In some movies, the protagonist will commit some minor offense that will result in his being punished way in excess of what he would seem to deserve. An example karmic overkill occurs in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), where all the bad things that happen to Dr. Forbin when his supercomputer takes over the world is punishment for his stealing an ashtray from the White House. And in North by Northwest (1959), it is on account of Roger Thornhill’s lying about his secretary being ill so they could cut in line and grab a taxi that he ends up being pursued by spies that are trying to kill him as a result of mistaken identity. Where Danger Lives, a minor film noir directed by John Farrow, is just such a movie.
It begins in a hospital, which we typically think of as serving the public good. Jeff (Robert Mitchum) is a doctor at that hospital, and Julie (Maureen O’Sullivan), his fiancée, is a nurse. We know that their relationship is wholesome, because he regularly gives her a white rose. He is dedicated to his profession, and so much so that a nurse reprimands him for working too hard. To underscore what a good man Jeff is, his patients are children, with whom he has a terrific bedside manner. He tells a story to a girl in an iron lung to help her go to sleep, and then chats with a little boy, promising that they will have more baseball discussions in the future. But it is when he is talking to the boy that we discover Jeff’s sin. When the boy mentions that he knows Jeff will be going away, the nurse says, in an apologetic tone, that she told him that Jeff will be going into private practice.
Private practice? Oh no! That means he values money more than people. At least, this is what the people that produced this movie wanted us to think, for they clearly put in the scene about Jeff’s going into private practice for a reason. Remove that one brief scene with the boy, and the rest of the movie could have been exactly the same, without anyone thinking there was something missing. We would simply believe that Jeff was being punished for being unfaithful to Julie, a second sin that comes later. Because the writers put that line in the movie, we can only conclude that it was supposed to tell us something about Jeff’s character, that he was guilty of forgoing his public service for the sake of private greed.
It’s an old story. Once a man gives in to one sin, he soon gives in to another. Just as he is about to leave the hospital, he is delayed by an emergency attempted suicide. The woman is Margo (Faith Domergue), and when she wakes up, she sees Julie’s white rose and thinks it is for her, saying she likes red roses instead. When Margo grabs Jeff’s hand to thank him for pulling her through, Julie senses something, raising her eyebrows, and she exchanges glances with Jeff.
As it turns out, Julie’s doubts and suspicions are justified. Just as Jeff is abandoning the children in the hospital, so too does he abandon Julie. Jeff begins dating Margo, bringing her a red rose on a regular basis, red being an obvious symbol for lust, the new sin added to the previous one of avarice. And it turns out that her marriage is based on an exchange of one sin for the other, money in exchange for sex. Jeff only finds out about this later, because Margo has lied to him about her marriage, claiming her husband (Claude Rains) is her father. This lie leads to a confrontation between the two men, resulting in blows, and ultimately to the husband’s death. Jeff believes he accidentally killed him.
Suffering from a concussion, Jeff cannot think straight, and he lets Margo talk him into fleeing with her. From that point on, everyone they come into contact with wants money from them. By the time they get to the border, they are broke. But then Margo reveals that for years she has been squirreling her husband’s money away in a Mexican bank in her maiden name. Of course, this makes us wonder why, instead of trying to commit suicide, she did not leave her husband and make a new life for herself in Mexico, but we’ll let that go. In any event, Jeff further realizes that it was Margo who murdered her husband, smothering him with a pillow. She then tries to smother Jeff, and later shoots him. Then the police shoot her.
Her dying confession exonerates Jeff, who awakes in a hospital. It is clear that he and Julie are going to get back together, white rose and all. While nothing is said one way or the other, we suspect that once he recovers and is no longer a patient in this hospital, he will return to the hospital where he will continue working as a resident much in the way he is returning to Julie. He has presumably learned his lesson about wanting to go into private practice.