Film

'Dangerously They Live' Is a Weak Script Drenched in Atmosphere

The plot holes in Marion Parsonnet's script suggest that this film, too, is living dangerously.


Dangerously They Live

Director: Robert Florey
Cast: John Garfield, Nancy Coleman, Raymond Massey
Distributor: Warner Archive
Year: 1941
USDVD release date: 2014-06-10

Jane (Nancy Coleman) is a beautiful spy for the British war effort. In New York, she's kidnapped by German agents and lands in the hospital after a car accident gives her temporary amnesia—or does it? Her doctor, Michael Lewis (John Garfield), alternates patronising her and hitting on her when she tries to explain the situation, but soon they're both prisoners in a mansion with a man (Moroni Olsen) who claims to be her father. Running the scheme is the distinguished psychiatrist Dr. Ingersoll (Raymond Massey), proving Hollywood's then-popular thesis that you can't trust head doctors.

Perhaps Marion Parsonnet should have consulted one, for his script is full of holes and makes no sense. When Joan is in the hospital, she takes no advantage of the phone by her bed, except to prove her story by asking Lewis to contact her bureau, but then she doesn't make any effort to speak to them or give any useful information, like the fact that she's unable to complete her assignment in Halifax. Instead, she decides to go along with her own kidnapping because this will be such a break for her. Maybe she really is crazy; or, perhaps the British are terrible at choosing and training agents.

Let us do as the filmmakers did here and leave logic aside. The function of the story is be paranoid, as underlined by potboiling music and shadowy compositions. The look of the film is where it's best. Director Robert Florey and photographer L. William O'Connell throw in lots of expressionist closeups, both profile and full face, all tilted and crossed with shadows. Florey had been mining German expressionism at least since Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), and it's appropriately ironic that this German style should be applied to thrillers about Nazis.

It's not unusual for Hollywood to paper over shaky scripts with atmosphere, and the story's problems presumably aren't the director's fault. Florey pulls off effective moments, most notably at the climax in a delicatessen, and I'm tempted to argue that the illogical story underlines the nightmare. Pauline Kael once reported an argument over whether Florey's The Beast with Five Fingers was improved by making no sense; she didn't think so, but I've seen many worthwhile bits of nonsense.

This B-project seems a come-down for Garfield, who was trying to reboot his meandering career after early promise; it's especially disappointing that his character is required to be a dunce who finally gets wise but never gets smart. However, this is one of a handful of American films to warn of the Nazi threat before America declared war; with unwittingly great timing—it premiered less than three weeks after Pearl Harbor. Garfield strongly believed in this message.

The French-born Florey is an intriguing, frustrating case whose long, prolific career in Europe and Hollywood is almost entirely out of reach. His talkies are mostly obscure B-pictures, largely unavailable except when some turn up on Turner Classic Movies. Unkindly, but perhaps with justice, David Thomson calls him "an idiosyncrat seen fleetingly at the ends of film-world corridors" and says "his films are fragments, skillfully arranged to imply disappointed greatness...Disarray is the style that expresses him best." Ephraim Katz says: "A versatile man of unfulfilled potential, Florey was intimately involved with the development of American cinema without actually influencing its course." The Library of Congress drafted one of his films, Daughter of Shanghai (1937), into the National Film Registry because of its unusual status as a vehicle for Anna May Wong.

In 1950, France recognized Florey's career with the Legion of Honor. That was the year he directed his last film and switched to an equally prolific career in TV. As it is with his filmography, much of his television work is mostly out of reach, though highlights include The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller and The Outer Limits. These classics, along with Florey's films in the fantastic genre and such shadow-laden exercises in hysteria as Dangerously They Live, insure that cultists will try to track down more of his work's yet-unmapped outposts.

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