Sunday, March 15, 2009
Where Danger Lives
In Where Danger Lives, the kindly doctor Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) falls in a big way for the wrong woman: not just a wrong woman but the ultimate wrong woman, the beautiful but deeply disturbed Margo (Faith Domergue), who arrives in his operating room one night as a suicide case. The doctor saves her life and then continues to take an interest in her, keeping her company to ease her loneliness, while casually brushing aside his longtime relationship with good girl nurse Julie (Maureen O'Sullivan). And who can blame Jeff? Margo is simmering and sexy, a dark-eyed beauty who seduces him from the moment she wakes up after the operation, looking improbably glamorous and made-up, coyly whispering, "I'll thank you now." She represents an irresistible passion for Jeff, who almost immediately gives in to her. He spends the next night at her place, ostensibly in order to soothe her and prevent her from hurting herself again, though the way the camera stares pointedly at a wall while the two of them walk offscreen together leaves little doubt as to how exactly he comforts her.
Margo's a true seductress, but she's also totally insane, and on top of that she's married, to the urbane, sarcastic millionaire Frederick Lannington (Claude Rains), who she initially introduces as her "father." She's a typical film noir black widow, a femme fatale who's trapped poor discombobulated Jeff in her web. There are few noirs where the misogynist underpinnings of the femme fatale trope are so readily apparent: Jeff's just a decent sort, a good guy who's lured away from his straight and narrow path by this vicious, sexually voracious, literally insane woman. The film even opens with a scene of the doctor telling a fanciful story to one of his child patients, just in case his essential goodness is in doubt later. As for Margo, it's apparent from the beginning that there's more to her than meets the eye, that there's a real darkness lurking beneath the surface. Domergue is perfect for the part, with a harsh, hard-edged, slightly off-kilter beauty and dark, intense eyes; she communicates something strange and sinister with just a glance.
She and Jeff become further entangled when an argument with Lannington turns violent and the old man winds up dead. Jeff takes a few hits himself, and throughout the rest of the film he's stumbling drunkenly through the paces, in a daze, his mind shifting in and out of clarity. He's not always sure what happened or what he's doing anymore, but the couple know they have to go on the run now. They hop in a car and head for the Mexican border, a short trip from southern California that nevertheless seems to take an eternity. Some of the obstacles they encounter are cliché, like a car accident and an over-eager small-town sheriff. Others are just plain absurd, almost surrealist, like the town where everyone is required to wear whiskers, and Jeff is arrested for being clean-shaven, threatened with a fine and then forced to marry Margo on the spot by the bizarrely jovial townsfolk. Jeff seems to be wandering through some kind of nightmare, a landscape made twisted and strange by his blurry vision and constant headache, the symptoms of a worsening concussion that seems to be slowly wearing him down. A drive through the desert is especially rough, and director John Farrow communicates Jeff's disintegrating state with a fluid series of fades from the doctor's eyes and sweating face to the barren desert wasteland around the car.
Farrow has a good eye for carefully staged deep focus compositions, using two-shots framed from eccentric angles to accentuate the passionate but troubled relationship between Jeff and Margo. The film is beautifully shot, its sensuously shadowed images perfectly suited to the woozy, hallucinatory story. Jeff's frazzled senses and weakening body — his limbs slowly going numb, his consciousness drifting in and out — increase the tension as the duo try to make their excruciatingly slow getaway. The sleepy-eyed Mitchum was born to play Jeff, the noir hero hopelessly out of his element, dazed as much by his desire for Margo as by the blows to his head. His concussion and his bleary perspective on everything is not only physical, but symbolic of the way sex has blinded him to Margo's more sinister attributes.
As a whole, Where Danger Lives is sometimes silly and cliché, but its premise is the noir sensibility distilled into its most iconic form. A happy, good-hearted man is seduced from his decent life into a world of darkness, deceit and violence, an ugly world but also a somehow sexy one. At the end, as though emerging from a dream, he's returned to the brightness and goodness of his former life, his eyes finally clearing up and his damaged body recovering. Still, one can't help but be disappointed by the incongruous happy ending tacked onto a film whose central journey was obviously an inexorable plunge into tragedy. Jeff's flirtation with lunacy and evil yielded an intense passion, seen at the end in the flashing eyes of the possessive, violent Margo, her face mapped with the grid lines of that border fence they'd been chasing for so long. And though Jeff manages to escape back to the routine comfort of his own brightly lit world, back to plain white roses rather than red ones, the lingering image of the beautiful, crazy, passionate Margo manages to make his final victory feel — subversively, strangely — like a defeat.