For some reason in the movies I'd seen him in, Robert Ryan had never made much of an impression on me. But from now on, when I think of Robert Ryan, I'm going to think of 1952's On Dangerous Ground;
I'm really starting to love the boldness I'm noticing in the way 1950s movies portrayed bad cops. I'd watched White Heat a couple nights before On Dangerous Ground, and despite a terrific, haunting performance by James Cagney, the movie's diminished incredibly by its gaggle of smug, self-righteous cops. In On Dangerous Ground, the good guy/bad guy line is obliterated.
At one superficial level, the movie seems to be a comment on the importance of policemen not stepping over the line. But the movie's better than the heavier handed social commentary of Ray's later film, Rebel Without a Cause, because Ryan's internal conflict completely takes over. Perhaps if Rebel Without a Cause had had a similarly short running time (only 81 minutes compared to Rebel's 111 minutes), James Dean's performance would've given the later film a like focus.
Routinely roughing up suspects and leads while remaining detached and quietly worked up in the company of his colleagues, Ryan so perfectly comes across as a man whose humanity is cauterised by continual exposure to the worst of human nature until he's pared down to the single minded focus of getting every last one of them bastards and breaking their necks.
In an effort to get him to cool off, his chief sends him north, out of the city, to assist in solving a murder. Little does the chief know he's sending him to partner up with the even looser cannon, Ward Bond, who plays the father of the murdered girl.
The movie's pace rarely slows as the two men chase the killer across treacherous, snowy roads and woods. Ryan's up for killing the man as much as Bond is until they run into the culprit's blind sister, played by the great Ida Lupino.
As she and Ryan talk by fireside, he tells her how he can't trust anyone, and she tells him being blind makes you have to trust everyone. It's maybe the horror Ryan feels at such a vulnerable existence that leans him towards trying to take her brother alive, but the tension about whether or not he'll change his mind stays constant. When she remarks he's one of the few people who doesn't talk to her with pity, she doesn't seem to suspect it's not because he respects her but because he's nearly lost all capacity for pity. One senses it's her inability to see him that allows Ryan to start to feel somewhat safe in allowing his humanity to peek through.
On Dangerous Ground is also made fifty times better than it otherwise might have been by its score by Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann finds just the right tactics to draw us into the landscape, turning the footage of rocks and snow into something simultaneously familiar and bizarre, and totally threatening. The French horns in the climactic chase up a rock face are like a paean of apocalypse.