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]