Although it was only a B-movie, with second line performers and a low budget, D.O.A. (1950) still stacks up today as one of the truly classic films noir. The reason for its lasting appeal can be attributed to the way D.O.A. plumbs the extreme depths of the film noir aesthetic. To a certain extent we could say that it exposes the dark horror of this netherworld like almost no other film. D.O.A. was directed by Rudolph Maté, who had established himself over the years as a distinguished cinematographer and had worked behind the camera on three of Carl Dreyer’s classic, highly atmospheric films: Michael (1924), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and Vampyr (1932). The star of the film, Edmund O’Brien, was no stranger to the film noir genre, having appeared earlier in The Killers (1946) and White Heat (1949). For all their successes on other film sets, though, D.O.A. was definitely the high-water mark for the careers of both men.
Concerning the nature of film noir, it must be admitted that it has always been difficult to establish a consensus concerning what are the precise boundaries of the film noir genre and what constitutes its essence. But we are all familiar with the general cinematic style and the usual themes of these movies. They often involve characters with dubious pasts and doomed expectations, struggling to make their way in an underworld commonly inhabited by unprincipled, often criminal, characters. The settings are usually at night, the moral choices are murky, and the prospects are not at all hopeful. In short, these films reflect a world beset with despair – the characters are only hopeful of finding a small clearing in the dark, foreboding and unknowably savage jungle of the world. This is an existential despair, characteristic of the vast soulless metropolises of modern times – and the movies of the film noir genre have always struck a nerve of dark anxiety concerning this dark world that has been almost universal. D.O.A. delves into this existential nightmare by effectively employing two narrative schemes that metaphorically display these issues and evoke a feeling when we watch not only of fascination, but also dread.
One of the existential themes invoked in D.O.A. is the depiction of the ordinary middle-class man, living an orderly and well-regulated life, who is suddenly pulled into a maelstrom of confusion and personal threat that he must face and survive without assistance. This is the narrative scheme that was so brilliantly explored by Alfred Hitchcock in films like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and North by Northwest (1959).
A second theme concerns how our existential despair is often associated with the question of how we are to make sense of our existence in a world in which we are all condemned to death. What meaningful acts can we undertake, if we are all invariably destined to physical destruction or deterioration? What is the point of any ephemeral enjoyment, if it will all end in nothingness? This is the kind of question that Kafka metaphorically asked and one that we all consider from time to time, knowing that we have at most 70 to 80 years of existence. In D.O.A. the time-scale is drastically foreshortened: the principal character is informed early on by doctors that he has only one or two days left to live. Initially when he is confronted with this reality, the character feels utter despair. But he soon learns that he has been effectively murdered, and with that realization, a most primitive and human emotion surges up in him – like Joseph K, he at least wants to know why. “Why me?,” he asks. And D.O.A. very effectively puts the rest of us in his shoes.
The film opens, even as the opening credits are rolling, with an extended tracking shot following a man from the rear who resolutely enters the San Francisco police station and reports to the homicide division that a murder was committed the previous night. When they ask, “who was murdered?”, the man answers, “I was.” He has arrived at the police station D.O.A., “dead on arrival”. Then the man begins to tell his story, and the rest of the film recounts the man’s story as a flashback.
As the flashback story is told, the storytelling takes three drastic swerves which separate the narrative into three separate schematic moods. Though these wild changes of direction seem rather awkward, they do serve to add to the film’s sense of bizarre disorientation. As the flashback story begins, we learn that it is all about an ordinary, middle-class accountant and notary public working in a small town in southeastern California, Frank Bigelow (O’Brien), who has decided to take one-week solo vacation in San Francisco in order to inject a little excitement in his apparently humdrum existence. This part of the film takes off like a romantic comedy, with Bigelow clearly showing a wayward interest in every young woman he meets, much to the consternation of his possessive and jealous private secretary and girlfriend, Paula (Pamela Britton). So the viewer is already faced with the first mood swerve and a severe conflict: the light, humorous tone associated with the brazenly flirtatious and smirking Bigelow is darkened by the viewer’s knowledge that this man will soon be reporting his own “murder”.
We will also learn that underlying the giddy tone of this early section is a deeper existential undertone. Bigelow goes to San Francisco, because he wants to see if he can find something more exciting in life than settling down in a middle-class cocoon tended by the smotheringly affectionate Paula. His life is just a bit too ordinary for him.
