For many years I did not appreciate Robert Ryan's tremendous acting versatility, identifying him as someone who realistically portrayed dangerously disturbed sociopathic criminal types, which he did very well in Crossfire, Bad Day at Black Rock, House of Bamboo, The Racket, etc. The other day I channel-surfed into Bad Day at Black Rock; I watched it until the end, witnessing the epic battle between good and evil, Spencer Tracy vs Robert Ryan, in a harrowing fight which appropriately ends with Ryan in flames. I've seen this film several times, and Ryan's demonic performance still remains powerfully frightening. I felt a sudden urge to write a short thank-you note to this outstanding actor for giving us a legacy of memorable performances, highlighting one film which showcased his remarkable talents.
I give deserved props to Ryan's reputation as one of the best Hollywood villains, but in the film On Dangerous Ground, there are subtle and effective nuances of performance that not only demonstrate his skill at portraying tortured, bitter and emotionally unstable characters, but also reveal a tender and romantic element that brilliantly and believably evolves through the course of the movie.
Ryan plays Jim Wilson, a burnt-out city detective, disgusted by the trash heap of criminals he must deal with on a daily basis, frustrated to the point of using brutal force to extract information from suspects. He is at the brink of losing control with his interrogation methods drawing unfavorable attention to the police department. His superiors decide to give him a cooling off period and send him to investigate a murder in the rural countryside. In this cold, stark landscape dotted with snow, Wilson meets Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), sister of the alleged murderer he's tracking down. She is blind and alone, taking care of her simple-minded brother since their parents died. Wilson is moved by her open nature and courage, which begin to strip away the layers of cynicism and bitterness that have accumulated around his heart.