Tag Archives: James Agee

Claude Rains Gets All Jiggery-Pokery in ‘Where Danger Lives’

Poster from original release.

Poster from original release.

The first time I watched the pitch black Film Noir melodrama, “Where Danger Lives” (RKO Radio Pictures, 1950), it was on account of Robert Mitchum, an actor for whom I have great admiration. Mitchum rarely gave interviews, and when he did, he rarely expressed anything but contempt for Hollywood and the pictures he appeared in. As he told Robert Osborne, “They don’t pay me to see ’em.” With few exceptions, one can hardly blame him: he was in a lot of bad pictures, and few critics in the forties and fifties had any respect for him. James Agee, after having admired Mitchum in several of his early roles (e.g., “The Story of G.I. Joe,” “Crossfire”), accused him of sleeping on the job in “Out of the Past,” a role that probably did more to establish “Mitchum cool” than any other role. (It’s also one of his most enjoyable pictures.) While “Where Danger Lives” is certainly not one of his best efforts, he does a better than creditable job in a nearly impossible role. In the first reel, he gets through a few scenes with some fairly appalling kiddies without looking irritable or indignant. I don’t know how he managed it.

Even by Noir standards, the story is far-fetched: young Dr Mitchum, with the help of his girlfriend/fiancee, Nurse Maureen O’Sullivan (she was married to the picture’s director, John Farrow), saves the life of an unconscious young woman named Margo (Faith Domergue), who has tried to commit suicide. Margo repays him by enmeshing him in her spider web. At first, his involvement with her is tentative and unwilling: he plans only to keep the suicidal young woman from being lonely until her wealthy father returns from a business trip within the next week or ten days. But this is Noir, so he falls under her spell.

It’s one thing when, in “Nora Prentiss,” Dr Kent Smith, under nearly identical circumstances, falls for femme fatale Ann Sheridan, who promptly leads him to his ruin: Kent Smith was born to play the patsy: something about him makes one instinctively feel like kicking sand in his face. But one does not kick sand in Big Bob Mitchum’s face and get away with it, not even when the assailant is the great Claude Rains. As it happens, the first time I saw “Where Danger Lives,” I missed the opening credits and had no idea Rains was in it. I found the scenes of Dr Mitchum’s stepping out with the psychotic Margo so unpleasant and depressing that I was on the verge of changing the channel when suddenly the immortal Claude hove into sight. We hear his unmistakable voice just before we see him, and the sound of that velvet and gravel purr made me sit up with a jolt of excitement.

Here he is, in tip-top form — as superb as he was as Alexander Hollenius in “Deception” and Alexander Sebastian in “Notorious,” but with lower quality dialogue to speak. In this picture, Rains demonstrates his uncanny ability to create a first rate characterization out of third rate material. Rains handles mid-line pauses better than anyone. In the scene below, you’ll hear how it’s the cæsuræ he inserts into nearly half of his lines that really make his character come to life. And he’s perhaps the only actor I know of who can actually whisper a line and make it sound honest, instead of like a cheesy actor’s trick.

“The point’s irrelevant. Good night . . . Dr Cameron.” The first sentence he whispers — to remarkably sinister effect. In the second one, he inserts a meaningful cæsura, which gives it extraordinary insolence.

In this next clip, which ends the scene, he turns truly nasty.

When Claude Rains brandishes a poker, there is magic in the air. If there were nothing else good about this picture, I’d still love it for Rains’ performance.

For much of the rest of the picture, Dr Mitchum (now badly concussed and going in and out of delirium) and the mad, bad, dangerous Margo are lamming it through a nightmarish California landscape where scumbags are to be found behind every cactus: swindlers, blackmailers, human traffickers and, lowest of all, used car salesmen: Where Danger Lives. Until they get to Mexico, it’s an all-White cast, but to paraphrase Rachel Dolezar, it identifies as Bleak. The whole story is more than a little cockamamie, since Dr Mitchum is so clearly intelligent and Margo is so obviously manipulative and — to my eyes, anyway — seriously deranged. When Mitchum fell hard for Jane Greer’s helpless act in “Out of the Past,” their relationship developed gradually and more credibly, he wasn’t already in love with someone else, and her innocent act was entirely convincing. This one forces you to overlook a lot of improbables. But it has a nice pay off if you do. And of course there is Claude Rains, who is reason enough to see it.

‘Homecoming’: The Four Flusher’s Progress

Original Poster.

Original Poster.

“Homecoming” (Metro, 1948) tells the story of the eminent Dr Clark Gable, sawbones to the Social Register set, who joins the Army Medical Corps at the outbreak of the Second World War. He leaves behind his successful practice and his stylish wife, Mrs Dr Anne Baxter Gable. (His first name is Ulysses: friends call him Lee; he calls her Penny: her name’s Penelope. O, Homer! What crimes are committed in thy name?) We learn early on that the Homeric Dr Gable has gotten involved in the war effort for all the wrong reasons, but before the picture is over, he’ll do much good, make many sacrifices and redeem his soul. For its sins, “Homecoming” offers a perfect example of the sort of glum, semi-tedious product Metro turned out in the years immediately following the War, whenever the studio decided to make a high-minded, serious picture. Whatever else may be said for or against it, I find that it’s good for plenty of laughs — also for all the wrong reasons.

