Where Danger Lives

May 4, 2009 at 4:47 PM (Film Noir Reviews) (, , , , )


Where Danger Lives, a 1950 release directed by John Farrow (The Big Clock, His Kind of Woman, Night Has a Thousand Lives) and starring Robert Mitchum and Faith Domergue, certainly fits the bill as a film noir. It is another film in which Mitchum falls in love with a beautiful femme fatale and she strings him along and gets him into situations he never should have found himself in otherwise. 

The film is set in San Francisco, though most of the movie is filmed on set. Mitchum plays a doctor named Jeff Cameron who is not the tough guy Mitchum normally played in his noir career. You can’t say this is Mitchum’s best work, but it is certainly not his worst. It is Mitchum as his most somnambulistic (sure it is a real word) as he spends much of the film suffering from a concussion. 

The noir elements of this film don’t really begin until Domergue (Margo Lannington) is introduced as one of Cameron’s patients after she tries to commit suicide. This is where you get a low angle shot of Mitchum and the shadows cutting across the walls in the background. Though they were not conscience of producing noir films at the time, it still gives you the sense that Farrow is telling you Margo is the dark element. It is Margo’s unstableness, deceit and sex appeal that drive the movie as well as Mitchum’s obsession with her. 

Mitchum drops his stable nurse girlfriend Julie Dorn, played by Maureen O’Sullivan, to go with the stunning beauty Margo who is anything but boring. She is also rich, which never hurts. Quickly into the film you find out that Margo, who has been telling Jeff about her father, was really talking about her older, rich husband Frederick Lannington played splendidly by the great Claude Rains. 

Rains is debonair and proper as always until Jeff doesn’t like the way Frederick is treating Margo. A fight ensues in which, a drunken Jeff take a few licks to the head from a fire poker before knocking old man Lannington out. Jeff stumbles off to the bathroom to lick his wounds and when he returns he finds Margo standing over a dead Frederick. She makes Jeff think he died because of the fight and at this point Jeff is at the mercy of Margo.   

Fate, an almost definitive component of film noir, and Margo lead Jeff around by his shirt collar for the rest of the film. He is a stand-up guy, which is rare among noir protagonists, and becomes subjected to events out of his normal experiences as a middle class doctor. “There is no choice now,” is muttered by Cameron as they happen upon a roadblock the couple thinks is for them but is really for contraband fruits and vegetables. 

It is fate that puts them on the road in the first place, as they think the police are looking for them at the airport when they have other reasons for asking about the couple. Both Jeff and Margo are subjected to the whims of her erratic mental state and the winds of destiny.   

Cameron’s degrading physical condition makes him susceptible to the influence of Margo and gets him deeper and deeper into a world that he does not belong. He retains his ethics throughout, a rarity in noir, though that is the only thing he can control. The pair is like a pinball, smacking into one bumper, just to be smacked into another. They don’t even have control over getting married, as they are forced into a ceremony because of some Hitchcockian incident with “Whisker Week” in some strange little down. They can’t pay the fine for not sporting a beard, and are suddenly whisked away (pun intended) to get married. 

Where Danger Lives is good because of Mitchum, Raines and Domergue as well as the cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. This was Farrow’s first film for RKO, a studio with a great noir tradition, and he had many of the technicians from RKO that had already been greatly experienced in the early noirs. 

Farrow works well with his technicians in this film and they give the film a great tension and almost extreme claustrophobia. If there is a scene with only Mitchum or Domergue, then the shot is generally tight and when the camera is pulled back, you will find many actors crowding the shot. In other shots, the ceilings, walls or the interior of their vehicle will crowd the shot.

  Spoiler Alert

 There has been some considerable debate about whether or not Mitchum should have died in the end. The protagonist doesn’t have to die in the end for a film to be considered a noir. Just because he lives doesn’t mean it is a happy ending. Jeff Cameron suffered a great deal and who knows if Julie will ever take him back. And who knows how much his little foray adversely affected his career as a doctor.

 I think the film would have been just as good either way as there is little to be gained by killing Jeff. I think the biggest decision was whether or not Margo lived or died. If she had lived, the ending would have changed the film. If she had lived, would Jeff have followed her across the border? Or, would he have been shot trying to get across, or would he have eventually succumbed to his head injury because of the lack of medical help even though he was a doctor?


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