Three men are shown as they prepare for an evening shift, two of them are married, one is single, all three are policeman. As they shuffle into the precinct, their commander relays the urgency of finding the men who shot and killed one of their own, to pound the beat and shake their sources for info. Their first stop is a bar, the people inside show open contempt to the policemen, Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is visibly upset by his treatment and they leave the premises. Pops Daly (Charles Kemper) is suffering from a sore shoulder so Joe and the third policeman, Pete Santos (Anthony Ross) visit a local doctor to treat it. Santos comments that Wilson is a tough man to get along with, Pops makes the observation that being a cop is a tough occupation, he just takes it harder than most. While Pops is being treated, Wilson get’s a lead on a suspect involved in the murder of the policeman, he and Santos visit the apartment of a woman Myrna Bowers (Cleo Moore) who is romantically linked to their suspect.
Myrna plays coy about her relationship with the suspect, Bernie Tucker (Richard Irving) until they find a photo of them together, Jim grills her for Bernie’s whereabouts using physical intimidation, Myrna responds by asking Jim if he’ll use his big arms to squeeze the info out of her, and he does. Jim and Pete find Bernie and it’s clear he’s not going to give up info on others involved in the crime. It’s in this scene that we finally witness the coiled rage that bubbles underneath Wilson’s surface, he beats the info out of Bernie while screaming ‘Why do you make me do it? You know you’re gonna talk! I’m gonna make you talk! I always make you punks talk! Why do you do it? Why?”, Wilson’s violent methods prove successful but he’s reprimanded by his superior Capt. Brawley (Ed Begley), the man he beat is being defended by a lawyer, who accuse Wilson of police brutality.
Myrna is brutally attacked, Wilson, Santos & Pops arrive on the scene to find the attacker fleeing the scene, Wilson is enraged and brutally beats him, Pops accosts Wilson who defends his actions by stating a police officer is nothing but a garbage collector, he asks how Pops get’s through it, Pops is pragmatic about it, he leaves it all behind when he goes home, he doesn’t let it infect his home life. Wilson is upbraided again but this time, he is sent away to a small town to help with the local murder of a girl. Wilson arrives to find the police unable to cope with a crime of this magnitude. Wilson attempts to interview the sister of the murdered girl but finds her mother & father, Walter Brent (Ward Bond) unwilling to co-operate, the father is too enraged to hand over the murderer to the police, he wants vengeance.
The murderer is soon sighted and a car chase begins, Wilson & Walter chase the killer to a remote house where they find a woman, Mary Malden (Ida Lupino) living there, they interrogate her about whether she’s seen the killer, it slowly becomes evident that she couldn’t have seen anything, she’s blind. Mary is clearly hiding something though and it becomes evident she knows more than she’s letting on.
What I find interesting is how this film approaches the idea of Toxic Masculinity, 40 years before the term had been coined. Jim Wilson is a man who is unable to separate himself from the pressures of his job, the daily exposure to acts of cruelty, the contempt that’s thrown in his face, he becomes detached until he meets Mary, who appreciates Wilson’s lack of pity for her when he discovers she is blind. It’s a familiar type of love story, the wounded male healed with the love of a good woman and it’s a credit to both Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino that this love story works. Ryan has always excelled at playing characters with a seething anger at their core but maintain a stable facade and he does some of his best acting in this film. There’s a scene early in the film where he interacts with a young boy outside his apartment building, it’s a reminder that he’s capable of human interaction but it’s fleeting.
Walter Brent is a father who is willing to go to any lengths necessary to kill the man who murdered his daughter, he’s operating on blind rage, when he finally catches up with the murderer it ends in a fashion where he get’s what he wanted but not in the way he wanted it, it’s a like a fog lifts and he realises that the murderer he was chasing was a young boy, as a result that rage subsides, it’s replaced by a kind of empathy for the murderer’s sister, Mary.
The murderer in question is revealed to be a young man who is neither evil nor saintly, he’s driven by impulses that he cannot understand. Wilson begins the film with a belief that violence is the only natural weapon at his disposal but his scene with the murderer finds him attempting to solve the situation through means of communication and he very nearly succeeds until Brent bursts in still operating on blind rage and events reach their natural conclusion.
Nicholas Ray has explored the psyche of wounded men in other films such as In a Lonely Place and Rebel Without a Cause but here, he also finds the humanity within those wounded men.