John Farrow, 1950
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Faith Domergue, Claude Rains
Things are going well for Dr. Jeff Cameron. His career at the local hospital is on the rise and things are heating up with his girlfriend Julie, a nurse at the hospital. But one night he treats an attempted suicide, a mysterious brunette named Margo. At first he checks in on her to make sure she’s stable and won’t try to kill herself again, but he’s soon overwhelmed by Margo’s sex appeal and the two become lovers. She tells Jeff that her wealthy father is forcing her to leave the country. When he attempts to intervene, he learns that Margo’s “father” is really her rich, older husband. The two get into a scuffle after Margo claims he abuses her, and Jeff is beaten unconscious with a fire poker. When he awakens, Margo’s husband is dead and thanks to Jeff’s concussion and head injury, he is unable to think clearly. Margo convinces him they must go on the run to avoid a murder charge, and they begin a doomed flight to Mexico, where Jeff will soon learn the truth about Margo.
Where Danger Lives is another enjoyable film noir from director John Farrow. Much like his Faustian film, Alias Nick Beal, Where Danger Lives is sadly neglected, despite much to recommend it. To begin with, it cleverly plays with noir conventions. Jeff is not the typical noir protagonist. He is yet another man taken in by a beautiful woman, but he begins the film as strong, confident, and happy. His doomed passion for Margo and the web of lies she weaves around their relationship results in him going on the run for a murder he didn’t commit. His head wound, which is growing increasingly worse, adds to the film’s mounting air of nightmarish paranoia. Robert Mitchum is excellent here, as always, and makes the film a must-see. He would go on to play a similar, if more hardened role in Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1952) a few years later.
Like so many noir protagonists, Jeff is a frustrating and contradictory character. His life is more settled than most noir characters, but he is tempted away from domestic bliss and a life of stolid routine by Margo. Wild, passionate, and sexy, she dupes Jeff numerous times throughout the film, which perhaps says more about his character than hers. Though he is a doctor and is trained to recognize such disorders, Margo’s mental disorder escapes him until the very end of the film, where it is revealed that her every act – including the murder of her husband – has been a desperate attempt for attention and control.
Faith Domergue is primarily remembered for cult films like Cult of the Cobra, It Came from Beneath the Sea, and This Island Earth, and for being one of Howard Hughes’ many mistresses and protégés. She is surprisingly excellent here and has probably the craziest eyes I’ve ever seen captured on film. Her sex appeal and vulnerability explain why someone as level-headed as Jeff is drawn to her in the first place, and his head wound is a good explanation for why he can’t escape from her and even accidentally winds up married to her. Despite her instability, Margo is in control of this universe, a claustrophobic world strangled by sexual obsession and mental illness. Though the film begins in an urban setting, it quickly moves to the threatening, barren wasteland of the American west and essentially becomes a surprisingly bleak road trip movie.
There are also some nice supporting performances. Claude Rains has a too brief, but very memorable role as Margo’s maligned husband and nearly steals the film. After her appearance in his earlier noir The Big Clock, Farrow’s wife Maureen O’Sullivan returns here for a similar role as the faithful girlfriend wronged. Somewhat disappointingly, she is waiting patiently for Jeff at the end of the film after he survives his endeavors and, oddly, is not punished for his moral indiscretions.
Where Danger Lives is available on a double-feature DVD alongside Tension. It really is odd that this film has been so ignored by contemporary audiences. There’s some solid direction from John Farrow, as always, though the star here is undoubtedly the cinematography from the great Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past, Cat People). Every frame is overwhelmed by German expressionist-like dread, claustrophobia, and an increasingly sense of mania as the Where Danger Lives moves toward its tense, surprisingly violent conclusion. The script is also worth a mention and keeps things moving at a hectic, dizzying pace. Written by Hitchcock regular Charles Bennett (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Foreign Correspondent, and others), Jeff and Margo are at once symbolic and believable, a combination most often found in fantasy noir, like Farrow’s own Alias Nick Beal and Night of the Hunter, also with Robert Mitchum in one of his signature roles.