Jacques Tourneur’s Circle of Danger (1951) is structured around the investigation of a mystery with its roots in the Second World War. In the film, an American, Clay Douglas (Ray Milland), is obsessed with discovering the truth behind the death of his kid brother, Hank, who fell at war during a commando raid. Douglas believes he may have been killed by one of his fellow commanders and sets off to Great Britain to speak with the men who were present during the raid and are still alive. The journey takes him to Wales, Scotland, and England, and the information he receives during his private investigation seems to confirm this suspicion. The shadiest characters appear to be an eccentric dance choreographer, Sholto Lewis (Marius Goring), and a Scottish landowner, Hamish McArran (Hugh Sinclair). The latter led the command at the time of the raid.
Complicating the narrative is McArran’s girlfriend, Elspeth Graham (Patricia Roc), a professional bookworm and writer of sorts, whom Douglas falls in love with. Though apparently marginal, this aspect of the movie encourages a reading of Circle of Danger that goes beyond the traditional bound of the mystery thriller, or the film noir. Much like the vast majority of other works by Tourneur, the empowered female is looked upon with suspicion. Graham’s independent nature means that she doesn’t appreciate Douglas’ neglect. Douglas, in fact, often misses his dates with his love interest in favour of his single-minded mission. Here, as in other Tourneur films, we find the moment in which the leading male pours his heart out to the woman, and tells her why he does what he does. The monologue is followed by the woman submitting willfully to the role of the mother and the lover, therefore submitting to what society expects of her sex.
On the other hand, Tourneur’s noirs often have a sense of detachment that is often overlooked, yet quite compelling, particularly from a 21st-century standpoint. While the heroes of his films are “real men,” and disturbances in gender roles treated as suspicious and dangerous to the patriarchal order, Circle of Danger exposes fatuous aspects of masculinity that seem ageless and unsurpassed. The exposition may only happen through a detachment and the denial of traditional pleasures and gratification of genre movies (in this case, the investigative genre).
The intensity of Douglas’ mission is often compromised by moments of humour and levity provided by his love affair with Graham. Indeed, when he misses his appointments with her in near-comical ways, it is only because of forgetfulness or, often, due to odd situations and mishaps that appear to be beyond his control. The doubt remains; perhaps his interest in finding the truth is not as important as the search for the truth itself. Moreover, he does not entirely shut-off the idea of finding some other object of desire to distort his attention along the way; such object is represented by Graham. Indeed, the moment in which he appears to be most focused, which happens towards the end of the movie, appears to arise only after he understands that he may have lost Graham forever. This only fuels his desire for a hefty confrontation with her boyfriend, McArran, who in the meantime has coincidentally become his number one suspect.
However, this is where things get really interesting. Tourneur, in a fashion more European than American, frustrates the viewer with a moment of truth. First, the final confrontation goes from being a duel to including a third man. Then, something happens that disturbs a viewer’s expectation: the three begin to speak a language they only appear to understand, a language that may only be understood by “real men,” the kind that lives for a type of honourable actions that elevate the act of sacrifice above temporary and earthly pleasures as well as the lives of loved ones.
Surely, this concept of a universal language of masculinity is what Circle of Danger is all about; it may even be the circle of danger that its title refers to; the identification of the source of all evil of this world. This may be why the geographical aspects of the film and the cultural clash represented by the American struggling to fit into the British way (whether in Welsh coal mines, the Scottish Highlands, Covent Garden market, and so on), gradually appear to be unimportant as Douglas gets nearer and nearer to the truth. Perhaps this universal idea of men is why the American is interpreted by Ray Milland, who was born in Wales. More so, this is perhaps why the leading hero of Circle of Danger, a British production, is American, and the suspects are British. Furthermore, the disruption of women in this universal masculine bond beyond geography is illustrated best by Graham, who admits right away that she is is drawn to Douglas partly because he is an American.
As mentioned, this reading is that of a film that upsets expectations of a film noir about a private investigation. This may be why Circle of Danger was mostly poorly received by critics and audiences of the time, and why the film remains shamefully overlooked. However, in retrospect, Tourneur’s is a film that exposes a truth that goes beyond classic cinema conventions. It is a good introduction to a type of film that stands the test of time in spite of the outdated ideologies it seems to promote. – ★★★★
CIRCLE OF DANGER | 1951, United Kingdom | Thriller | Directed by – Jacques Tourneur / Produced by – Joan Harrison, David E. Rose, John R. Sloan / Written by – Philip MacDonald (based on his novel Circle of Danger) / Music by – Robert Farnon / Cinematography – Oswald Morris, Gilbert Taylor / Edited by – Alan Osbiston / Starring – Ray Milland, Patricia Roc, Marius Goring, Hugh Sinclair | Running time: 86 mins.