When he checks into his San Francisco hotel, Bigelow learns that the ever-watchful Paula has already called him there to check up on him and that the hotel is overrun with partying sales personnel attending a marketing convention. Eager to socialize with the women, he gets dragged by a group of partying sales people to a nightclub that is offering the latest jazz music. Suddenly the movie takes another drastic swerve, this time into strange expressionistic images of frenetically carousing customers drinking and jostling each other as they listen to the wild music played by the black jazz musicians. This entire sequence, one of the high points of the movie, is brilliantly evocative – like a sudden descent into a nightmare. We just know from the change of mood that something bad is going to happen here. In fact, we see that Bigelow’s drink is spiked by a mysterious stranger at the bar while Bigelow’s attention is attracted to a pretty woman. The woman agrees to meet him somewhere private, later, and knowing something about his later fate, we expect that this may be the dangerous encounter, but this appointed tryst turns out to be a red herring.
But now the film mise-en-scène takes its third and decisive swerve, as Bigelow wakes up the next morning in his hotel room. The dark intrigue has disappeared, and everything seems normal. Bigelow seems OK at first, but he complains about a queezy stomach and decides to visit a doctor. Medical tests are performed, and the doctors grimly inform Bigelow that he has been poisoned with “luminous toxin”, a slow-acting poison that will definitely kill within a couple of days. Now the riddle of the opening scene has been cleared up somewhat: someone has murdered Bigelow with this poison. The despairing Bigelow staggers back to his hotel room, whereupon his ever-attentive secretary Paula calls and informs him that a certain Eugene Phillips, who had been urgently trying to get hold of him the previous day, has just died. Bigelow seizes on this as possible clue to the mystery of his own condition. At this point in the narrative, 37 minutes into an 83-minutes film, the story moves into whodunit mode, as Bigelow heads for Los Angeles (the site of Phillips’s office) and sets about trying to find out in the last remaining hours of his life who has murdered him.
The rest of the story is full of action and sinister characters, as you might expect from this genre, and I won’t go into the details. There are a number of unsavory characters, mistaken identities, gangsters, double-crosses, murders, and gun fights. Bigelow, aware that he has only one day, desperately follows one lead after another into a web of intrigue. Yes, Phillips was killed by the bad guys. He had a mistress, who was involved somehow. His wife had her own lover, who was involved with the murder plot. Bigelow’s connection to all this concerned a bill of sale for some smuggled iridium that he had once notarized, which made him a witness to criminal activities and therefore a murder target.
This second half of the film, which is more of a conventional thriller, still has some uniquely existential features. While a typical film noir might be motivated primarily by revenge or “justice”, Bigelow seems to be motivated by something else – why did all this happen?. Why would anyone want to murder such an essentially innocent man as himself? In addition, this part is continuously interleaved with loving phone calls from Paula to Frank, who never informs her about his impending death. But the contrast between the horrors of the inhuman, fatal world that is about to devour him and the loving and sentimental affection of Paula is dramatic. She represents the refuge that Frank wanted to abandon. He ultimately realizes that the human connection, her finally-realized unconditional love for him, is the one, true value in this world that makes life meaningful.
Cinematically, there are three sequences in the film that are superbly executed by Maté and his cinematographer, Ernest Laszlo. One I have already mentioned – the wild, almost demonic atmosphere at the nightclub early on. This features many expressionistic closeups (closeups are used effectively throughout this film). Another outstanding sequence is the breathtaking section of the film when Bigelow is about to be bumped off by one of the gangster’s thugs, Chester. A third high-tension sequence is when Bigelow is again trying to escape the gangster’s henchmen (after the Chester sequence), and he jumps onto a bus, only to observe that the gangsters are in hot pursuit in a following car. The irony here is that in these sequences, Bigelow is desperately trying to avoid being killed just so that he can live a few more hours and possibly understand why he was murdered and by whom. In the “grand scheme of things”, those extra hours are presumably meaningless.
One seriously detracting element in D.O.A., however, is Dmitri Tiomkin’s loud and intrusively trashy musical score. Even giving allowance for the film conventions of this period, the musical score is unforgivable and an irritation all the way through the film.
On the other hand, the acting throughout is dynamic, vigorous, and violent – including that of O’Brien, who is very good in an uncharacteristic role. The relatively brief role of Chester, played by Neville Brand, is a memorable highlight, because we see on display one of the all-time great out-of-control and sadistic psychopaths in cinematic history. Beverly Garland, who would later star in 1950s TV roles, is excellent as a devious secretary to the late Eugene Phillips. And Pamela Britton is just right as the star-crossed Paula. Her Midwestern US familiarity at first threatens to be annoying, but she ultimately wins you over, just as she wins Bigelow over.
Does Bigelow get an answer to his question in the end? Do we? You’ll have to see this excellent film to find out.