“Where Danger Lives” starts on an odd little note, or maybe it is just me. Dr. Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) is telling a bedtime story to a sick little girl in the hospital. It is a strange beginning because as we soon find out it has nothing to do with the rest of the story. You end up with the feeling it was just padding for a film that runs only 82 minutes. We soon meet the real woman of the story, Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue), a suicide victim and as the movie progresses we find out a bit of a psychotic. The film moves to the dark side as Dr. Jeff falls for this beautiful, yet seemingly vulnerable woman, and as he and we soon will find out, she is anything but vulnerable, more like deceitful, dangerous and pure evil.
From RKO pictures released in 1950, “Where Danger Lives” is at times a riveting film noir whose characters spiral insanely out of control more and more as the film comes to a maniacal end. Dr. Jeff Cameron saves the life of suicide victim, Margo Lannington. They are soon attracted to each other and quickly become involved. She tells him she lives with her rich controlling father. Unknown to Jeff, Margo’s “father” is really her husband (this is the first of many lies she weaves) and when he confronts her sadistic hubby, Frederick (Claude Rains) who tries to warn Jeff that once he starts down this path there is no turning back, an argument ensues and Frederick attacks Jeff with a fireplace poker. After several severe strikes, Jeff manages to knocks Frederick down and out with a Mitchum size power punch. Jeff, dazed from the beating by the husband, stumbles to the bathroom to wash off the blood. When he returns still dazed, a concussion setting in, he discovers Frederick is dead. Jeff wants to call the police but Margo insists they can’t. Who is going to believe them that it was an accident, she says. We find out later Margo smothered Frederick to death while Jeff was out of the room attending his wound. However, she leaves the impression that Jeff’s punch did Frederick in. For the remainder of the film we find the two fugitives on a nightmarish, doomed, almost surrealistic journey as they attempt to escape across the U.S. Mexican border.
Jeff continues to suffer from the concussion and the formerly meek Margo asserts herself while Jeff, earlier the self-assured professional, remains confused and dazed. Margo’s behavior is erratic only making things more confusing for Jeff. She refuses to listen to radio reports about the police pursuit, knowing that the truth about her husband’s death will be discovered, and Jeff will become aware of what really happened; how she smothered him to death and he did not die from a head trauma from Jeff’s punch. Their trip to the border is one of avoiding roadblocks, most of which unknown to them, were set up for other reasons unrelated to their fleeing. At one point, they stop in a small town where they are unexpectedly arrested, though not for being fugitives but because Jeff does not have a beard! It seems they arrived during the small town’s annual beard festival where every man is required to have a beard.
While the overall film is uneven, the climatic ending in the border town is one of the film’s highlights, as is the cinematography of the great Nicolas Muscusa who provides a nightmarish darkly lit claustrophobic look, filled with low angle shots that gives the film much of its stylistic visual appeal. Robert Mitchum is in his element here and is a joy to watch, working those sleepy eyes as he gives us a character that is sucked into the claws of a dangerously off balanced woman, similar in her treachery to “Angel Face” Jean Simmons in the Otto Preminger classic he would make two years later. Mitchum has a great scene where her stumbles down a flight of stairs. Shot in one continuous take, Mitchum did the fall without the assistance of a double.
Faith Domergue is convincingly immoral, seemingly possessed by the role of Margo, an archetypal femme fatale. Though probably best remembered for her role in “This Island Earth” and as another in the long line of Howard Hughes “discoveries”, this is the role of her career. Claude Rains is his usual smooth self as Frederick, at first amused by Jeff’s infatuation with his wife; he even attempts to warn him that Margo is not what or who he thinks she is. Unfortunately, his role is all too brief. Even briefer is Maureen O’Sullivan’s (director John Farrow wife) role as Jeff’s good girlfriend, Julie Dorn. The screenplay is by Charles Bennett who is best remembered as a long time associate of Hitchcock (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage and Foreign Correspondent).
Overall, the film is an uneven mix, some scenes seemingly there just for padding i.e. the entire wedding scene. “Where Danger Lies” may be an uneven noir but with fine performances by Mitchum and Domergue and especially with Macursa behind the camera it is a must see.