Tag Archives: Robert Mitchum

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.

The Full Figure Girl

Me, Jane:  The image that caused all the trouble.

Me, Jane: The image that caused all the trouble. The Legion of Decency almost went up in smoke over this photograph.

I like Jane Russell: she was not an exciting actress, but she was glamorous and likable.  She was never less than competent, and her self-possession gave her natural authority. She was capable and relaxed with good actors (like Robert Mitchum); the better her co-stars were, the better she was. As Calamity Jane in “The Paleface,” she had surprisingly great chemistry with Bob Hope, whom she adored. I think it’s her most accomplished performance — it’s a real star turn.  She’s funny, sexy, beautiful and in complete command of the material. When her co-stars weren’t good (like Jack Buetel (“The Outlaw”) and Elliott Reid (her love interest in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”)), her own self-assurance prevented her from being dragged down by their incompetence, but she wasn’t skillful enough or sufficiently witty to improve second-rate material. She only made two pictures with Mitchum, but she admired him enormously and they remained friends for the rest of his life. Robert Osborne once interviewed the two of them for TCM’s “Private Screenings” series. Mitchum, who had been charming and voluble before the interview began, became as loquacious as a clam when the cameras began to roll. Osborne couldn’t get more than a few words out of him.

Osborne: You don’t have a favorite Robert Mitchum film?

Mitchum: I don’t think so. They don’t pay me to see ’em.

Russell [sees that Osborne is unhappy with the response — cheerfully]: I just like Robert Mitchum movies . . .

Russell had to do all of the talking, and she spent much of the interview praising Mitchum’s talent, loyalty and above all his amazing intelligence. It was hard to watch — Osborne was clearly discomfited by Mitchum’s implacable silence — but I couldn’t help being impressed by the way Russell handled the situation.  She did everything in her power to give Osborne the interview he had a right to expect — short of trying to shame Mitchum into conversation. Such an attempt wouldn’t have worked, of course, but she had the presence of mind to realize it. She knew Mitchum was smarter and more talented than she — she said so repeatedly; she knew he had more interesting stories to tell. But he wasn’t in the mood to talk, so she covered for him and did her best to be entertaining and cheerful. It was a demonstration of her natural generosity and pragmatism; it was also (I don’t want to make too much of this) valiant.

It’s her presence of mind, her sanity, that sets her apart from the other sex goddesses. She’s the most level-headed of the bunch.  She was, in fact, quite unlike any other screen siren. She never played a bubblehead (like Jean Harlow, Betty Grable and Marilyn) or a nervous wreck (like Marilyn and, sometimes — howlingly — Lana Turner and Joan Crawford). In “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” when Russell pretends to be Marilyn in a courtroom scene, the result isn’t good or funny: she’s too self-assured and untroubled to impersonate a woman with Marilyn’s catalogue of neuroses, and, paradoxically, too unimaginative to play a nitwit. Nor did she play rapacious man-traps (like Ava Gardner and early Crawford).

Jane Russell, Charles Coburn, Marilyn Monroe in a publicity shot for 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.'

Jane Russell, Charles Coburn, Marilyn Monroe in a publicity shot for ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.’

Ava Gardner often played women who liked sex for its own sake, but in every case that I know of, these characters were vicious home-wreckers, murderesses or sociopaths; moreover, the lewdness of these femmes fatales was invariably presented as unmistakable evidence of villainy. Cruelty was always a part of the kind of sex she was after.  In “East Side, West Side,” for example, the pleasure Ava gets from having sex with James Mason is all bound up with her sadistic desire to hurt his wife (Barbara Stanwyck) — a woman she has never met. She’s not after money or position: she’s only after sex, but the only sex she likes is the kind that makes another woman wretched.

Jane Russell was the only screen siren who enjoyed being a sexy woman without being a bitch, who liked having sex for the pleasure of it, without being a tramp, and who never fretted about her reputation, her libido or her ability to look after herself. Strictly speaking, she wasn’t a siren: she never lured a man to his doom, only to her bed, where she showed him a good time then dumped him when she’d had enough. Sometimes she even fell in love. That’s why her sexiness is nearly always refreshing, even in the dopiest pictures.  She’s always in full command of her sex appeal, never a victim of it. The wolf who won’t take no for an answer is bound to get knocked insensible with the nearest blunt object. In this scene from “Macao,” Mitchum comes to her rescue, but there’s little doubt she’d have solved her own problem — and just to show she’s not impressed, she lifts Mitchum’s wallet while he kisses her. “Now we’re even,” she says. The opening scenes of this picture are so entertaining, it sets up the expectation that the rest will be equally enjoyable. Take my word for it: it isn’t. Alas.

Before I forget — that drunken salesman is Harold J. Kennedy. He appeared in pictures rarely, and usually without credit; he worked more often in the theatre (rarely on Broadway, mostly in summer stock). He had a long career, both as an actor and a director, and ended up working with a lot of major stars — usually on their way up, or far along their journey to oblivion. In 1978, Doubleday published his hilarious, vulgar memoir, “No Pickle, No Performance: An Irreverent Excursion from Tallulah to Travolta.” (Kennedy was not afraid to drop names.) His writing is approximately like his acting in “Macao” — Peter Bogdanovich once asked Jack Benny if it was true that Ernst Lubitsch used to act out all the parts the way he wanted them done. Benny said, “Yes.” “Was he a good actor?” “Well . . . ” Benny replied, “He was broad . . . but you got the idea.” That’s Harold J. Kennedy.

Later in the picture, Russell sings “One for My Baby,” which is one of the few times she got to do anything complicated in a movie. She does a lot of things right, beginning with not making a beeline for self-pity — she fights the self-pity, allows it to sneak up on her instead. Very nice, that — but again, she’s too sane and sensible to get deep under the skin of the song. Have a look:

Part of her problem is focus: she keeps looking skyward. Who’s she singing to? I don’t think she figured that one out completely — it makes the emotion vague and renders everything less than perfectly candid. I don’t really blame her: that’s what a director is for. Anyhow, she’s got the right idea, but she doesn’t quite put it across.

I mentioned in an earlier post that Ida Lupino did a great croaking version of it in “Road House.” Here’s that performance: