I have seen Where Danger Lives several times now, and more than once, I have found myself wondering, What if the story were told from Margo Lannington’s, the femme fatale’s, point of view? Lannington is not so easy to pin down because she is more complicated—and thus more interesting—than the usual femme fatale. She’s not just conniving and manipulative, a liar and a cheat (as if all that wouldn’t be enough); she also suffers from mental illness. I think the few details revealed about her background in Where Danger Lives would have been the basis for great story.
(This article about Where Danger Lives contains the most important spoilers.)
The film starts with an ambulance arriving at a hospital in San Francisco, where Dr. Jeff Cameron works. His girlfriend Julie is a nurse and is also on the hospital staff. Dr. Cameron is a much-loved doctor who is cares for children and shows a great deal of empathy for them. He is obviously a sympathetic character, in other words, not an unsympathetic homme fatale or a criminal. He is also the doctor called to examine the patient in the ambulance: a woman who attempted suicide. A man accompanied her to the hospital, but he is not her husband, and he disappears soon after their arrival and before Dr. Cameron has a chance to talk to him. The woman, the patient, gives her name as Margo.
Dr. Cameron discovers that Margo left a phony last name and address. Another doctor tells him that her last name is not Locksley and she doesn’t live at 3164 Lake Street (Lake Street ends in the 2900 block). But after her discharge, she sends a wire to Dr. Cameron at the hospital: “I owe you an explanation. Please see me tonight if you can. Eight o’clock at 112 Sea Cliff. Please try. Margo.” It isn’t just fate that draws Dr. Cameron to visit Margo. She is his patient, and he still has a professional interest in seeing that she is in good health. But he enters a gray area with his decision to visit her at home. By the time he sees her again at her home, in her evening gown, he seems to have made up his mind about her.
At Sea Cliff, Dr. Cameron learns that Margo’s real name is Margo Lannington. He tells Margo that all suicides and attempted suicides have to be reported to the police, even those under fictitious names. She protests; she is sure that she will be just fine. But he dials the phone, and she grabs for it. He stops her, and when their eyes meet, the audience has the second clue that he is in it for the long haul. And it turns out that he isn’t dialing the police; he is calling his girlfriend Julie to break their date.
There’s a bit of a jump in time at this point: Dr. Cameron has started an affair with Margo. (I’ll call him Jeff from now on; Margo is on a first-name basis with him by now.) He meets her at a tiki bar. From their conversation, viewers know that they have seen each other at least a few times. Margo tells Jeff that her father wants to take her to Nassau and that she won’t be able to see him, of course, while they’re away. And did she mention that they are leaving in the next twenty-four hours? It’s a shock to Jeff. After Margo leaves the tiki bar, he drinks by himself and decides to talk to Margo and confront her father.
Back again at Sea Cliff, Jeff learns that Margo is actually living with her husband, Frederic Lannington, not with her father, as she had been telling him all along. Jeff leaves, but he rushes back into the house when he hears Margo scream. She says that Lannington has attacked her, pulling her earring from her ear and leaving it torn and bleeding. Margo wants to leave with Jeff, but Lannington has other ideas and hits him over the head with a poker. Jeff defends himself, and Frederic Lannington is knocked unconscious when he falls to the floor. Jeff goes to the bathroom to get some water for Lannington and to wash his face. He is dizzy and groggy, and he has trouble walking. He collapses on the way back to the living room. When Jeff finally makes it back, Lannington is dead.
Jeff can’t be sure how Lannington died. Did he hit his head in the fall near the fireplace? Did he hit Lannington hard enough to injure him fatally? Is his death an accident or murder? Jeff cannot answer any of these questions because he cannot think clearly. He has a head injury of his own, and it is obvious that it has had an effect on him.
Margo convinces Jeff not to call the police. She thinks that they will rule Lannington’s death a murder. Margo asks him, “Who’d want a doctor who killed a man?” He says that it was self-defense, but he admits that he doesn’t know how he will be able to prove that. The fact that Jeff sustained a head injury makes his situation even more complicated because he can’t think clearly. The extent of Jeff’s injury becomes important later in the narrative when he is trying to escape to Mexico with Margo. It also seems to dilute a lot of his responsibility for the decisions he makes after the attack, so much so that Julie takes him back.
Jeff Cameron is the main character and the only one to go through any sort of transformation. He has a loyal girlfriend, but he becomes obsessed with Margo and refuses to let her go. His head injury blurs his thinking and makes him more susceptible to Margo’s machinations. His physical condition worsens as he and Margo flee toward Mexico, but it isn’t until he is partially paralyzed and they are close to the border that he finally sees Margo clearly: She is a pathological liar, she’s had many men, she’s hatched this plan a long time ago because she has a stash of her husband’s money waiting in Mexico. He also realizes that she’s the one who killed her husband because the husband was still breathing when Jeff went to wash his face in the house at Sea Cliff. When his physical condition is at its worst, it forces him to come to terms with his limitations and to be more realistic—about himself and about Margo.
Where Danger Lives is another example of Hollywood using psychology as a theme in film, but neither Jeff nor the viewers see this aspect of Margo right away. Once viewers hear about her condition on a radio newscast about her husband’s suspicious death (viewers know more about it before Jeff does), Margo becomes frantic. She pulls a gun out of her purse and is frightened when someone knocks on the door of the room she is sharing with Jeff. The significance of her symptoms (her suicide attempt, her lying, her waking from a nightmare screaming in the car going to Mexico) becomes much clearer. I found myself completely engrossed in Margo’s story the way that it was told: from Jeff’s perspective. The story in the film is Jeff Cameron’s so, of course, it is told from his perspective. But I think the factors leading up to Margo’s psychiatric treatment would have made a better story. I enjoy the film just as much every time I see it, but I have this nagging suspicion that it missed an opportunity for a better story in Margo’s situation.
Claude Rains is great as the femme fatale’s wronged and very angry husband. Robert Mitchum is a noir favorite of mine, and he is fantastic as Dr. Jeff Cameron. The role is very physical because he has to portray someone suffering from a concussion and its effects (partial paralysis, confusion). In the climax of the film, he struggles to pursue Margo as she makes her last attempt to cross the border to Mexico alone. She thought he had died in their rented room because she had placed a pillow over his face, just as she had done with her husband. So his appearance on the street at night comes as a shock to her. But she still has her gun, and she attempts to shoot Jeff to finish the job she had already started.
Every time that I have tried to write about Where Danger Lives, I have come smack up against writer’s block. Once I realized, however, that I was more intrigued by Margo’s place in the story, writing about the film seemed so much easier. As much as I enjoy the film and all the actors in it, I think Margo’s story is the most interesting.
July 6, 1950, release date • Directed by John Farrow • Screenplay by Charles Bennett • Based on a story by Leo Rosen • Music by Roy Webb • Edited by Eda Warren • Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca
Robert Mitchum as Dr. Jeff Cameron • Faith Domergue as Margo Lannington • Claude Rains as Frederick Lannington • Maureen O’Sullivan as Julie Dorn • Charles Kemper as the Postville police chief • Ralph Dumke as Klauber, the pawnbroker • Billy House as Bogardus, the Postville justice of the peace • Harry Shannon as Dr. Maynard • Philip Van Zandt as Milo DeLong, the carnival owner • Jack Kelly as Dr. James Mullenbach, Jeff’s hospital associate • Lillian West as Mrs. Bogardus • Ray Teal as Sheriff Joe Borden • Tol Avery as Honest Hal, car seller
Produced by RKO Radio Pictures • Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures