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What's the big deal?
D.O.A. is a film noir crime drama produced in 1949 and was directed by Rudolph Maté. Written by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene, the film follows the frantic efforts of a man fatally poisoned to identify the person responsible as well as the reasons why. The film stars Edmond O'Brien, Pamela Britton, Luther Adler, Beverly Garland (credited as Beverly Campbell), Lynn Baggett, Neville Brand, William Ching and Henry Hart. The film was the cinematic debut of both Campbell and Laurette Luez. Due to a filing error that failed to renew the film's copyright in time, the film fell into the public domain in 1977 and is readily available to watch online. Box office figures for D.O.A. are unavailable but critics at the time praised the film for its direction and lighting while the film's stature has grown considerably in the years since its release. It was selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry in 2004.
What's it about?
In post-War San Francisco, small-time accountant Frank Bigelow stumbles into a police station to report a murder - his own. Although the officers appear to understand, Frank slumps into a chair and begins to recount his story which starts in his hometown of Banning. Bigelow decides to take a short vacation in San Francisco, much to the chagrin of his secretary and girlfriend Paula Gibson who is not invited. After checking into his hotel, Bigelow is invited out for a night on the town by some conference attendees staying at the hotel and reluctantly, he agrees to accompany them to the Fisherman - a jive nightclub near the docks. Although Bigelow never notices, a stranger swaps Bigelow's drink with another.
The next day, Bigelow is feeling unwell so he visits the doctor. Sadly, the results of the test aren't good - he appears to have swallowed a "luminous toxin" which will kill him in a day or two, possibly a week at best. With no known antidote available, Bigelow is told by a second doctor that he has been murdered as Bigelow has no recollection of consuming the poison. With just hours to live, Bigelow frantically begins to search for clues as to why this has happened and a call from Paula might just have the first clue he needs to solve this mystery - before it's too late...
Opening scene & credits
Russell Rouse & Clarence Greene
Release Date (UK)
5th May, 1950
PG (2003 re-rating)
Drama, Film Noir, Mystery
What's to like?
Noir films from this period always carry an air of authenticity about them, especially black-and-white movies like this. Director Maté and his cinematographer Ernest Laszlo work hard to make this film feel dark and brooding which is suitable for a film this bleak. D.O.A. is a film that doesn't spare the viewer from the tragedy at the heart of the film, a scared and desperate man caught up in a conspiracy he knows nothing about. As always in films like this, the plot meanders this way and that and takes some unravelling. I felt it relied a bit too much on convenience but there you go.
O'Brien was as unfamiliar to me as the rest of the cast (damn my ignorance) but acquits himself well as the doomed desperado on the hunt for his own killers. The role demands a lot - action man, romantic lead, frightened everyman - but O'Brien handles everything the script throws at him. Of course, no film noir is complete without a femme fatale and this movie has no shortage - from the classic allure displayed by Lee as the enigmatic Jeannie to the exotic beauty of Luez as the photogenic model Marla. In many ways, Britton's love-struck secretary breaks with noir tradition by being wholesome and good natured - she is, in fact, one of the few rays of sunshine in this film.
- The Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, which contains the offices of the Phillips Export-Import Company, will be familiar to film fans as it has been used in numerous movies over the years - Blade Runner, Double Indemnity, Chinatown, The Artist and Lethal Weapon 4 to name but a few.
- The sequence when Bigelow runs through the streets of San Francisco was shot without a permit. The pedestrians O'Brien runs into had no idea they were being filmed for a movie and no idea why O'Brien was even there.
- The copyright holder of the film failed to renew it in time which meant that the film can be copied and resold by virtually anyone, possibly one reason why box office figures are unknown. However, this resulted in many copies of the film being badly edited or of poor quality after being duplicated from second- or even third-hand copies of the movie. This would explain why the version I saw featured a comedic slide-whistle every time Bigelow looked at a woman!
What's not to like?
While it's easy to applaud the film for its killer premise (if you'll forgive the pun), it does lead to some troublesome plot issues. Why use a method of murder so reliant on convenience or a poison that acted so slowly, not that I can find any real life mention of "luminous toxin" anywhere - which renders Dr Edward F. Dunne's assertion as to the scientific facts of the film at the end pointless. The plot feels more like a contrivance than anything. Of course, it makes the film exciting with the imposed deadline but I could never fully get on board with the premise. The film feels very much a product of its time, especially during the sequence as the Fisherman. I've never heard of a 'jive club' before and while the band sound great, it's very noticeable that they were all African-American and playing for pseudo-intellectual white kids thinking they were cool. Hmmmm.
Having praised her character as the only positive thing in the film, Britton's performance is not great. Her dewey-eyed love interest borders on obsessive, complaining when he doesn't take her away on holiday but willing to forgive him just because she loves him so much, even encouraging him to behave badly while he was away. The role feels very old-fashioned in this 21st century, post-MeToo society, a role that is overly submissive and in stark contrast to everyone else on screen. Only in the end, when Bigelow realises that the end is nigh, does Pamela come into her own. In a sense, Britton is the polar opponent of Brand who is the bug-eyed psychopath itching to engage in bloody violence for almost any reason. The film is somewhat unstable at times in tone, veering from melodrama to violent thriller. Even Bigelow, who starts the film as an overworked rural accountant, becomes a desperate and violent man exchanging bullets with unseen assassins. It makes the film feel disconnected, as though written by a group working individually and then stitched together in editing.
Should I watch it?
D.O.A. is a real curiousity, an exciting and engaging picture that uses every inch of its unique premise but ultimately fails to match the standards of classic film noir. The film is well shot and offers plenty of noir cliche to qualify it as a classic but it suffers from an uneven tone, questionable plot points and some less-than-stellar performances. The good news is that, with the film being in the public domain, it won't cost you a thing to track it down and judge for yourselves.
Great For: film noir fans, residents of San Francisco, small-time accountants prone to day-dreaming
Not So Great For: the copyright holders, anyone unfamiliar with the cast, scientists
What else should I watch?
Although earlier films had developed the style of film-making most associated with film noir (use of shadow based on German Expressionism, cynical attitudes and censor-baiting material at the time), the first acknowledged noir was the 1940 crime drama Stranger On The Third Floor which didn't make RKO Pictures much money but helped to establish the noir tropes that would pop up again and again in films like The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon. While the popularity of noir films declined in Hollywood, its influence was felt far from the hills of California from Carol Reed's The Third Man, Akiro Kurosawa's Stray Dog or Jules Dassin's Rififi.
These days, noir has a variety of meanings which is often attributed to films very different to the hard-boiled private eyes viewers were used to in the Forties and Fifties. From the sci-fi updating of the style seen in films like Blade Runner and Dark City to the comic reflections seen in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to the graphic novel adaptations like Sin City and Road To Perdition, noir continues to influence film-makers and bewitch audiences even today.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox