Tuesday, March 2, 2010

#50: D.O.A. (Rudolph Maté, 1950)

Released: April 30, 1950

Director: Rudolph Maté; Screenplay: Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene; Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo; Music: Dimitri Tiomkin; Producer: Leo C. Popkin; Studio: Cardinal Pictures

Edmond O’Brien (Frank Bigelow), Pamela Britton (Paula Gibson), Luther Adler (Majak), Lynn Baggett (Mrs. Philips), William Ching (Halliday), Henry Hart (Stanley Philips), Beverly Garland (Miss Foster), Neville Brand (Chester), Laurette Luez (Marla Rakubian), Virginia Lee (Jeannie)

- “Who was murdered?”

Is there a more legendary opening to a film than Frank Bigelow stumbling into a police station and matter-of-factly declaring that he is there report a murder – his own! The impact of this opening scene has likely been blunted over time, especially as it is a scene that has been discussed and lauded repeatedly. Even so, it still remains a wonderfully inventive way to begin a film that, after a leisurely beginning, starts moving at breakneck speed toward the finish. However inventive it seems, though, the idea is not completely original. The premise of a man who is dying from unnatural causes scrambling to discover the cause of what is killing him actually comes from a 1931 film directed by another master of noir – Robert Siodmak. That film was called Der Mann, Der Seinen Morder Sucht, which Siodmak directed in his native Germany nearly a decade before his move to Hollywood. Not having seen the German film, I can’t really compare the two, but can at least acknowledge that there are few directors who would be better to borrow from than Robert Siodmak!

In this case, our dying man is played wonderfully by leading noir protagonist Edmond O’Brien. O’Brien is Frank Bigelow, a small town accountant in California who travels to San Francisco for a vacation meant to clear his mind. Frank is torn on whether to continue life as usual or commit to a relationship with his girlfriend and secretary Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton). While at his hotel, Frank meets up with a group of sales conventioneers and goes out on the town for drinks. When he wakes up the next morning feeling miserable, Frank decides that a quick trip to the doctor is in order. The news he receives from the physician is staggering – he has been drugged with a lethal dose of iridium that will kill him in only a matter of days. While authorities come to transport Frank to a hospital for care, he escapes and begins a search for whoever poisoned him. Frank begins following the trail of a shipment of iridium, including a bill of sale that he had notarized months before. After learning that the president of this company had also recently died of iridium poisoning, Frank realizes that he has unwittingly been swept up in a conspiracy involving the Los Angeles-based company and black market elements.

This is a definite SPOILER, so if you haven’t seen the movie just ignore this paragraph. What always strikes me is how grim the conclusion is. Let’s be honest, there are not an abundance of films of the era that completely telegraph and then follow through on the death of the hero. That is precisely what Rudolph Maté and company do. When the film opens with Bigelow in the police station, declaring that he has been murdered, you know that some great misery has befallen him. But, at least in my case, you expect that there is going to be some sort of relief that will eventually emerge and save him from his bleak fate. It never comes. Frank survives just long enough to recount his story and then slip off to his expected death. Instead of some great plot twist to save Frank, it is even more shocking that he is allowed to die as he said he would at the start of the film.

Rudolph Maté being a celebrated cinematographer himself, and working with another outstanding director of photography in Ernest Laszlo, is a key reason why D.O.A. remains one of the finest B-movies ever released. The picture quality may scream of poor, but the effects that Maté and Laszlo are able to achieve on a shoestring budget are beyond impressive. The key to success is visually conveying the nightmare that Frank Bigelow’s life has quickly become. This means keeping everything fast-paced, and doing simple yet effective things like swishing the camera to following a sprinting Frank down a street. The blurring out of everything but the running Frank may now be seen as cheesy or too pat, but it’s flat-out successful.

Edmond O’Brien’s performance is also a key, as he is a noir actor who is very adept at portraying the common man. What shines through most in his performance is the pure helplessness of it all. One innocuous decision – a decision that would have been made by any normal man in his position – has landed him in this unthinkable predicament. And that is what sticks with me most from the film: how hopeless everything feels. Can a greater compliment be paid to a film noir?


