The films produced at RKO under the stewardship of Howard Hughes were a mixed bag to say the least; the billionaire’s's involvement lending a crass, juvenile quality to more than one movie. While he led the once great studio along the path to bankruptcy and oblivion, he also introduced the cinema-going public to number of new starlets such as Jane Russell and Faith Domergue. Miss Domergue never made that many memorable pictures, save for Where Danger Lives, This Island Earth and It Came from Beneath the Sea. Of those three, Where Danger Lives (1950) has the slightly odd distinction of presenting her with her best role while also being the least known. In fact, this is a fine movie all round with stylish direction by noir stalwart John Farrow, a powerful lead performance by Robert Mitchum, moody cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, and a Charles Bennett script.
At first glance the film may seem like a standard lovers-on-the-run yarn, but that’s merely the framing device for a tale of obsessive love, deception and madness. Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) is introduced as an overworked but dedicated doctor who, at the end of his shift, is called upon to treat an attempted suicide. He is immediately attracted to the patient, Margo (Faith Domergue), and soon embarks on an affair. The immediate effect of this is that Cameron develops a callous disregard for both his job and his devoted sweetheart, played by director’s wife Maureen O’Sullivan. The whole point of the story is how lust can blind a man to reality and allow him to be deceived and manipulated. The film is packed with lies and liars and it seems that just about everyone is prepared to bend the truth to suit their own agenda, right down to ambulance drivers and small town doctors. When Cameron receives a blow on the head in a struggle, the resulting concussion gradually impairs his judgement and allows him to be more easily duped. In a marvellously surreal passage, the fleeing couple arrive in a town where everyone is bearded and dressed in western apparel. For a moment it looks as though the action has taken a detour into the Twilight Zone, until it is revealed that Mitchum and Domergue have stumbled into a local festival. The idea of nobody being quite what they appear is nicely highlighted when a local boy draws facial hair onto a photograph of Domergue, while muttering that everyone has to have a beard. From first to last, the movie concentrates on shifting identities and false perceptions.
Robert Mitchum was an old hand at playing noir anti-heroes and the role of Jeff Cameron offers him the opportunity to flex his acting muscles. He goes from being an upstanding professional at the beginning of the film to a shambling brain damaged wreck of a man by the climax. In the hands of a lesser actor the part could easily have descended into eye-rolling histrionics, but Mitchum’s deceptively lazy style ensures that credibility is maintained as his character’s mental state deteriorates and he floats between clarity and confusion. Faith Domergue’s Margo is a fine femme fatale in the classic mould. Her performance isn’t as controlled as Mitchum’s but she still manages to be convincing. It’s obvious from the start that there’s something not quite right about Margo, but you can’t really put your finger on what. Claude Rains appears in a small but significant part, and adds some real class to proceedings; in his few minutes of screen time he shows us another psychologically twisted character, and his playing is every bit the equal of that of his co-stars. John Farrow always seemed comfortable in noir territory, and does a good job of holding together a story that could have easily spun out of control. Farrow is ably assisted by his director of photography Nicholas Musuraca, whose camera does good things with the bleak desert backdrops and shadowy small towns that dominate the film.
Where Danger Lives comes to DVD, paired on disc with Tension, from Warners in R1 via their fourth noir set. It’s a fine, clean transfer which shows Musuraca’s excellent black and white photography at its best. The film comes with a trailer and a short featurette on the movie. This is a film that I wasn’t at all familiar with until I picked up the box set. I can’t think why it has been such an obscure and hard to see movie since I’d rate it as an excellent example of classic era noir. Highly recommended.