than the first girl, similarly helps him with his holster.  On the other hand, Jim’s only family is his job as a police officer: he is already wearing his gun and hasn’t even finished his solitary meal, which he eats while studying mug shots of suspected cop killers still on the loose.

Jim is cynical, violent and hateful because of what he has seen everyday on the job for the last eleven years and because he takes his job home with him, as we saw and as Pop tells him.  He doesn’t live with people, unlike the country man who’s more extreme violence is triggered not by a built-up hatred and cynicism, but by the immediate loss of his daughter.  His violence is in a way an expression of love, one which falls away (again rather instantly) when he sees that his daughter’s killer was really just a kid himself, not the menacing brutalizer he might have been imaging.

And of course, Jim completes his transcendent transformation by ultimately returning to the country and to Mary, Pop’s words of warning echoing through voice-over in his head.  He decides to follow his advice, and “put something into life, with his heart,” to “take care” of Mary.  Somehow, though it is a rather heart-warmingly optimistic Hollywood type ending, it does beg the question of exactly how content Jim will be there in the rural country, how quickly he can shake off eleven years of “garbage” and how long his rapid transformation can last without vestiges of the past returning to haunt him, as happens to so many other Ray characters.

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