Now that the TCM/Ball State University Investigating Film Noir course is over (even if my DVR is still full!), I figured it was time to start going through the great noirs I’ve discovered thanks to TCM’s Summer of Darkness programming. I’ve always been a big fan of noir, so I’d seen a good many of the more famous ones before, but I’ve already checked off fifteen more in the past couple of months, and my DVR tells me I have another thirty or so to go. Since noirs are generally crime thrillers to one degree or another, it’s difficult to discuss them in detail without spoilers, but I also recognize that many of the films I’ve been watching are relatively obscure outside of noir aficionados. My compromise: The first section will be relatively spoiler-free, with just enough plot outline to establish the premise. Then there will be a spoiler section after the jump where anything goes.
A hallmark of noir is men being led astray by a femme fatale, and Where Danger Lives has become one of my new go-to examples of that trope. Dr. Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) is a gentle and good-hearted doctor who we first meet telling a story to a little girl in the hospital, and then staying late to treat an attempted suicide. He even breaks a date with his nurse girlfriend (Maureen O’Sullivan) to stay with the suicidal Margo (Faith Domergue) and make sure she doesn’t try again. That turns out to be a mistake…soon he and Margo are having an affair, despite her belief that her well-to-do father Frederick Lannington (Claude Rains) wouldn’t approve. Next comes a not-quite-Chinatown-level twist that sets Margo and Jeff on the run – but Jeff doesn’t know what he’s in for.
It’s a twisted version of the “lovers on the run” trope that’s also pretty common in noir (They Live by Night, etc.), but Jeff suffers a concussion and can’t go to sleep, which only serves to make the rest of their journey more surreal – especially a detour through a small town that refuses to let them leave because it’s “Wild West Whiskers Week” and Jeff doesn’t have a beard. Yeah, I know. There are a lot of “wait, what now?” moments in Where Danger Lives, and that’s all part of the fun. Mitchum is such a watchable actor, and he goes through all the plot complications with his usual half-bemused, half-bored, half-paranoid laconic style, which just makes it all the more alternately tense and humorous.
This was Faith Domergue’s first major role, and she femme fatales with the best of them. She’d go on to make mostly B westerns and sci-fi, including 1955’s This Island Earth. Meanwhile, it was funny seeing Maureen O’Sullivan, known for the role of Jane in the 1930s Tarzan series, in such a very small supporting role. The film was directed by her husband John Farrow, so maybe that explains it.
Where Danger Lives has double-crossing dames, red herrings, paranoia, murder, and a few bizarre plot points – I can’t ask for much more than that in a noir.
[SPOILERS AFTER THIS POINT]
Not gonna lie, the reveal that Claude Rains is really Margo’s husband rather than her father came as a pretty sweet surprise for me. I was getting a bit bored before that, since I wasn’t on board with Jeff’s affair with Margo and didn’t really care what happened with it, but I was certainly not bored at any point after that! I did guess the twist that the murder Jeff assumed he committed (and forgot due to being concussed) was actually Margo acting in cold blood, but that didn’t make it any less satisfying when she finally revealed that.
The scene with the murder is just great, and really well-shot. Take a look at this shot. The low angle is disorienting, but also shows both Lannington’s head (on the ground in the foreground) and the apparently murderous couple looming over it. Jeff’s comforting Margo, thinking that he’s killed her husband and put them both in quite a pickle, but she looks remarkably cool and calculating. The fact that we stick with Jeff after he hits his head, as he stumbles around confusedly to find a bathroom and try to clear his brain, identifies us even more with him, so when he returns to find Lannington dead, we both sympathize with his impulse to protect Margo and fear that he’s being played.
It fascinated me that so much of the film had the pair on the run, constantly convinced they were only one step away from being caught, when actually they weren’t even under suspicion for most of the movie. Police at the airline counter? A coincidence. A road block? Officers checking for quarantined plants being brought into the state. Brought in by the sheriff? The laughable offence of being clean-shaven. Yet the paranoia is real, and kept ever-present because we are fairly certain that Margo is unstable and preying on Jeff’s weakened emotional and physical state.
Despite all the plot-heaviness, a lot of the film is also just Margo and Jeff interacting – a two shot in a car – and Mitchum and Domergue keep that compelling as well. It’s interesting that of the noirs I’ve watched so far this month, a high percentage of them have had happy endings – for the person we care about, anyway. I don’t think I’d have taken Jeff back as easily as his nurse ex-girlfriend did after the affair with Margo, but I’m not among the subset of noir fans that feels cheated by happy endings. I’m perfectly glad Jeff got back to his life largely in one piece. :)