I couldn't help thinking when this film ended that Claire Denis must be a big fan. Yes, I really like Denis so her work is in my mind a lot but there’s something that feels unavoidably comparable in On Dangerous Ground’s simplicity of story-telling and focus on the un-regarded intimacy of the physical. And when I recall Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows and when I think of the ruses in Melville’s films, I think of the thrill of the artisanal bits of action — where the crimes and deceptions are so believable because enacted by the un-extraordinary, mostly very believable manoeuvres of hands. (I won’t even begin to discuss Bresson here, though he obviously comes to mind too). Where are the American hand-films? This isn’t quite it, but surely a similar magnetism in this film exists in its reliance on the everyday materialism of the physical for the exhilarating sense of the simplicity of intentions or the disclosure of someone’s inner state.
I have read more than a few reviews that express disappointment in what they consider the scant narrative backbone of this film. Ray (and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides) frame the story around two key chase scenes and many dialogue scenes between. But this is partially what there is to love about it as well: it gives us the almost anti-climactic realism of self-revelation and adds to it the force of unforgettable circumstantial details/imagery that create the memory of the moment if not the very moment itself (the silky head of hair appearing from within the dark recess of a trapdoor, a blind woman falling to her knees in the snow, the unfurling of fists in black leather gloves, footprints and the gradual illumination of lamplight)..
The film follows NYC cop Jim Wilson who, having been too heavy handed with one too many suspects, is seconded to a murder case in the regional West. There, he meets Brent (the father of the victim) and blind woman Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), the sister of the murder suspect. Ray takes us from the multiplicity of noir types (numerous cops, snitches, femme fatales) in the city to the diametric versions of Jim in the West: Mary and Brent respectively possess Jim's alienation and capacity for vengeful brutality, but each also possesses a material justification for their traits which Jim seems to lack - he shares neither Mary's experience of disability nor Brent's experience of fatherhood. The world of the film becomes expressive of this abstract arrangement that paves the way for Jim’s self-revelation. Even if Jim's journey is not the only one we witness, the snowy landscape's stark binary patterning is a captivatingly desolate vision of a world of only states of matter, of formation and separation. The moment Jim turns to Brent in the darkness of the car, his features barely distinguishable, after Brent says "Why do you care? Wasn't your kid.” is a moment of inward-turning (darkness in the darkness) that precipitates the journey towards self-discernment in the blank expanse of the snow, which has thickened over dissolves leading up to the scene.
Re the intimacy of the physical: Jim and Mary both give away more about themselves in their physiques and movements than they want to. Blindness causes Mary to lead all her movements with her hands and those hesitant arrhythmic twists of her body — her vulnerability therefore always obvious and the sensuality of her world more patent because more tactile. Jim’s large athletic frame betrays his potential for brutality even before he acts it out, like a sublimation of the patent sensuality he brings to the screen through the mere force of his great shape and size in the frame. The literalness of Jim’s avoidant actions in particular, like how he physically turns his chair away from Hazel at the bar to avoid her flirtations, remind me of what Kent Jones says about the world of Denis' Beau Travail: that it’s a “universe of men silently faced towards one another and away from life” — but in this case only Jim longs for the communal solitude of men, thus his insistence on studying suspect photographs over a lonesome dinner (he thinks he’s doing it for the boys), thus his only tender scene with another person early in the film being with the young boy he kicks a newspaper around with after work. The rest wonder why he doesn’t want to meet their families.
It makes sense then that a key moment of Jim’s transformation takes place through a wonderful suspension of action in a quiet scene in Mary's home, where it’s as if the focused and gentle demonstrations of contact and withholding bring to a swell some realignment of Jim’s thoughts and actions. Mary’s dialogue moves between reflections on loneliness and punctuating questions about the cold and the time. The progression builds suspense about a more immediate anxiety she's yet to divulge, but also plays up the connection between the physical and the psychic. It’s like we’ve been baited in this sequence to appreciate the warmth and intensity of the moments of bodily contact to follow - including, certainly, the kiss, but also Brent’s sorrowful pieta-style embrace of the young murderer’s corpse. In that moment we come full circle with and then go beyond Jim’s turn away from life at large — he turns to the man next to him and is led back into the world by sharing Brent’s grief and remorse, that is, the love it takes to be a father.
A final point of Denis-comparability: how the noir inflection of the latter part of this film emanates from its compelling and harsh realism. Ray offers images/events that we feel society never meant for us to learn. The backstory of Mary and Danny’s almost incestuous co-dependence is refreshing in its pitilessness and immoralism. It’s implied that their attachment to each other, and their refusal to leave their co-dependent existence in the woodlands, is largely to blame for the irreversible aggravation of their respective illnesses, the unnaturalness/morbidity of their connection reflected in the deformities caused by their worsened conditions (the taboo realness of hick depravity!). Ray offers us also the thrilling tension of the domesticity/safety/softness of a woman’s surrounds against how she can will herself towards danger and risk: Mary’s woollen gloves and the sandwich they clutch for Danny against the fact that she is stumbling through the snow to quell the anxious paranoia of a murderer.
It made me think of the protagonist of Agnes Varda’s Sans Toit Ni Loi who regularly passes by bent traffic and pedestrian signs, even a toppled pile of pallets — all of which hint at the dangers faced, and welcomed, by the vagabond despite the attempts of social infrastructure to protect her, maintain a sense of the safe domesticity of the town. In these scenarios there’s always the plan of the world against the plan of the character’s desires and destiny, as if to say outsiders aren't exiles but have their own aberrational life-force.
Editor’s note: A Good Copy of On Dangerous Ground is streaming if you click here
Previous pieces by Shelley Jiang on Film Alert 101 can be found if you click on the film titles below.
Touch of Evil(Orson Welles)
Street of Shame(Kenji Mizoguchi)
No Fear No Die(Claire Denis)
My Sister's Good Fortune(Angela Schanelec)