[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n an exceptional opening credit sequence, a man walks across a dark street to the police department. Once inside he strides purposely down hallways until he reaches the Homicide Division. He states, “I want to report a murder.” The head homicide detective asks, “Who was murdered?” The man answers, “I was.” In flashback we learn that the man is Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’ Brien), owner of a small accounting firm in theCalifornia desert town of Banning. Frank plans a getaway weekend in San Francisco. His assistant and girlfriend Paula (Pamela Britton) doesn’t understand and she presses him to make a stronger romantic commitment to her. But Frank refuses to be pinned down. He insists he needs this weekend alone. After checking into his room in San Francisco, Frank’s eye is drawn to local women partying at a traveling salesman convention. When conventioneers in neighboring rooms invite Frank to accompany them to a local nightclub, Frank goes along because he finds the women in the group alluring. The nightclub features a raucous jazz band and an overly kinetic audience that crowds Frank and elbows him at the table. Escaping to the bar, Frank spots Jeannie, who he learns is a regular at the venue. When Frank introduces himself to Jeannie, a mysterious figure switches his drink.
The next morning Frank feels sicker than he should from a regular hangover. He finds a local doctor who discovers that Frank has ingested a rare toxin for which there is no antidote. When he tells Frank that he has only days to live Frank refuses to believe him and seeks a second opinion. When the diagnosis is reaffirmed Frank sets out to find who poisoned him. His search leads him to Los Angeles to find a man who had urgently tried to contact him at his Banning office. In Los Angeles he discovers that the man committed suicide the day before. Frank’s search leads him to many shady characters including a gangster and his entourage.
Loosely based on a German film of the 1930s directed by Robert Siodmak (later one of the most prolific film noir directors in America), D.O.A. with its postwar time setting and change of location to the U.S., stakes its claim as a quintessential movie in the genre. Its main character resists the pressure of becoming a married family man in a home with a white picket fence. He seems unsettled but doesn’t know what the solution is. His impulsive trip to San Francisco and his leering reaction to attractive women indicates that he yearns for sexual gratification without commitment. Before he can even begin the quest, fate deals him a deadly hand. As a small-town accountant Frank seems to be the least likely person to be murdered by a mysterious poisoner. By the simple act of notarizing a document he unwittingly becomes the only witness to the motive for the murder of a client who he barely remembers. D.O.A. remains one of the darker noir films, along with Criss Cross (1949) directed by Robert Siodmak.
Director Rudolph Maté had been a top cinematographer before becoming a director. He made a perfect choice in Ernest Laszlo as cinematographer of D.O.A. In early parts of the movie everything looks sunny and inviting but the lighting becomes more moody beginning with the nightclub scene. The nightclub scene is edited to the insistent beat of jazz music to highlight that Frank out of his element, feeling claustrophobic and not understanding the modern world he finds himself in. The audience in the scene also includes “beat generation” hipsters (perhaps the earliest feature film appearance of the counterculture group).
O’Brien’s performance is a standout. He perfectly conveys the dissatisfied Frank who is thrust into a race against time to find his killer. Neville Brand makes a strong impression in his performance as a gangster’s sadistic bodyguard/hitman almost a decade before he famously portrayed Al Capone in the television series The Untouchables (1959-1963). Character actress Beverly Garland makes an impressive film debut as a loyal secretary who knows more than she lets on.
Modern audiences may have a problem with the portrayal of Frank’s girlfriend Paula who seems more of a nag than a worthy love interest. In keeping with the time period of 1950 perhaps Paula’s constant badgering is understandable with societal pressure to get married and to have Frank make “an honest woman” of her. We have to take it on faith that Frank’s romantic feelings for her are real once he knows he has little time left and he makes belated declarations of love for Paula. Another issue is the use of a slide whistle to draw attention to Frank’s leering gaze at women. The whistle is laughable. Composer Dmitri Tiomkin has been blamed for the whistle. It could also be the work of a sound effects editor. Either way the device to me has the fingerprints of a meddling producer afraid the audience wouldn’t “get” the subtext. O’Brien’s performance is spot on, and the superfluous punctuation an insult to the audience.
Director Maté and cinematographer Laszlo deserve special mention for their use of practical locations in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. Lighting in the interior of the Los Angeles Bradbury Building (location of the import/export company) is particularly noteworthy as the structure’s unique architecture was later featured to great effect in films like I, The Jury (1953), Blade Runner (1982) and The Artist (2011), among others.
Two official remakes of D.O.A., Color Me Dead (1969) and D.O.A. (1988), proved that the quality of Maté’s version could not be duplicated. The original version of D.O.A. has been available for years in bad quality public domain versions. The 1999 DVD release by The Roan Group Archival Entertainment label used original 35mm negative and protection elements. It is a major improvement over previous home video versions. A newer release from Image Entertainment uses better elements in the last third of the film and it is currently the best available DVD version (even without extras).
Trivia: The name above Frank’s in a hotel register is that of writer Russell Rouse
The bellhop is played by actor/director Jerry Paris (uncredited)
Extras (Roan Group DVD): Introduction by actress Beverly Garland (7 minutes).
Cast & Credits page
2-page Film Background
Extras: (Image Entertainment DVD): None
DIR: Rudolph Maté. PROD: Leo C. Popkin. SCR: Russell Rouse & Clarence Greene. CIN: Ernest Laszlo. ED: Arthur H. Nadel. SCORE: Dmitri Tiomkin. CAST: Edmond O’Brien, Pamela Britton, Luther Adler, Beverly Garland (billed as Beverly Campbell), Lynn Baggett, William Ching, Henry Hart, Neville Brand, Laurette Luez. B&W. Aspect ratio: 1.33:1. Running time: 84 min. DVD release: The Roan Group/The Troma Shop (www.tromashop.com) and Image Entertainment (www.image-entertainment.com).