Explorations of Disability, Gender Roles, and the Role of Police in “On Dangerous Ground”

On Friday night, my spouse and I watched a classic film noir, On Dangerous Ground, at the North Carolina Museum of Art. It’s a part of a series that focuses on “unreliable men” who are “[m]ad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know” according to the website. This movie premiered in 1952. These men featured in the series come from many different backgrounds, and in On Dangerous Ground, the main character is a police detective, Jim Wilson, who has become burned out and violent from seeing so many of the darker sides of urban life. At the beginning of the movie, Jim is shown to be losing his way ethically or perhaps having a breakdown. He becomes violent repeatedly, and he is sent to investigate a murder that happens away from the city. When he arrives, the father of the murder victim plans to get vigilante justice on his daughter’s murderer. Jim chases the murderer with the father, and they eventually end up at the home of Mary Malden.  Mary has a vision impairment, which becomes important to the plot.  Jim faces a choice between allowing a violent solution to the murder or allowing for a more peaceful resolution, as Mary hopes for.  On Dangerous Ground is a great exploration of disability, lack of treatment for disability, the unsafe, vilified city, traditional gender roles, the objectification of women, and alienated labor.

First, I want to discuss how the movie dealt with Mary’s disability. I was pleasantly surprised at how the movie handled disability.  (Perhaps, it shows my own biases about the 1950s. My expectation was disability would be treated poorly due to stigmatization.) It showed the men handling her situation quite differently. Walter Brent, the father of the murder victim, treats Mary terribly. He fails to recognize that she has a vision impairment and then assumes that she is lying about her vision to protect the murderer. This is contrasted with Jim, who begins to realize that Mary is blind. He treats her respectfully and with dignity. He doesn’t assume that she needs more help than she does. However, when she does need help, like when she knocks things over when her brother dies, he does step in. He also respects her wishes when she asks him to leave, although he eventually returns. The topic of how much help to provide a person with a disability comes up often in my classes. My students read a book on disability, Waist High in the World, by a woman who has multiple sclerosis. While the type of disability is different, Nancy Mairs addresses the fact that individuals with disabilities are often pitied and overly helped by other people. While she allows people to help her, she notes that other people do not feel the same way. Returning to the movie, Jim listens to Mary’s comments and advice, particularly her comments about being lonely.  He makes no assumptions about her mind from having a physical disability, which is a common problem. Next, I’ll discuss the treatment of the city as a unsafe, place filled with deviance and violence.

Earlier this year, I read a book called A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America. I really enjoyed it, and I learned that there was a long period in American cinema that vilified cities as dark, unsafe spaces while upholding the virtue and safety of rural areas. I was struck by the contrast between the darkness and deviance portrayed about the city as compared with the white, snowy landscape in the later scenes. Although a murder happened in the rural area, it was a snowy, perhaps even more “pure” place symbolically. Before the start of the movie, we were informed that the makers of the film originally wanted to shoot the first half of the movie in the city in black and white, and use color for the part in the rural area, similar to The Wizard of Oz. The community came together (albeit for a dark purpose of vigilantism) to restore safety to their community.

Although Mary’s brother did murder the girl, Mary notes that he should have received treatment earlier. He has a disability, too, of some undisclosed mental illness. The younger brother loves his sister and  wants her to have beautiful things like wood carvings and art, which are used by her to get her bearings in the house.  Mary begs Jim to have mercy on her brother, to help him get treatment. The movie feels like it is a critique aimed at a lack of care for people with mental illness.

In context of the Isla Vista shootings earlier this year, I’ve been paying more attention to the gendered discussions happening in US society. More than one woman I know this year has had a man, a stranger, tell her that she needs to smile in public. This young man in the movie grew frustrated with the girl he murdered when she wasn’t smiling so he killed her. The scene gave me the chills.  Although the focus of the movie wasn’t about the treatment of women, it is strikingly relevant. There is an expectation that women are supposed to be “beautiful” and a part of the enactment of beauty by a woman is smiling, even when she doesn’t feel like it.

Finally, the movie had a interesting treatment of the police. Jim notes that no one likes the police in the community—not the criminals nor the other people.  Jim’s actions are shown to be hugely problematic. He tends to the the rugged, stoic Marlboro man that Katz talked about in his documentary, “Tough Guise” from 2001. (He argues in this documentary that media plays a role in socializing boys into masculinity.) This is a great example of how the media shows us our gender roles. Jim does not reach out to others. When invited to dinner by another policeman and his wife, Jim resists. He doesn’t seem to want to talk about what’s wrong in his life and occupation. Outside of the city, Mary mentions that she can tell that he is lonely, just like her.  At the end of the movie, Jim returns briefly to the city before going to the country.  The movie is about making connections.  These two lonely people reach out to one another and hopefully, Jim is healed or redeemed with her help and his own actions. Furthermore, these traditionally masculine gender roles alienated him from the work he was completing, from the people he served, from the other police officers, and even himself. This is Karl Marx (and Engel’s) concept of alienating labor.

I highly recommend the film noir series at the North Carolina Museum of Art. It’s been intriguing to see societal issues being addressed, often as side notes in the time periods that the movies were originally screened.

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Filed under Movie Review, Sociology

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