  1. "A picture as excitingly different as its title!"

    That is one of the worst taglines I've ever seen.

  2. Jazz scene, wolf whistles, Neville Brand's obsession with bellies, Pamela Britton's stalker role, O'Brien's understated acceptance of bad news at the doctors, subtle musical score, and luminous toxin..............equals campy and fun but vastly overrated film noir.......M.Roca

  3. Thanks for this great review, Dave. I commented a few reviews back wondering when (or if) you'd get to D.O.A., and here it is! It really is one of the great underrated noirs, which has unfortunately fallen into the public domain. Although I have copy from Alpha Video which is actually pretty good, this is a film worthy of the Criterion Collection treatment. I've really been enjoying your list, and read your site every 2-3 days. Good work!

  4. The master print of DOA is owned by a philistine investor, who refuses to license it for new prints or DVD release. The current public domain transfer is worn out explaining the poor visuals.

    A bravura performance from Edmond O’Brien as Frank Bigelow. This movie packs so much in 83 minutes. It starts off slow, but once the action shifts from a sleepy rural burg to San Francisco and LA, the pace is frenetic. The streets of these cities are filmed in deep focus, and there is a sense of immediacy in every scene.

    Expressionist lighting accents the hysteria and panic as Bigelow desperately races against time to track down his killer. With a pot-boiler plot and a terrific hard-edged portrayal from O’Brien, this is not only a gritty on-the-streets in-your-face melodrama, but a nuanced film noir where a random innocent act is a decent man’s un-doing. The camera is used with abandon to visualise the traumatic whirlwind that Bigelow has been thrown into.

  5. Edmond O’Brien is a mainstay in the world of noir and D.O.A. has a lot of good things in it as you and Tony point out but the one irritating aspect of this film that keeps coming up in my head is that “wolf” whistle that M. Roca mentions and to me sound more like a kazoo. I just found it annoying and I keep asking myself why. Was it to inject some kind of humor? I am sure it if just me but this just knocks the film down some notches. Yet, the film has a lot of good stuff, the opening scene at the police station is a classic, the excellent cinematography, O’Brien so good…then there is that damn kazoo! I am haunted by it every time I watched this film (lol!)

  6. O 'Brien is superlative in this taut time thriller that has of course become a classic of its kind, and it's a film I've vigorously defended against some detractors over the years. Siodmak is a director with some impressive work (THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE and THE KILLERS immediately come to mind) but this is of the first-rank too and deserves this prominent placement on the countdown. The expressionist visual underpinning is vital to the mood, and the frenzied narrative movement is the major allure. I completelt agree what you say here about ace cinematographer Mate. Tremendous essay Dave, and some great comments here by Tony and others.

  7. Calling Edmond O'Brien the definitive noir actor would be presuming to define noir, but I often feel that way about the guy for the reason you mention in your final paragraph, among others. D.O.A. is probably his signature film but I expect to see more of him in your top 50.

  8. The movie is incredibly intense, and Mr. O'Brien was very, very good in it.

  9. Doniphon - It's one those that is awesomely cheesy! :)

    M.Roca - We'll have to disagree on this one... I think it's a great B thriller, as Tony lays out quite well.

    Tony - Couldn't agree more, this deserves a decent DVD release. My copy is on some package set, along with Detour and some others.

    John - Yes, it's annoying, but I think the good far outweighs this minor complaint. But, I have minor pet peeves like this that ruin otherwise outstanding movies for me, so I know where you're coming from.

    Sam - I didn't realize you were such a fan of this one, so it's good to hear.

    Samuel - Yes, O'Brien will be heard from again. I don't know that I can call him the definitive noir actor, but he's certainly one of the best "everymen" in noir.

    Quirky Character - Agreed on all points.

  10. Kevin Mummery - Thanks for stopping by and joining in the discussions and adding some great comments yourself. I appreciate the compliments and hope you'll stick around the rest of the way!

  11. I have the Image DVD which looks pretty good. Better than their print of Detour. O'Brien in The Killers is enough for me to praise his noir credentials......M.Roca

  12. Yes, M. Roca, I also have the Image, and it's solid.