“I didn’t fall in love with a woman – I fell in love with a patient.”
Robert Mitchum belonged to a generation of leading men who became known in film noir. Along with Burt Lancaster, Alan Ladd and Kirk Douglas, he was a B-Lister whose mushy charisma catapulted him onto the A-list. While these other stars used noir as a stepping stone, Mitchum stood firm. He continued to focus on noir until the 1970s and confidently earned the nickname that Eddie Muller gave him: “the quintessential noir protagonist”.
Mitchum’s résumé is packed with classics, especially among them From the past (1947), The hunter’s night (1955), and Cape Fear (1962), but the smaller noir titles are often the ones that speak of the quality and longevity of his art. One such title is the one directed by John Farrow Where there is danger (1950), who gives Mitchum’s doomed Sap personality a uniquely energetic touch.
Dr. Jeff Cameron (Mitchum) is about to finish his shift in the hospital when a suicide victim is rushed to the emergency room. The victim is Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue), who falls in love with the doctor and begins to secretly see him. Their romance reaches a breaking point when it is discovered that Margo is married, but a series of tragic events conspire to keep these two lovers together. They drop San Francisco and make their way to the Mexican border all the while thinking about possible murder charges.
The idea of a fleeting couple wasn’t new in 1950, but screenwriter Charles Bennett manages to add some interesting folds to the main dynamic. Firstly, Cameron is not a criminal, nor does he try to escape a criminal past like so many other Mitchum characters. He’s an exemplary citizen with a respectable practice, which makes his slipping into deviation all the more tragic. Second, Margo is not a malicious woman. She has moments of recklessness, but her actions are more unstable than in malice. The script goes to great lengths to suggest that Margo has real feelings for Cameron and hopes that he is unaware of her checkered psychological past.
Those who have seen Where there is danger The most noticeable element of the film is the concussion that Cameron suffers in the first act. Margo’s husband hits him on the head with a fire poker during a heated fight, and the side effects of the injury hinder him for the remainder of his escape. It’s an easy, inspired choice from both a narrative and an aesthetic standpoint. Narrative, it dulls Cameron’s mind and makes him more vulnerable to Margo at a time when he needs her most. Aesthetically, it allows cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca to highlight dimly-lit close-ups and bring out the sleepiness in Mitchum’s eyes like few films have ever seen.
Mitchum always makes an imposing figure on the screen, but here he is allowed to perform more fully. The trust of his strut gives way to a gradual loss of body function, leading to painful falls or near-falls on the highway. The final act of the film is downright painful to watch as Cameron’s entire body becomes stiff with paralysis. The vulnerability involved is rare in the Mitchum Saps gallery as most of them fake control to the very end. Cameron doesn’t even bother to pretend – he knows he’s doomed.
Faith Domergue is a worthy sparring partner for the wavering Mitchum, especially when she leans on the unstable side of her character. Domergue was a protégé / former lover of Howard Hughes who never got the chance to shine as brightly as possible, and her work here shows that she was far more than a pretty face.
The scene in which she tries to smother Cameron with a pillow is ignited by her body language and her increasingly hyperactive birth. It is a scenic moment that Domergue captures without sacrificing the core of humanity that makes her character so tragic. In the end, Margo is a noir victim we know all too well: someone who wants a happy life so badly that he is willing to commit cruel acts to get it.
Where there is danger is by no means a classic – the film loses steam as the couple drives through Arizona, and the finale, though dramatic, is too eager to undercut the bait of Cameron’s “murder” – but it has enough unique elements to differentiate itself as a grandiose noir. Turning a crippling injury into a ticking clock is one that still feels inspired today, and the gaming performances of Mitchum, Domergue, and Claude Rains (in a nasty cameo) make this hike to the dangerous side of life worthwhile.
USEFUL INFORMATION: While Cameron describes his injury as a concussion, his symptoms are more in line with those of a developing 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 in the Film Noir Archives or follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.