Tag Archives: film noir

Investigating Film Noir: Where Danger Lives (1950)

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.

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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.

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[SPOILERS AFTER THIS POINT]

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TCM’s Summer of Darkness and FREE Film Noir Course!

This June and July TCM is devoting all day every Friday to film noir, and as a huge fan of noir, I couldn’t be more excited! I’m probably going to have to buy another DVR or something (can you even do that?) to deal with all the noir goodness coming down the pipeline. You can download the full schedule in PDF form here

Even more exciting, though, is that TCM is partnering with Ball State University to offer a FREE online course in film noir, through online learning platform Canvas. That’s right, it’s an actual 9-week course that will grant you an actual certificate of completion if you do all the course requirements. The info page estimates that the coursework will take 2-4 hours per week, in addition to watching the films (on TCM, or via other means – the course promises that there will be public domain films available to watch even if you don’t have access to TCM). Even if you can’t put in that kind of time commitment, as I may not be able to myself, you can still enroll in the course and follow along at whatever level you’re able.

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The 9 weeks will cover the definition of noir, its influences, its relationship to the studio system and the post-war era, and the types of characters and themes you find in noir. I’ve never done an online course like this, so I’m pretty excited to see how it’s going to go!

The fun starts on June 1 (that’s this Monday), but there’s still time to enroll! Be sure to let me know if you join up! I’d love to discuss one of my favorite genres with you, and I’m sure there will be plenty of healthy discussion both in the course itself and on Twitter and probaby Facebook!

Featured Video: The Endless Night – A Valentine to Film Noir

Thanks to Bob over at Row Three for bringing this little gem of a video to my attention. Film noir is a particular favorite subgenre of mine, and Serena Bramble has done a great job of collecting some of the most definitely noir clips into a single compulsively watchable montage. Click through to YouTube to see the list of films included, but have fun guessing before you do!

Film Classics: Detour (1945)

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Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Screenplay: Martin Goldsmith
Producers: Leon Fromkiss, Martin Mooney
Starring: Tom Neal, Anne Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald
Year: 1945
Country: United States
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Running time: 67min.

[Rating:4.5/5]

There are spoilers in this post, but if you’re familiar with noir, you won’t really expect it to end differently, and there’s a lot more to the ending than what I give away.

You couldn’t make a more quintessential noir film than Edgar G. Ulmer’s low-budget Detour if you’d known all the rules and tropes ahead of time. And he didn’t, because film noir wasn’t defined until the mid-1950s. Yet, just about all the elements that would eventually be considered definitively film noir are here: high-contrast lighting with lots of shadows, a defeated narrator telling the story of how fate continued to pile terrible circumstances on him no matter what he did, and a femme fatale who only makes things worse for him at every turn.

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Our main character arrives at a diner, obviously rundown and weary – a fellow diner strikes up conversation, wondering where he’s headed (“east”) and where he’s come from (“west”), but soon our man snaps at him. He’s not out to make friends. The other diner puts a coin in the jukebox, but the song that comes on angers our traveler, who jumps up wild-eyed, screaming not to play that song. Why, we wonder? What has happened to this man that causes him to be so standoffish and crazed by a song on a jukebox? Don’t worry, he’s going to tell us.

club.jpgFlashback to the same man, Al Roberts, looking much less unkempt, jamming away on a piano in a club as a pretty girl sings the song from the jukebox. As Al continues narrating, we learn that he and the girl, Sue, are a couple, but they’re soon to be separated as Sue leaves for Los Angeles to pursue her singing career while he stays in New York, lacking the confidence to go with her immediately. Already Al is a revealed to be far from a hero – heroes do something with their lives, act to get what they want, and become the catalyst for change and movement in a story. But Al is simultaneously frustrated with his position in life and reluctant to do anything to change it, though he’s dating the most beautiful girl around and his talent as a pianist is undeniable and appreciated more than he realizes (or can accept). His piano solo soon after Sue leaves suggests that he could be a great classical pianist or maybe even a composer if he had the determination to go for it. But instead he seems to belittle his talent and think of himself as a loser. Perhaps he is right – for when he does decide to do something, head west to join Sue in LA, everything goes horribly wrong.