While I knew that Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino would turn in stellar performances in their roles as detective Jim Wilson and blind woman Mary Malden, I was suprised by other elements of the movie. Cleo Moore turned in a wonderful performance as Myrna Bowers, one of the leads that Wilson and his fellow detectives follow up. She plays the role seductively, sassy, and concerned over her health if she gives up the information, and Robert Ryan plays off her acting very nicely. Ward Bond did a nice job in the film as well, playing the father out to avenge his daughter's death, Several of the bit parts are also memorable, notably the newspaper vendor street contact who puts Jim Wilson on to Myrna Bowers, and several of the characters in a bar scene and out in the urban area.
Another terrific element of the movie is the film maker's technique. I've always loved Nicholas Ray's film style, but he outdoes himself here (although I understand that Ida Lupino took over direction for a couple of days when Nicholas Ray was ill). The city streets are always wet and grimy, while the rural mountainous region to which Ryan's Wilson is sent is unrelentingly cold and bleak. The picture painted of a cold world is one that carries on throughout the film. One of the few spots of warmth is in the house where the blind Mary Malden (Ida Lupino) lives with her deranged brother. Furthermore, the urban part of the story is mostly told by night, whereas the rural part of the story is told by daylight. The stark contrast is very good, well-executed, and brings home the differences between the the two parts of the movie as well.
And indeed, the film seems like two movies, the first showing the urban, gritty nature of police detective work that starts off by letting the audience see the human side of the detectives (and the emotional and social isolation of Robert Ryan's Jim Wilson), and then serving to show the deterioration of Jim's personality and his cold detachment towards others, except when he reacts violently to situations. The highlights in the first part of the film for me were two-fold. First, the cat-and-mouse scene with Bernie Tucker in the flea-bitten hotel room where Wilson's temper gets the better of him, and the scene has some undertones of S&M to it. Richard Irving is simply superb as the target of Ryan's character's ire and desire for vengeance, and Irving seems to play it almost as if the character is on drugs. The second was the scene with questioning Cleo Moore's Myrna Bowers character, where we're not sure exactly how Wilson got the information out of her, as the scene dissolves to the next scene. Both scenes serve to show how Wilson is barely keeping his violence contained. The first part of the movie also very much serves as a good bit on police procedurals and detective work, but focuses very much on the characters, rather than the plot, as it's just the set-up for what's to come.
The second half of the movie, taking place in the rural community where Wilson has been sent to help out with a murder investigation, is as day compared to the first half's night, and the juxtaposition is not only deliberate, but it is jarring. From the time that Ryan's Wilson meets Ida Lupino's Mary, the story undergoes a radical about-face, with the fact that Wilson is completely dysfunctional becoming abundantly and abhorrently clear to the audience. But there is salvation here, in the form of Mary Malden (Ida Lupino's blind character), and several of the scenes are very much about Wilson's redemption and his ability to save her in kind. Every scene with Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino in it crackles with screen chemistry and with wordplay, and the music by Bernard Herrmann makes the scenes even better. Some have said that the end of the movie is very jarring, yet I felt that it perfectly suited the style of the film (even though I know that this was not the ending that Nicholas Ray had wanted). To me, it fit fine - and left me wanting more.
Overall, I would give On Dangerous Ground an 8 out of 10.