Saturday, July 11, 2015

Summer of Darkness: Where Danger Lives(1950)

Where Danger Lives is another film noir fixated on travel, with the majority of scenes taking place in cars driving down lonesome south-wet highways, or in a variety of small towns that dot those roads. It also features one of my favorite types of noir protaganist; the addled hero who can no longer trust his own senses. It's a type that was there for La Bete Humaine, the very first film I wrote about for this project, where Jean Gabin would suddenly fall into lethal, misogynistic rages. Dick Powell played a variation on the theme for some parts of Murder, My Sweet, as his character was frequently being knocked unconscious and having to fight through the fog of being sedated. Powell will return to the well in an upcoming film I'll be covering shortly. I expect to see this character archetype again before the summer is over.

Robert Mitchum plays Jeff Cameron, a doctor so in love with his job that he has to be coerced into leaving the hospital after a fourteen hour shift. He works in the children's ward, and maintains a steady relationship with a nurse that appears to be heading towards marriage. His life seems perfect, but when he treats the beautiful Margo(Faith Domergue) who has attempted suicide, he finds himself falling in love with her. The two begin a fairly heated affair, which develops mostly offscreen as the film suddenly jumps to the point where Jeff is proposing marriage. Margo rebuffs him, saying her wealthy father would never allow it. After drinking and building up his courage, Jeff goes to confront Margo's father, Frederick Lannington, played by Claude Rains. An inebriated Jeff is barely able to process the shock at learning that Frederick is, in fact, Margo's husband. The scene that follows isn't quite what you'd expect, although it ends in the inevitable fight, leaving Jeff with a concussion and Frederick dead.

Margo convinces Jeff, in his confused state, to go on the run with her, setting the noir road trip in motion. At the airport the pair are spooked by a pair of cops who appear to be looking for them, but who are actually there on unrelated business. So the two head out on the road, believing the cops to be hot on their trail. They make stupid, desperate decisions that put them into tighter and tighter spots, so that by the time the cops are after them, their options have all been exhausted.

I'm going to revisit the tortured 'Body Horror' analogy I used when discussing Desperate, because I think it fits even better here. Both the film and Jeff undergo creeping, radical changes to their character as time passes. What begins as a light, hopeful drama full of kind and helpful characters becomes a grim and fatalistic story with hallucinatory touches. Jeff begins the film as a model citizen, liked by everyone and cool in tense situations, but slowly deteriorates both physically and mentally as the film goes along. He almost literally becomes a different person as the concussion impedes his cognitive reasoning, his memory, his personality, and finally his motor skills. In Where Danger Lives, murder is an act of self destruction, a cancer that infects the film and the characters, so that even things meant to be fun and friendly become nightmarish obstacles. Jeff, in his travels, frequently falls into unconsciousness, waking up in new towns full of strange, impenetrable customs.

The path of the film can be tracked through the interactions between Jeff and Margo, and in how the various characters see each other. When Jeff first lays eyes on Margo, she is on a hospital bed, unconscious. He is wearing a surgical mask, though the scenario does not appear to require one, that reveals only his eyes. We see Margo, placid, beautiful, and focus on Jeff's eyes as he takes this in. Through their courtship both Jeff and Margo frequently stare lovingly into each other's eyes, and they're almost always shown in the same frame. Once the nature of Margo's marriage is revealed to Jeff, there's an interesting show where Margo is centered, while flanked by Jeff and Frederick, who continue discussing her as if she's left the room. This is where the bond between Jeff and Margo breaks.

Throughout the rest of the film Margo and Jeff will not be in the same frame as often, will frequently be separated in the eyes of the audience. And speaking of eyes, they will almost never look directly at each other again. As if their combined scenes prove to great to acknowledge, Margo and Jeff spend the rest of the film looking into the distance as they talk, and when they do look into each other's eyes, it is only for a fleeting moment as their gaze is instantly pulled somewhere else.

After the murder, the two can't look at each other directly until the finale, when Margo's true nature has finally been revealed. At this moment, surrounded by cop, as both of their bodies fail them, the two can finally see each other. Jeff's mask is forgotten, and the invisible one worn by Margo has finally been removed. And yet, despite this newfound intimacy, the two are never in the same shot. Not even an over the shoulder shot while they speak to each other. They finally see each other clearly, but they're separated by the film's four walls, and the chainlink fence they've collapsed against.

What follows is an ending that might go a bit too far in closing on a happy note, but to end on the expected note of cynicism wouldn't feel right, either. The film's fever has broken, and now it's time to start recovering.

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