Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Warners' Film Noir Classic Collection Vol 4 collects ten thrillers probably classified in the 'Low "A"' to 'High "B"' range, encompassing titles from Warners, RKO and MGM with a Monogram oddity thrown in for good measure. Robert Mitchum appears in two features and Robert Ryan and Sterling Hayden in one apiece; Edward G. Robinson, Van Heflin, Charles Bronson, Farley Granger and Richard Basehart are also on hand to give the set a wide variety of acting styles. The femme fatales and ladies in distress are an even more interesting cross section: Janet Leigh, Mary Astor, Audrey Totter, Cyd Charisse, Faith Domergue, Cathy O'Donnell, Jane Greer, Jayne Mansfield, Phyllis Kirk, Sally Forrest, Jan Sterling and the elusive Jean Gillie.
The collection contains five double bill discs, each available separately. This pairing links RKO's Where Danger Lives and MGM's Tension.
Where Danger Lives is Howard Hughes' tribute to his paramour Faith Domergue, as His Kind of Woman was his way of flattering his top star Jane Russell. This time Robert Mitchum plays the sap to a loaded amour fou storyline that requires him to throw his entire life away after being enchanted by Domergue's unbalanced femme fatale. High-powered direction from John Farrow barely manages to keep things credible, but the film remains fascinating for its masterful expression of the noir style.
Dr. Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) has a steady girl in faithful nurse Julie Dawn (Maureen O'Sullivan) but falls deliriously in love with a suicide case, Margo Lannington (Faith Domergue). Working up the courage to face Margo's dominating father Frederick (Claude Rains), Jeff is stunned to discover that Margo's been lying to him, and that Frederick is actually her husband. A confused struggle ends with Lannington dead and Jeff suffering from a debilitating concussion, which accounts for Margo's ease at getting him to flee instead of calling the authorities. Panic and paranoia set them on a pitiful run for the Mexican border, encountering near-absurd difficulties on the way. Growing numb on one side, Jeff knows he's heading toward a possible coma, while Margo's emotional instability grows with every passing hour.
There are generally two ways to discuss Where Danger Lives. It's a tailor-made Howard Hughes film built to honor his long-time protégè Faith Domergue, a beauty of limited acting range. Considerable ink has been spent on the proposition that the oddball mogul filmed these gaudy & oversexed thrillers to make vicarious love to his actress-consorts through the sleepy eyes and broad shoulders of a screen proxy, Robert Mitchum.
The second interpretation is to accept the fact that Ms. Domergue is no more inept than dozens of other Hollywood starlets, and that Where Danger Lives is a beautifully filmed exemplar of the noir style. As the commentary on this disc bears out, the film is a nearly pure expression of several key noir themes, and the cinematics of John Farrow and his cameraman Nicholas Musuraca can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best.
What we really get is an uneven story that's too serious and too predictable. Robert Mitchum is too casual in his manner to really convince as a doctor, and is more believable when he jumps into an ambulance with a pair of 'regular guys'. The seductive Margo Lannington must have some kind of eye-contact hypno-ray, for Jeff Cameron is struck dumb by the first sight of her lying naked under a sheet on a surgery table. We're not told exactly how Margo tried to kill herself. Whatever it was, it didn't interfere with her perfect makeup and hair.
There are fun plot complications and tedious ones, and despite the fact that Where Danger Lives was written by Charles Bennett, the past master of lovers-on-the-run movies, practically everything that happens to Margo and Jeff is a highly unlikely twist of fate. Al Roberts in Detour compounded one unlucky break with a lot of bad decisions, but in Where Danger Lives Jeff is singled out for the trials of Job. Instead of making a mistake in judgment, Jeff is simply inconsistent in character. He's an experienced doctor yet doesn't take into account Margo's suicidal instability. The script makes him drunk when he barges into Margo's house, so he's not quite in control of his senses. He then suffers from a whack on the head that contributes to his incredibly unwise decisions from that point forward.
Jeff is lucid enough to see what he's doing wrong yet not powerful enough to resist. I suppose what doesn't work is that Mitchum never seems patsy enough, and the mendacious Margo never fools us for a minute. We understand when the weary Mitchum says "What the hell" and falls for Jane Greer in Out of the Past because Jane's allure is both intelligent and adult. Domergue's Margo is nothing more than a petulant child, talking Money over Love from the start, and trying to manipulate Jeff with her various tantrums. Whenever Jeff believes in Margo or sides with her, we lose respect for his character.
The movie has more than its share of impressive scenes. Claude Rains has third billing but shows up for only one beautifully directed confrontation in a San Francisco mansion. Real locations are used for the drive across the desert, as the night scenes become darker to reflect Jeff's deteriorating health. An awkward attempt to switch rides in a used car lot is reminiscent of Psycho ten years later, and carries the same feeling of futility when Jeff forgets to transfer an expensive fur coat to his new vehicle. The couple are inconvenienced by fussy locals, caught and forced to marry in an unpleasant "Whiskers Week" celebration and fleeced by parasitical sharpies in a border town. Jeff eventually learns what we suspected all along, that Margo is a homicidal mess. Quite literally, the only woman he should be trusted with is the little girl in the iron lung, back in the infant's ward.
