Robert Ryan, always one of Hollywood’s best at playing violent misfits, seethes as Jim Wilson, a big city cop slowly being suicided by the job. After years of performing the thankless and soul-crushing task of collecting the city’s human garbage, Wilson’s skin is worn dangerously thin, and he rages at the slightest provocation.
Like Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle twenty-five years later, Jim Wilson is sickened by the depravity of the city, and lives an isolated existence. Whereas Bickle sought release for his sexual frustration in pornographic theaters, Wilson appears to indulge in kinky sex with gutter girls, judging from one classic scene in which he appears to oblige a masochistic girlfriend of a gangster he is chasing. (In another similarity to Taxi Driver, On Dangerous Ground briefly sports an underage prostitute, played by Nita Talbot and looking like a jailbait cross between Gloria Grahame and Lauren Bacall).
As Wilson’s temper spirals out of control, his police captain sends him out of the city for a cure. Wilson is sent upstate to help the yokels track down a teen girl’s killer. The bleak snow-covered landscape is a kind of Magic Mountain for Wilson—he can breathe in the clean cold air, after years of choking on the city’s sewer fumes. Wilson is finally able to let his guard down a bit, and actually seems less trigger happy than the local vigilantes (though when one of the hicks gets a close-up look at the face of death, his innocence bewilders the calloused Wilson).
In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle believes his ministering angel is Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy, and he becomes obsessed with her. On Dangerous Ground’s Jim Wilson has a fixation with Mary, the blind sister of the teen girl’s killer. Mary is not nearly the worldly princess of Taxi Driver’s Betsy. Mary lives nearly as isolated an existence as Wilson, having sacrificed her own happiness to look after her disturbed brother. Quirkily played by Ida Lupino, Mary is frail and sad, and also a bit of a dreamer. . .she’s kind of a northern woods version of one of Tennessee Williams’ southern gothic girls.
Wilson and Mary, recognizing the desperate loneliness in each other, communicate in fits and starts, never quite fully connecting. Had On Dangerous Ground ended one scene earlier, with a teary-eyed Jim Wilson driving alone back through the dark and ugly city streets, instead of turning back for a tacked-on and phony happy ending in Mary’s arms, this would have been one of Film Noir’s greatest entries, a character study of two emotional exiles, doomed by their contrasting environments. The Smiley Face ending scars an otherwise powerful portrait of alienation.