Friday, May 1, 2015

D.O.A. (1950)

Cardinal Pictures, 83m 29s

Some film noir characters are largely at fault for their own misfortune. That is not the case in D.O.A. What an unnerving situation! A man who has done nothing wrong learns he has only days or perhaps hours to live. "Why me?" would be the obvious question for any person to ask under such grim conditions. The noir city responds, "Why not you?"

"I was."

The existential plot of D.O.A. has its basis in the German comedy Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht (1931, AKA LOOKING FOR HIS MURDERER) directed by Robert Siodmak, but the film under review strikes a more serious tone. Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien) is self-employed as an accountant in Banning, California, about 30 miles west of Palm Springs. His secretary/significant-other Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton) has matrimony on her mind, but Frank lets her know he is about to leave for San Francisco for a week. Paula is pissed, and not without good reason. It is party time in San Fran from the moment of Frank's arrival. The St. Francis Hotel is crawling with head-turning women—Frank’s sexual interest is registered via an intrusive slide whistle audio clip. Despite the oft-criticized whistle gimmick, even today D.O.A. remains an efficient thriller, complete with the patented flashback structure for which the noir film is noted.

Other noir tropes find compulsory treatment throughout a sequence at a waterfront night club called The Fisherman. This urban scene is so alien to Frank he does not always understand the hip discourse. Black musicians play jazz music energetically before a white audience that looks free of inhibitions. The intensity of the music is rivaled only by the sexually-charged cellar jazz scene in PHANTOM LADY (1944). Most of the patrons at The Fisherman seem completely entranced by the up-tempo music; one patron in particular appears to be in a spaced-out state of mind. Temptresses surround Frank at the packed club, specifically Sue (Cay Forester), the wife of a salesman he met at the hotel, and a hot-looking blonde (Virginia Lee) who shows up at the club alone nightly. Both women appear more than willing to spend some one-on-one time with Frank later that evening. The chaotic sequence at The Fisherman contrasts with the earlier scene at an uneventful bar in Banning where Frank and Paula grab food and drinks after work. At this establishment, the only other customer is a uniformed police officer, who might have been a more helpful presence at The Fisherman, where a killer serves iridium poison for which no antidote exists.

Luminous toxin

D.O.A. provides an unmitigated indictment of the American urban landscape, where dark clouds may approach from any direction. Urban complexity is underscored by a sequence in an abandoned refinery that closely resembles the labyrinthine industrial settings found in other noirs such as THIS GUN FOR HIRE (1942), APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER (1951) and CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS (1953). But in the hopeless case of 33-year-old Frank Bigelow, urban decadence and omnipresent femme fatales are mere distractions to the matter at hand. The film's chilling message about the benign indifference of death is best expressed by Frank, who recognizes the absurdity of a simple routine that marked him for death:

"...all I did was notarize one little paper, one little paper out of hundreds."

Plentiful location footage captured in San Francisco and Los Angeles by Ernest Laszlo serves to authenticate the story conceived by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene, the writing team who would bring us the innovative "silent noir" THE THIEF (1952) and the exposé noir NEW YORK CONFIDENTIAL (1955). Their D.O.A. screenplay is intricate and well written, if not the easiest to follow, especially after a second opinion convinces Frank he is indeed a goner. At this juncture, he instinctually undergoes a dramatic personality change and morphs into a no-nonsense, hard-boiled PI on the trail of the person who fed him the luminous poison. Majak (Luther Adler) understands Frank is playing for keeps, "He's not afraid...You can tell from a man's eyes when he is afraid. Look at his eyes." In one of the film's many ironies, our protagonist is flanked by LIFE magazine on one side of a newsstand, and a message that reads "Brighten your morning..." on the other. In another irony, a pharmacist intervenes on Frank's behalf during a shootout. And when time is up for Frank, instead of being surrounded by friends and family, his only company is the indifferent homicide division at a police station!


Director Rudolph Maté maintains a torrid pace to Frank's investigation, an absolute necessity given the protagonist's abbreviated life expectancy. The experienced cinematographer turned director Maté also helmed THE DARK PAST (1948) and UNION STATION (1950), both very good film noirs. Editor Arthur H. Nadel deserves mention, especially for his superb handling of the jazz sequence. He also edited other effective film noirs of D.O.A.'s era, including IMPACT (1949), CHICAGO CALLING (1951) and WITHOUT WARNING! (1952).

Come on, talk

Edmond O'Brien, excellent here as Frank, left us a vast assortment of quality work in the film noir field, including THE KILLERS (1946), THE WEB (1947), A DOUBLE LIFE (1947), WHITE HEAT (1949), BACKFIRE (1950), 711 OCEAN DRIVE (1950) and THE HITCH-HIKER (1953). The other D.O.A. players combine to enrich the noir atmosphere of corruption and uncertainty. Majak embodies foreign evil that sometimes invades film noir, i.e. THE BIG SLEEP (1946), PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953). Chester (the debut of Neville Brand) is an example of the noir psycho inspired by Richard Widmark's Tommy Udo character from KISS OF DEATH (1947). Majak says of Chester, "He's an unfortunate boy. He's psychopathic. He's unhappy unless he gives pain. He likes to see blood." D.O.A. also features Beverly Garland, here credited as Beverly Campbell, in her debut. Garland later appeared in director Jack Arnold's THE GLASS WEB (1953), a noir film that was sometimes shown in 3D at the time of its original theatrical run.

The noir psycho Chester (Neville Brand)

O'Brien recreated his role for a 60-minute radio adaptation of the film, broadcast June 21st, 1951. D.O.A. was remade twice for the screen, first as COLOR ME DEAD (1969) and once again as D.O.A. (1988). In 2011, D.O.A. A NOIR MUSICAL played to sold-out audiences for five weeks. The production received an ATAC Globe Award in 2012 for "Best Adapted Script."

A public domain title, D.O.A. would be a terrific film noir to target for restoration. In the meantime, most of the viewing options look about the same, including the HD presentation that sometimes airs on Turner Classic Movies.