Rudolph Maté, 1950
Starring: Edmund O’Brien, Pamela Britton, Luther Adler
Frank Bigelow stumbles into a police station to report a murder – his own. He recounts the events of the past week and explains that he left his job as a notary in a small Californian town to vacation in San Francisco. His girlfriend, Paula, is upset to be left behind and they have a row. He meets up with a group of salesmen at a convention and they go out drinking at a jazz club. Frank wakes up feeling sick and is concerned that someone may have slipped something in his drink. Though the doctor first assures him he is in perfect health, it is soon discovered that Frank has mere days to live; he has been dosed with a “luminous toxin” and there is no antidote. But Frank is determined to go out fighting and traces his steps over the last few days in the hope that he will also uncover his murderer.
D.O.A. was one of director Rudolph Maté’s first films, though he had previously worked as a cinematographer on films like Gilda and Foreign Correspondent. It’s a relatively famous noir effort thanks to the wonderful premise: a man reports his own murder and then solves the crime before his impending death. It’s a shame that the script couldn’t really keep up and the ensuing drama is fairly run of the mill. There are red herrings, a murder disguised as a suicide, a charming villain with a foreign accent, some tough guy thugs, a femme fatale, and a disillusioned protagonist who must act as an amateur detective.
Edmund O’Brien’s Frank Bigelow is actually one of the more disappointing aspects of the film. He’s a run-of-the-mill noir protagonist, an Everyman with a dull, bureaucratic job and though O’Brien is competent, he doesn’t have a charming spark, like Bogart, or sense of melancholia and impending doom, like Burt Lancaster. He lacks any charisma whatsoever with Pamela Britton, who costars as Paula. She spends the entire time nagging him and is loosely connected to the plot by providing occasional clues over the phone when she isn’t too busy whining. Their doomed romance is far from believable and occasionally brings the plot to a grinding halt.
An interesting aspect is the suicide, which is actually a murder and suggests that this is a path open to Frank. He does not choose to take it and reveals a more complicated plot centering on stolen iridium. The science behind the poisoning is very fly-by-night, but the paranoia of nuclear war and radiation poisoning are a common theme in ‘50s cinema – more so science film than film noir – and would appear again in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly. The sense of dread and paranoia is also palpable from the moment that Frank believes someone has switched his drink. There is a sense of contamination that he just can’t shake off and the concept that he has a week to live – at best – adds a sense of urgency. It is perhaps a little cheesy that he magically waits to drop until just after the case is solved. On the other hand, it’s refreshing that he does actually die and there isn’t a last-minute cure discovered.
Overall, D.O.A. only comes recommended to other film noir fans. It’s available on DVD, though it is also in the public domain. There’s some wonderful cinematography from Ernest Laszlo with lovely shots of 1950s’ San Francisco. It adds a sense of urban menace to the existing feelings of paranoia. There is also an excellent scene at a jazz club, which gives the sense that Frank wants to abandon his boring job and needy girlfriend for a life of vice soaked with music, liquor, and sex. His impending death disappointingly sobers him up.