Both of these actors were supremely capable of rendering torment. Ryan, a champion collegiate boxer, was perhaps the more adept of the two at sheer physicality - in fact he was one of the great physical actors in cinema. But here, like Bogart earlier on, Ryan's weathered face bears the chief responsibility of registering tension, carefully tended and lit by Ray until lovingly unleashed by him in violent physical outbursts - notably, here, Ryan is actually on the offensive only in the first half of the film; there is a redemptive aspect to his physicality later on... Violence in this film is not used, as in "In A Lonely Place," as climactic signification of final damnation. Uncontrolled anger and a crushing nihilism are, initially, the reigning demons of both men - but Ryan's Wilson is redeemed by circumstance (and of course his own innate spiritual ability to BE redeemed.) A chance encounter with the sublime vulnerability of goodness - and the possibility of rendering humane service to it - allows Wilson an opening view onto his own vulnerability.
The penultimate framing shot of Ryan's hand clasping Lupino's, reminiscent of that famous tableau in "The Last Judgment", arguably places this film outside the universe of noir. Wilson has been blessed -not usually an attribute of noir - with the witness of a double example of vulnerability - polarized by Lupino's serene grace and the brutal grief of Ward Bond as the slain girl's father. How to act, and how not to react - there, in tableaux before him- two essentially decent characters but with this difference: Lupino in a state of grace and Bond afflicted by the lack of it, the latter's graceless decency only becoming evident near the end of the film when he kindly offers Ryan a ride.
Dostoievsky said that we are given the freedom by God to encounter that evil which is an inescapable part of our nature - only then can we make the fatal decision to transcend it. According to him, and as noted by his great critical disciple Berdyaev, without evil there is not God, because without it there would be no need for God. ON DANGEROUS GROUND seems tailor built to this spiritual dynamic in its divided mis en scene of fall and redemption, with the darkness of city streets giving way to the harsh purity of snow covered countryside-were we there with Wilson, we might even be vulnerable to snowblindness - as Lupino was blinded, by chance.
But over both sequences, of dark and light, Ray places his abiding backdrop of stillness - in the beginning the silent terrible momentum of the three policemen preparing for work, the married women its hapless victims never to be seen again...and then the moving of the patrol car through the dark silent streets, Bernard Herrmann's great score in temporary abeyance as they move in a kind of gelid ether, a frightful inertia, through that Dostoevskian universe of free choice which Dixon Steele also faces and which, by the chance structure of true noir cinema and by his own choice, damns him in the end. How ironic that, of the two, Ray chose to damn that character whose world was that "free" libertine Hollywood where Ray himself lived and worked, in the libertinism which Dostoevsky decisively rejected, rather than the world of ON DANGEROUS GROUND, that unnamed Stygian world which would seem, at first, to offer infinitely less choice, but which happens to provide the stark tableaux necessary for a definitive glimpse into one's own soul.
I would say that along with "The Fugitive Kind", this is Lumet's most harrowing, compelling work...
I found the original, badly worn VHS release of this in a video store whose owner is too stubborn to sell off his vintage collection; God bless him. Is it really possible that this is the only way to obtain this film??
I wish the film quality were better on this, hovers around the barely tolerable.