Howard Hughes appears to have allowed Farrow's wife Maureen O'Sullivan to play Jeff's faithful girl Julie, on the basis that she couldn't have any scenes with him! Jeff and Julie mostly talk on the phone and when they're both with Margo in surgery, Maureen's face is covered at all times with a mask. What did Margo attempt suicide with, cholera? In the final scene Julie rushes to Jeff's side but we never see them together. Did Hughes perhaps not want anything to detract from the screen impression made by Faith Domergue?
The disc of Where Danger Lives looks fine -- all of these Film Noir 4 transfers and encodings are top-notch. The commentary is by old hands Alain Silver and James Ursini, who are also John Farrow experts and add many details about the director's background. The comments are generous with academic accolades for the film, especially Farrow's superior direction that enhances/rescues Ms. Domergue's performance. They also point out several long-take scenes, including one that lasts seven minutes. The movie is so smoothly directed, I never noticed it before.
This time through, I had a wicked thought. If Jeff is legally married to Margo (false names apparently don't matter) and innocent of a crime, then he may be the inheritor of Frederick Lannington's zillions. If Jeff pulls through, I see a big future for him as a builder of hospitals --- but only if Julie Dawn keeps a strong enough leash on him.
The new featurette White Rose for Julie has input from Jim Ursini, Alain Silver, Richard Schickel and Dick Cavett, with an archival assist from Maureen O'Sullivan.
MGM's Tension is one of its best noir efforts, thanks to a smart script and excellent performances; it's Richard Basehart's first noir role after the superb He Walked by Night. In her sixth noir assignment siren Audrey Totter does wonders as an equally complex deadly female. Cyd Charisse and Barry Sullivan are given much more predictable parts. Director John Berry was the 'street-wise' successor to Orson Welles in the Mercury Theater and was just beginning a promising Hollywood career when the HUAC witch hunters came calling; he made one more picture before fleeing to Europe. He once was quoted as saying that to avoid federal marshals, he once had to escape his own house by climbing out a bathroom window.
Meek pharmacist Warren Quimby (Richard Basehart)'s worst fears come true when his straying, unfaithful wife Claire (Audrey Totter) runs off with Barney Deager, a liquor salesman (Lloyd Gough). Unable to bring her home and no match for the powerful Deager, Warren instead concocts a clever murder scheme by establishing a second identity as Paul Southern. Unfortunately, while waiting for his opportunity to strike, Warren/Paul falls in love with a photographer-neighbor in his new Westwood apartment, Mary Chandler (Cyd Charisse). That's when fate, the law and the scheming Claire scramble Warren's well-laid plans beyond recognition.
Tension begins with a slightly forced prologue in which Barry Sullivan's Detective Bonnabel addresses the audience about the nature of his work in homicide. When potential suspects clam up, he puts pressure on them the same way he stretches a rubber band between his fingers. Later on we see Bonnabel's assistant Blackie Gonzales (William Conrad) working on the men while Bonnabel pretends to be interested in the vain Claire Quimby. Tension uses the police investigation as a side story while concentrating on the twisted relationship between the Quimbys, and Warren's crazy plan to commit the perfect murder.
Warren is stuck each night behind his pharmaceutical counter, which enables Claire to see her boyfriends right under his nose. She's a real piece of work, as they say, as she sits at the soda fountain brushing off unwanted admirers ("Drift!") and half-propositions the soda jerk while waiting for moneyed prospects. Meanwhile, poor Warren grinds out the night shift, dreading the morning that he'll return to their apartment and find her gone. That eventually happens, but not until Warren has done his best to interest Claire in a suburban tract home. She has no interest in kids and white picket fences, preferring instead to shack up with the brutish Barney Deager at his Malibu beach cottage.
In He Lived by Night Basehart's loner stick-up man lived a paranoid, invisible existence in a tiny room, with only a puppy for a friend. Warren Quimby uses newly developed contact lenses to adopt a second identity as Paul Southern, and finds that his newfound freedom opens up new horizons. Pretty Mary Chandler relates to 'Paul' and provides a hopeful alternative to Claire's abusive disdain. Warren's bitterness eventually dissipates, along with his compulsion to murder Barney Deager.
That's the point at which Tension takes a series of narrative left turns, creating surprise situations that Warren cannot possibly manage. A killing does occur, and when Bonnabel and Gonzales turn their attentions to Claire and Warren, something's gotta give. It's not long before the detectives are looking for the mysterious Paul Southern, a man who seems to have no history whatsoever. Warren can tell that it's only a matter of time before his double identity is uncovered.
Tension delivers in the thrills department, as the desperate Warren and the scheming Claire make for excellent viewing: they're the ultimate noir Rickey and Lucy. This was probably a 'B' picture for MGM, production wise, but it's definitely an A+ noir.
The disc of Tension is technically flawless; Harry Stradling's B&W cinematography captures the ambience of Warren's pharmacy as well as the allure of the emerging So-Cal lifestyle of beer and steaks on the beach. Elizabeth Ward and Alain Silver, the original editors of Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style rejoin to provide a commentary on this ode to domestic chaos. Actress Audrey Totter joins Elizabeth, but just for a few comments. The featurette Who's Guilty Now? uses interview input from Ms. Ward, Dick Cavett, Molly Haskell and Oliver Stone. Audrey Totter is seen in an archival interview, still looking capable of stealing anyone's husband!
The features have chapter stops but no chapter menus. The discs come in full-sized keep cases.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Where Danger Lives & Tension rate:
Movie: Where: Good; Tension: Excellent
Video: both Excellent
Sound: both Excellent
Supplements: Trailers, commentaries, new featurettes.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 24, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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