In 1978, the American actress Deborah Kerr described her close friend and frequent collaborator Robert Mitchum as “…a far more complex person than his lazy, relaxed manner would have you believe, so much of his colorful way of expressing himself is totally unrepeatable.”1 Kerr defines what is so fascinating about Robert Mitchum (or more so, Robert Mitchum’s celebrity persona). Throughout his career, audiences seem to be more fascinated by what Mitchum does not reveal about himself through his various characters, over what he does choose to reveal about himself. Where other Old Hollywood actors are heroically remembered for their triumphant pursuit of roles that they could acutely emotionally identify with (such as the masterful holy trinity of Method Actors: Marlon Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Clift), Robert Mitchum is a hypnotising actor who projects to his audience an appearance of anti-dedication to a role, a kind of attitude that makes his performance seem mostly accidental and his methodological preparation seem as something mostly unplanned. As Mitchum’s director on Home from the Hill (1960), Vincente Minnelli stated, “Few actors I’ve worked with bring so much of themselves to a picture, and none do it with such a total lack of affectation as Mitchum does.”2
To study Robert Mitchum’s performance in John Farrow’s noir Where Danger Lives is an intriguing activity, because so much of the film’s humour and philosophical complexity lies in what both the characters and the audience do not know. For the most part, the characters in Where Danger Lives spend a considerable amount of time making their intentional actions appear as ‘accidental happenings’, often based on a warped understanding of how accidental acts can be mastered to appear as intentional.3 If Deborah Kerr and Vincente Minnelli remember Mitchum as a man who has mastered the appearance of making his methodological dedication to a role as mostly unintentional, Where Danger Lives finds Mitchum acting inside in a narrative that projects the same amount of philosophical dedication to making the intentional appear accidental as he does outside of it.
In his analysis of fatalism and philosophical action in American noir, Robert B. Pippin states that if a character succeeds in making an intentional act appear to others as purely accidental, then that character is free to deny their role as perpetrator.4 If a character can deny their role as perpetrator, then it is appropriate to believe that the character has performed his/her actions purposively, and do not believe that their actions are predetermined (and therefore inevitable).5 Furthermore, if a character succeeds in making the intentional act appear as accidental, then it must be presumed that this character optimistically predicted (prior to committing the crime) just how successfully effective their actions would turn out to be.6
What complicates Pippin’s philosophy in relation to Where Danger Lives is that the protagonist Dr. Jeff Cameron (Mitchum) participates in a crime while he has a concussion; a medical condition that clouds his capacity to predict the consequences of his involvement in the crime and his role as a perpetrator. What we find then, is that the femme fatale Margo (Faith Domergue) and Cameron co-exist together as opposites, much like the ‘ying and yang’ philosophy. While Margo continuously insists that the murder was necessary and somewhat predetermined by fate, Cameron (now prone to fainting episodes and blackouts) believes that the murder was completely unnecessary. As Margo seduces Cameron into believing that his role in the crime was accidental and that they can live a happier and liberated life now that it is over, Cameron’s view is intensely pessimistic, as he is keenly aware of how authorities handle runway perpetrators and understands that living a criminal life is anything but liberating.
For a while it seems that Margo’s desire for her crime to appear as unintentional succeeds without any real consequence. There are multiple humorous scenes in which Margo’s paranoia leads Cameron to believe that the police are chasing them down at the local airport, or that the authorities have set up roadblocks at the country line in order to slow them down. Unlike other film noirs where such tactics are intentionally set-up by the authorities to dissuade criminals from continuing their journey, the presence of police in Where Danger Lives for the most part, is an ‘accidental happening’. The police are not chasing Margo or Cameron at the airport and the disastrous roadblock is set-up as an agriculture quarantine checkpoint rather than a criminal barricade. But what is less humorous and perhaps, the only truthful ‘accidental happening’ in Where Danger Lives is the magnitude of Cameron’s concussion. Margo did not predict for such a catastrophic injury to happen to her lover as a result of her ill-planned actions, and Cameron’s inability to diagnose his own condition and see Margo’s mental instability ultimately leads the audience to question whether the consequences of a ‘real’ accidental act is even more fatal than the consequences of masking the intentional as accidental.
Where Danger Lives (1950, USA 82 mins)
Prod Co: RKO Radio Pictures/Westwood Productions Prod: Irving Cummings Jr. Dir: John Farrow Scr: Charles Bennett based on the story by Leo Rosten Phot: Nicholas Musuraca Ed: Eda Warren Prod Des: Ralf Berger & Albert S. D’Agostino Mus: Roy Webb
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Faith Domergue, Claude Rains
- Deborah Kerr, introduction to Robert Mitchum on the Screen, ed. Alvin H Marill (New Jersey: A.S Barnes, 1978), p. 9. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Robert B. Pippin, Fatalism in American Film Noir: Some Cinematic Philosophy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012), p.19. ↩
- Ibid., p. 20. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. p. 21. ↩