Friday, January 18, 2008

D.O.A. (1950)

Starring Edmond O'Brien (Frank Bigelow), Pamela Britton (Paula), Neville Brand (Chester). Directed by Rudolph Maté

Incredulous, exhausted, and reeling from his shockingly nightmarish medical prognosis, Frank Bigelow rests against a corner newsstand (prominently displaying issues of 'LIFE') and gazes up at a sun whose nurturing rays seem to have turned toxic and cruelly disorienting. The viewer half-expects our doomed protagonist to address the heavens with an echo of his opening line, "I'd like to see the man in charge.."- but no higher power is evidenced in 'D.O.A.', in which the apathetic and the duplicitous far outnumber the righteous, and a nondescript everyman can morph into a violent, fearless equalizer.

An accountant from the small, symbolically named Ca. town of 'Banning', Bigelow has been surreptitiously slipped slow-acting luminous poison while nightclubbing in rollicking San Francisco. There to sow wild oats while delaying his future with Paula, the doting secretary/girlfriend he's left at home, Bigelow has been marked for death by an assemblage of shady types whose illegal dealings he has unknowingly - and only tangentially - taken part in. Following two darkly over-the-top hospital scenes in which the worst is twice confirmed, Bigelow - who just hours before had decided on returning home to settle down - makes a desperate, irrational dash down a bustling 'Frisco thoroughfare in an electrifying, vividly metaphorical sequence. Prompting uneasy laughter, it's a genre zenith.

Shuffling off this mortal coil while in the tender arms of his girl (or a physician's care) appears to be entirely out of the question for Frank. If he's going down, by god, he's taking somebody with him - so he assumes the unlikely role of dogged gumshoe, and following a thin lead penetrates a network of scornful dames, urbane foreigners, and one chillingly sadistic henchman (Brand, in a most unsettling turn) - all in the name of solving his own time-released murder. With poison and rage surging through his failing being, Bigelow criss-crosses cities - bursting onto scenes to interrogate suspects, before learning the awful truth and confronting his killer. Seconds after making his byzantine story official at L.A.'s Hall of Justice, a pain-racked Bigelow succumbs. The matter closed, and their involvement needless, the taciturn detectives stamp his file 'dead on arrival'.

Uniquely and perversely entertaining, 'D.O.A.' holds a special place in the dark hearts of noirheads. As deliriously eccentric a genre entry as one is likely to find, it has aged remarkably well, and holds up some six decades later. Existential melodrama for the drive-in set, the film's bracing comedic-chaotic style often belies it's ghastly message, but never at the expense of it's key genre elements;
  1. the 'black cloud' flashback structure;
  2. middle class ennui;
  3. urban paranoia;
  4. hard-boiled detective intrigue; and
  5. a romance doomed.

Influenced by a 1930s German thriller from genre icon Robert Siodmak, 'D.O.A.'s existential bent and underlying dread become apparent as early as the opening credits , when Bigelow is brusquely thumbed down an endless, shadowy hallway towards Homicide Division by a preoccupied cop. Throughout the film we are presented officers who are literally and figuratively distant. They are outside Bigelow's orbit, too disinterested to be relevant. When Bigelow concludes his story for them at film's end, a detective in the background can be spotted napping.

While the Bigelow character writhes in the eye of his personal storm, director Maté; cinematographer Ernest Laszlo; and editor Arthur Nadel (in his 20s during production), see to it that the viewer experiences a smattering of his phantasmagoric torment. Pronounced shifts in tone and jarring environment changes - along with some breathtaking camerawork, and Dimitri Tiomkin's overwrought score - wreak psychosomatic havoc. During the sequence in which Frank and his fellow travelers enjoy themselves at the waterfront nightspot 'The Fisherman', the filmmakers immerse us in the smoky den of iniquity, where with Be-Bop blasting, liquor flowing, and all manner of sin acting as distractions, the most grievous of acts goes virtually unnoticed.

Hats off to O'Brien, who nails every note in the avant-garde symphony he's asked to perform. From the tender moments nuzzling Paula before his fateful trip; the comedic rubbernecking during his exiting hotel stay; and the high-pitched denials shouted at tact-challenged doctors, to the scenes featuring out-of-character manhandling and hissing of hard-boiled dialogue - our accidental hero's out-of-shape, guy-next-door familiarity keeps us in his corner.

An offbeat, exhilarating, and ultimately very moving exercise in experimental noir (wolf-whistles, anyone?) 'D.O.A.' is an unforgettable cinematic experience.

Written by Dave


  1. One of my all-time favorite noirs that I like to watch at least every six months. The be-boppers close-ups in the jazz club are a must-see. Also notable are the location settings of 1950 San Francisco and the interiors shot in L.A.'s famed Bradbury Building (which is also showcased in "I,The Jury", an under-appreciated noir from 1952).
    Apparently, film preservationists have yet to locate a 35 mm. print in good enough condition to give this noir classic the restoration it so richly deserves.

  2. As I recall, this film made film history in that it was the first time a mopix camera was used outside on real streets showing real people and traffic for a scene where Edmond O'Brien is running about. No lights. No rehearsal.

    Jack Davidson

  3. This film has been in the public domain since the expiration of its original 28-year term in 1978, as its copyright owner failed to file for a second term extension in time. As a result, a print can be downloaded freely and legally from the Internet Archive, although it hasn't been restored and has probably seen better days.

  4. I liked the movie, but I didn't like the occasional touches with the silly "wowzah wowzah" music when the doomed hero ogled a pretty woman. I think that detracted from the overall "noir" feel of the film.

    1. I agree. I have to skip over those scenes, even though I love noir.

  5. I wonder what separates this Mate film from Green Glove, as far as the genre film noir goes? I don't see Green Glove on your list, though IMDB classifies it as film noir. I am not arguing that it is a great film, just wondering why you say it is not film noir?

    1. I'm reading Imogen Sara Smith's noir book right now and it has a good way of identifying noir. Forget is it noir or not, and just judge how much noir qualities are in it. There no true, 100-percent noir, imo -- just look at the treads at BAN... even the sure-as-hell-noir could be argued against. I see where you're going with The Green Glove. It's a suspense film tinged with sci-fi-- just like DOA. It has many of the elements of noir, so it could be considered one...


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