“I didn’t fall in love with a woman – I fell in love with a patient.”
Robert Mitchum was part of a generation of leading men who rose to prominence in film noir. Along with Burt Lancaster, Alan Ladd, and Kirk Douglas, he was a B-lister who’s pulpy charisma catapulted him to A-list status. While these other stars used noir as a stepping stone, however, Mitchum stayed firm. He continued to prioritize noir well into the 1970s, confidently earning the moniker that Eddie Muller bestowed upon him: “the quintessential noir protagonist”.
Mitchum’s resume is stocked with classics, chief among them Out of the Past (1947), The Night of the Hunter (1955), and Cape Fear (1962), but the lesser noir titles are often the ones that speak to the quality and longevity of his artistry. One such title is the John Farrow-directed Where Danger Lives (1950), which puts a uniquely energetic spin on Mitchum’s doomed sap persona.
Dr. Jeff Cameron (Mitchum) is due to finish his shift at the hospital when a suicide victim is rushed into the emergency room. The victim is Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue), who becomes smitten with the doctor and begins seeing him in secret. Their romance reaches a breaking point when it’s revealed that Margo is married, but a series of tragic events conspire to keep these two lovers together. They ditch San Francisco and head for the Mexican border, all the while contemplating possible murder charges.
The notion of a fugitive couple was nothing new by 1950, but screenwriter Charles Bennett manages to inject some interesting wrinkles into the main dynamic. Firstly, Cameron is not a criminal, nor is he trying to escape a criminal past, like so many of Mitchum’s other characters. He’s a model citizen with a respectable practice, making his slide into deviancy all the more tragic. Secondly, Margo is not a malicious woman. She has moments of ruthlessness, but her actions are couched in instability rather than malice. The script goes out of its way to suggest that Margo has genuine feelings for Cameron, and hopes that he doesn’t become wise to her checkered psychological past.
Those who’ve seen Where Danger Lives know the most distinct element of the film is the concussion that Cameron suffers during the first act. Margo’s husband hits him over the head with a fire poker during a heated struggle, and the side effects of the injury handicap him throughout the rest of his escape. It’s a simple, inspired choice from both a narrative and aesthetic standpoint. Narratively, it dulls Cameron’s wits and makes him more susceptible to Margo at a time when he needs them most. Aesthetically, it allows cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca to emphasize dimly-lit close ups, drawing out the sleepiness in Mitchum’s eyes like few films ever have.
Mitchum always cuts an imposing figure onscreen, but here, he’s allowed to give a more fully realized physical performance. The confidence of his strut gives way to a gradual loss of bodily function, resulting in painful falls or near-crashes on the freeway. The final act of the film is downright painful to watch, as the entire half of Cameron’s body stiffens from paralysis. The vulnerability this imbues is rare in the gallery of Mitchum saps, as most of them feign control until the very end. Cameron doesn’t even bother pretending— he knows he’s doomed.
Faith Domergue is a worthy sparring partner for the reeling Mitchum, especially when she leans into her character’s unstable side. Domergue was a protege/former lover of Howard Hughes who never got the chance to shine as brightly as she could have, and it’s evident from her work here that she was far more than a pretty face.
The scene where she tries to smother Cameron with a pillow is set afire through her body language and increasingly hyperactive delivery. It’s a scenery-chewing moment that Domergue nails without sacrificing the kernel of humanity that makes her character so tragic. In the end, Margo is a noir casualty we know all too well: someone who wants a happy life so badly they’re willing to commit atrocious acts to get it.
Where Danger Lives is by no means a classic– the film loses steam when the couple drive through Arizona, and the finale, while dramatic, is too eager to undercut the bait-and-switch of Cameron’s “murder”– but it has enough unique elements to distinguish itself as a terrific noir. The implementation of a debilitating injury as a ticking clock is one that still feels inspired today, and the game performances by Mitchum, Domergue, and Claude Rains (in a wicked cameo) makes this trek to the dangerous side of life well worth taking.
TRIVIA: While Cameron describes his injury as a concussion, his symptoms are more consistent with that of an evolving subdural hematoma.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.