I usually warn folks when I’m going to spoil plot points, but in the case of Where Danger Lives, I don't think it matters. This is one of those films where the hero takes the entire movie to deduce what the audience figures out in the first ten minutes.
The film opens with doctor Jeff Cameron treating a little girl. Jeff is telling her a story about elephants. Robert Mitchum plays Jeff. He’s miscast in a part that would better suit Henry Fonda, but that’s the least of the film’s problems.
After finishing with the little girl, Jeff clocks out, eager for his date with Julie, a nice nurse who works at the hospital. But Jeff has to cancel after he's called to assist with a new patient.
The patient is Margo, a not-so-wholesome girl who’d just attempted suicide. Jeff treats Margo, then the two start dating. He falls hard. Faith Domergue plays Margo. Like Mitchum, she’s miscast. But unlike Mitchum, it’s hard to overlook just how wrong she is for the role. To be fair, it’s a hard part to play. Margo has to do more than seduce Jeff, she has to seduce the entire audience. We have to buy Jeff overlooking a myriad of red flags and throwing his life away for a woman he just met.
But we don’t buy it. The entire romance is unconvincing.
Soon Margo breaks it to Jeff that she has to leave for Nassau. It seems her father has come home, and upon finding out about Jeff, decided it best that Margo take a trip.
Jeff doesn’t take it well. He has a few too many and goes to Margo’s house. He confronts her father, Mr. Lannington, played by third-billed Claude Rains in his only scene. Here, Jeff discovers the first of many things we already suspected. Lannington isn't her father at all, but her husband!1
Jeff and Lannington get into a scuffle. Jeff knocks down Lannington who gets back up and pummels Jeff with a fireplace poker. Jeff clocks Lannington, knocking him out cold. Jeff, still reeling, stumbles to the bathroom for some water. When he returns, Margo tells Jeff that Lannington is dead.1
Now, at this point it's obvious to us that Margo killed her husband while Jeff was out of the room. But, since the rest of the film hinges on Jeff believing he did it, a series of contrived plot machinations are necessary. As the film rolls on the pair will ”just miss" the news. The car radio won’t work. Someone will draw a beard on Margo’s police picture, preventing her from being recognized.
Anyway, Margo convinces Jeff to make a run for the Mexico border. Jeff agrees. The film explains this by having Jeff tell us he has a concussion. This is the worst concussion you've ever seen. Jeff blacks out, loses the ability to think straight, and by the time the film's predictable conclusion rolls around, finds the left side of his body paralyzed.
From here the film shifts to a road movie. Margo and Jeff prowl through the small, out-of-the-way towns of the southwest and descend into a kind of backwoods hell. In one town they’re nearly thrown in jail after a fender-bender with a drunken immigrant. In another they’re brought before the town sheriff for being clean shaven during “Whiskers Week.”
Eventually, the film tells us that Margo is crazy. It’s played as a big reveal, but we’ve known it all along. After all, didn’t Jeff meet her because she’d tried to commit suicide?
Everything wraps up near the Mexico border. Jeff and Margo are holed up in a dingy hotel room. Margo reveals she’d been stashing Lannington’s money in a Mexican bank. Jeff finally realizes that Margo killed Lannington. Margo smothers Jeff with a pillow and heads for the border. She’s almost across when she sees Jeff shambling down the street toward her. She begs him to stop, to not come any further.
Domergue doesn’t look like a desperate woman, she looks like an actress unsure of what to do. “Don’t make me shoot,” she says to no one as she pulls a small revolver from her purse.
Jeff keeps coming. Margo shoots and misses. The border guards shoot Margo, who dies, but not before confessing to the authorities that she killed Lannington alone. Jeff wakes up in a hospital. He’s going to be okay. Julie is there waiting.
Where Danger Lives isn’t as awful as it is frustrating. The film treats us like simpletons, expecting us to swallow one trite plot twist after another while ignoring Domergue’s stilted performance. I tried, but I just couldn’t do it. Maybe a concussion would have helped.
Cue ominous music: Duh-duh-dum!
Grade: F ↩