Brief impression: “On Dangerous Ground”
June 3, 2014 § 2 Comments
Is the latter half of ‘On Dangerous Ground’ undone/done-in by the former, which is to say: has my being slightly underwhelmed by the romance and intrigue of the final forty minutes anything to do with the sense of breathless awe that I had when watching the film unfold in its strong, silent, semi-procedural way? A simple tonal shift is probably not reason enough to dismiss a vital portion of a film seeing as, in this one, the protagonist must undergo an inner softening similar to the way the movie itself seems to soften visually and with regards to pace and manner, taking on a more pastoral rhythm. I wouldn’t like to think that I value somewhat gritty matter-of-factness above romanticism and honest sentiment, at least not unequivocally.
I suppose the reason for my reactively lukewarm feelings towards ‘Casablanca’ and similar mainstream canonical “classics” from the Hollywood “golden age” is the fact that these films, which tend to be among the few “older” pictures that the general film-viewing public have seen, colour the way in which cinema from this period is widely perceived. Having spent a good deal of my university days wading through the file sharing networks through which my fellow dorm residents and I could access each other’s legally – cough – obtained movie collections, I can remember being struck by how often ‘Casablanca’ and co (‘co’ being other mainstream canonicals i.e The Magnificent Seven, The Wizard of Oz, It’s A Wonderful Life, West Side Story) were the only representatives of pre-1970s cinema on lists that almost suggested that the art form was invented in the mid-80s. So when the commonly held idea of a quintessential “golden age” film involves fast-talking-high-pants, swooning dames and swelling strings, soft-lighting, staginess or air thick with naiveté, it’s no great surprise. Of course, ‘Casablanca’ at times has a mildly tough edge to it, relatively speaking, but if I thought old-timey film romance was a little ‘cute’ after watching that sacred cow, then watching an alternative sacred cow – something like ‘Brief Encounter’ – made me think twice.
‘On Dangerous Ground’ opens with a shot that typifies the movie’s old-school modernism: a gun-in-holster is carried and fastened to a male cop’s body by his female better-half, quietly, without musical accompaniment, with understated gestures and few words, and this moment is repeated with several fellow coppers in a way that is haunting by way of its suggestions of impending doom, but in a way which also proves to be thematically indispensable. The visual demonstrativeness of Ray/Lupino’s very classical filmmaking is balanced out by a streak of naturalism in the performances and even in the dialogue at times, the result being that the movie looks and feels to me like a stylistic portrayal of an era that has its own peculiarities and rhythms, but which is by no means exponentially different to the one in which I exist; almost as if its otherness is only an artefact of cinematic representation. As the cops go about their business of catching a cop-killer there is a sense of simmering danger and intensity to the procedural sparseness with which the cop-catching business is captured, so much so that it renders the overbearing cheerlessness of present-day police procedurals tired and artless. But as world-worn detective Jim Wilson ventures out into snow-laden small-town USA, and especially once he encounters his eventual love interest Mary Malden, the movie takes on a quality one could consider to be more in keeping with what people expect of a film from the era of shimmering eyes and string swells.
Jim’s affection for Mary appears to be predicated on pity more than genuine attraction, and pity seems to be the means by which his misanthropy eases, but maybe this is an unfairly cynical assessment, more cynical perhaps than Jim himself. It is of course implied that Mary’s lack of distrust despite her being practically blind forces Jim to reconsider his own hard-hearted attitude towards humanity at large, but I wonder whether or not the film’s flirtations with sentimentality were an earnest change in tone on the part of the filmmakers, or if Ray, Lupino and company simply fell into certain stylistic rhythms which continue to misrepresent mainstream American cinema from that period as being invariably maudlin. But seeing as I’m loath to end a piece of writing about this wonderful film with the word ‘maudlin’, I shan’t.
The first time I watched On Dangerous Ground I was disappointed by the shift to the rural setting. I preferred the classic noir city of shadows and light. But on my second viewing, I realized why Jim had to leave the city: to grow and change as a character.
Although Jim no doubt felt pity (or compassion) for Mary, I don’t think he is attracted to her for that reason. He is drawn to her goodness because he is an angry and violent man. Opposites attract. I wrote a short essay on the film called “The Ethics of Consequentialism.” I am open to any constructive feedback if you would like to read it. Here is the link: https://christopherjohnlindsay.wordpress.com/2015/04/28/on-dangerous-ground/
Thanks for your comment, Chris. I read your piece and I appreciate – on further thought – the importance of the film’s latter half, narratively and thematically. And thanks for bringing this consequentialist reading to my attention. In truth, I felt that the second half of this film was a vital evolution in narrative, on first viewing, and your essay articulates it very well. I suppose my reservations were always formalist i.e. the way in which the tone segues into something more recognisably ‘romantic.’ I wondered – and still do wonder – whether this brisk tonal shift represents what I feel to be a fairly (if not overly) straightforward psychological transitioning on the part of Jim. Or perhaps I’m wrong about this. Jim’s ‘softening’ is actually quite gradual and doubtful, which is why I wonder if the film would have benefited from a more gradual tonal shift, one more in keeping with Jim’s internal shift. However, I shouldn’t forget Mary. This is her story too, and maybe I need to realise that the tonal shift represents a sudden transition from Jim’s mental milieu to Mary’s. Jim, hardened as he is, finds himself in a new psychological climate (snow and all) and is slowly compelled to acclimatize. Anyway, it’s a great film. Thanks for reading and getting in touch.
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