In Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951) Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is a police officer whose heart is hardened by the world of crime. Physically assaulting criminal suspects in order to obtain information, Jim believes that the ends justify the means.
The idea that the ends justify the means is derived from consequentialism: “the theory that … the moral value of an act should be judged by the value of its consequences.”1 The ethical dilemma posed by consequentialism is that harmful actions can sometimes have positive consequences. If the positive consequences outweigh the negative, then an individual may feel justified in actions that are illegal.
Although Jim’s mistreatment of criminals is against the law, there are positive consequences: gaining information that leads to the arrest of other criminals. When Bernie Tucker (Richard Irving) refuses to reveal the whereabouts of Mushy Castro and Gordy Miller—two men who murdered a police officer—Jim gives Tucker a severe beating that results in a “ruptured bladder.” Jim is a bad cop because of the “means” he uses. His brutality, however, does have a positive “end”: Castro and Miller are both arrested, and, as a result, future crimes may have been prevented.
To justify his brutality, Jim rationalizes his actions. Before beating Tucker, he says to him, “Why do you make me do it?” In reality, Jim is not being made to do anything. Tucker refuses to divulge the information because he is loyal to Castro and Miller and fears retaliation. Jim rationalizes his brutality because he wants justice.
When a person rationalizes doing something that is wrong, their heart can become hardened, and they no longer feel any guilt. A police officer for eleven years, Jim’s heart is hardened from dealing with “crooks, murderers, winos, [and] stoolies”, a class of people he refers to as “garbage.” However, when he leaves the city to investigate a murder, his heart begins to change. Walter Brent (Ward Bond), the grieving father of the murdered girl, wants revenge. In Brent, Jim sees a disturbing reflection of himself: an angry and violent man who wants to take the law into his own hands. Jim’s transformation continues after meeting Mary Malden (Ida Lupino). When he is with her, his anger diminishes, and the lion inside him becomes gentle and subdued.
Jim’s relationship with Mary shows how love has the power to soften a hardened heart. Before meeting her, he was only responsible for himself, not caring if he would suffer the consequences of his actions. But because of Mary, his future wife, it is likely that his behavior as a police officer will change. Responsible to care and provide for her, he will no longer risk breaking the law to further the cause of justice. Mary’s love for Jim restores what he lost in fighting crime: his conscience.
- Merriam Webster, s.v. “Consequentialism,” accessed April 27, 2015, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/consequentialism