The story opens on a ship bringing men back home from across the Atlantic at the end of the War. A roving reporter goes round the ship in search of “a good yarn” (as his young associate puts it). The reporter is an old hand at getting veterans to talk: we can believe he’s good at his job because he smokes his pipe with such casual authority. Gives him the common touch. In the mist, he espies Colonel Dr Gable and asks him first for a light, then for his story — he musta seen plenty overseas, plenty. Here’s what follows:

As the title suggests, “Homecoming” is supposed to be about the difficulties veterans face when they return from war. Questions of class and social welfare are also raised. Mostly, however, it’s a Woman’s Picture about two women who fall in love with the same man. Paul Osborn’s script has a lot of pretty good stuff in it, but when he veers off course — as he often does — the writing is atrocious. “Homecoming” has some of the most hilariously over-written scenes in movie history. The over-writing is especially conspicuous because so much effort has been spent cluttering up the dialogue with colloquial words and expressions such as “sorta,” “kinda,” “y’know,” “dunno,” “somehow,” “whyncha give out?” and other “realistic” touches. Bronislau Kaper’s score slops heavy cream over the syrupy passages in a most amusing way. The plush banality of Kaper’s music falls somewhere between what you’d expect to hear at an airport cocktail lounge and a suburban undertaker’s parlor.

The Four Flusher

And it all starts when Dr John Hodiak calls Dr Clark Gable a four flusher. To my knowledge, this is the only picture in which a man’s crisis of conscience begins because someone calls him a four flusher. Perhaps it’s only because the term is seldom used anymore, but whatever the reason is, I laugh every time I hear Dr Hodiak haul off and say it. But the affront goes very hard with Dr Gable: until now, he always thought he was aces. A four flusher! Where does that second-rate corn doctor get the brass to give out with a crack like that? Heck, he’ll be accusing me of cheating at solitaire, next! Dr Gable tries, but finds himself incapable of shaking off the insult. In the vernacular and syntax of the picture, it kinda makes Clark feel sorta all hollowed out on his insides, somehow, and gee, it sorta sticks to him like Napalm.

Sorta Proud Somehow

So off goes Dr Gable, ego bruised and false teeth clenched, to patch up those boys over there, who are kinda trying to do something fine, somehow, like make the world safe from Teutonic paperhangers with funny moustaches and fat lunatics in funny hats who holler fascist folderol from Italian balconies. On the transport over to Europe, Dr Gable gets into an argument with a young nurse, known as “Snapshot” McCall (Lana Turner), who overhears his conversation and objects to everything he says. Then he learns, to his horror, that she has been assigned to be his head nurse. They continue to spar in field hospitals all across imprisoned Europe, but Dr Gable cannot help noticing that “Snapshot” Lana’s insolence is matched by the high quality of her nursing. His letters home are so full of his grievances against this pettish Clara Barton that his wife, goaded on by her busybody mother (Gladys Cooper — who else?), grows jealous. So now Dr Gable is fighting a war overseas and on the home front. What’s a four flusher to do?

Truce over a Cuppa Joe

In the face of the supreme competence of “Snapshot” Lana, Dr Gable kinda hasta make a pal of her, if he can. But she’s more obdurate than he figured on. A younger Gable would have asked her, “What’s eatin you, sister?” Instead, he just kinda gets his feelings hurt, which we can see by the way he purses his lips. What the good Doctor forgets is that in an earlier scene he sorta cracked wise about her husband who lies buried somewheres in China, having been killed in a battle six years before we got into the soup ourselves. It looks like she’ll never forgive him for his selfish callousness — and yet, well, she’s a good kid, kinda; she’s got a heart, y’know, and she begins to see that Dr Gable’s not such a bad Joe, kinda, y’know, after all — just needs to sand down some of those rough edges, get wise to the world, and learn that we’re all in it together, somehow. Every fella needs a buddy.

Chubby and Tubby Take a Bath

Two years before this picture was made, James Agee complained (in his review of “The Hucksters”) “[S]omething soft and unfortunate has happened to Gable’s mouth.” I’m afraid he’s right. Something soft and unfortunate has happened to his midriff, too. Fourteen years earlier, Clark Gable almost put the undershirt trade out of business by showing his naked torso in “It Happened One Night.” In this one, however, he looks like a Ball Park Frank (“They Plump When You Cook ‘Em”) in an army belt. In this scene with “Snapshot” Lana, it’s hard to know which of them is more in need of a good, tight girdle. Look at that still of him immediately below — he’s baking bread on both sides of that canvas cuff. And then there’s the coyness!

It’s a bad state of affairs when Clark Gable is shocked by the fleeting thought of sex: compare this scene to Gable’s performance in “Red Dust,” and the coyness is perfectly revolting.

Dr Gable Regrets

Back home, Dr Gable was always too busy to give Dr Hodiak a helping hand with his work in the slums of Chester Village (I don’t know why that name makes me laugh, but it does — probably because Gable pronounces it “Jester Village”). Now a boy from Chester Village (Cameron Mitchell) dies of wounds that wouldn’t have killed him, had he been given proper care back home. But Dr Gable was always too busy going to country club dances and hobnobbing with the swells to make time for those who couldn’t afford proper medical care. When the boy dies, Dr Gable blames himself.

Gable does that speech extremely well, I think. It is also the moment when his soul truly begins to awaken. He sees, as I hope we all do, that four flushing is not a victimless crime.

The Broken Torch

I won’t bother to set up this next scene. I offer it with no explanation, except to say that it contains my favorite bad writing in the picture.

“It’s a broken torch, but it still strikes fire . . .” Mmmmm, mmmmm. Sometimes there’s gawwd so quickly!