Directed by Rudolph Maté
Frank Bigelow: I want to report a murder.
Homicide Captain: Sit down. Where was this murder committed?
Frank Bigelow: San Francisco, last night.
Homicide Captain: Who was murdered?
Frank Bigelow: I was.
I want you to read the above quote again, but slower and with more emphasis. -Who was murdered? -I was. These are some of the very first lines in Rudolph Maté's D.O.A. Has there ever been an opening line that powerful before? It's blunt and straight-to-the-point. It immediately captures your attention. It's not everyday that you hear someone talk about there own death. But here he is, Mr. Frank Bigelow, reporting his own death to the police. What's even stranger is that the homicide captain nods his head, pulls out a file, and tells Bigelow that they have been expecting him. The captain asks Bigelow what happened, and what follows is one of the most fascinating stories that has ever graced the genre of film noir.
But why then am I writing about it? If it is a classic, people should know about it already! Well, my guess is that it isn't remembered because it doesn't comply with the modern day image of what a film noir should be. There isn't any piercingly clever dialogue as in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Some of the lines are well crafted, but none are on the same level as such classics as “I left my sense of humor in my other suit.” There is some impressive cinematography, but none of it is as powerful or recognizable as The Naked City (1948). Finally, the lead actor, Edmond O'Brien, puts in an impressive performance, but he never gained the star power of film noir icons like Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum. But don't make any mistake, D.O.A. is a film noir of the highest caliber. It's strength is its incredible story that keeps the audience interested and fascinated until the very last shot.
But before I get to that last shot, perhaps I should fill you in on the rest of the story. Bigelow is introduced as an accountant and notary public in his hometown of Banning, California. Tired and bored with his current life, he says goodbye to his lover (I'm sorry, this is the production code era: confidential secretary) and goes to San Francisco for a one-week vacation. It's obvious that Bigelow is tight-strung. Immediately after checking into his hotel, he is spirited away by a group of salesmen to a jazz club. The jazz is loud, the drinks are strong, and the energy is palpable. Bigelow couldn't be more out of his element. While the group around him get into the music, he gets jostled around and desperately tries to escape. He doesn't have much luck. When he sits down at the bar, he discovers that they don't quite speak English there. He asks the bartender who the blonde is over on the other side of the bar. He answers, “Oh she's one of the chicks that hang around here, she's jive crazy.” Confused, he slinks away. It turns out that this is one of the cinema's first representations of the Beat subculture, and he sure isn't with it, daddy-o.
He orders a drink, but when he isn't looking, a strange man swaps his drink with another one. He drinks it, grimaces, and says that it doesn't taste right. He decides to flee before anything else happens to him. It's too late, because as he finds out at a clinic the next day, he had been fed a “luminous toxin” that is guaranteed fatal because there in no antidote. He storms out of the doctor's office in denial to get a second opinion. In one of the film's best scenes, the second doctor holds up a vial filled with what we believe to be his blood. He turns out the light and it glows brightly in the dark. Yes, it is a luminous toxin. And no, he doesn't have long to live. Probably a day or so.
The rest of the film concerns Bigelow desperately tracking down his own murderer. It is a frantic search. His entire personality changes after he discovers that he is doomed to die. As Foster Hirsch said in this 1981 review: “One of the film's many ironies is that his last desperate search involves him in his life more forcefully than he has ever been before... Tracking down his killer just before he dies — discovering the reason for his death — turns out to be the triumph of his life." And what a triumph. Through the film, he will survive several shootouts, an encounter with a completely psychotic henchman named Chester played by Neville Brand in his first screen role, a couple of shocking discoveries concerning backstabbing wives and hardened gangsters.
The film has some breathtaking sequences. One of the very best is when he runs out of the doctor's office after being diagnosed as a murder victim. He sprints down a street with the camera speeding along capturing his every move. If it looks realistic it's because it is! It was a “stolen shot,” which means that a real city street was used with real pedestrians blocking his way. None of them had any idea that a movie was being filmed. It makes you wonder if any of them had any idea that Edmond O'Brien would be colliding into them that day. He finally stops at a newspaper stand where he tries to catch his breath. And wouldn't you know it, the racks are full of only one magazine: Life.
But at the center of this film is Bigelow: a simple man out to find those who have wronged him. It is a plot that is stunning in its simplicity. It is actually quite a refreshing change from the majority of film noir like The Big Sleep (1946) that have plots that are so labyrinthine that it leaves the audience confused at the end. D.O.A. represents the heart of film noir without any additional dressings: a good story, a strong central character, and of course, a plot twist that leaves you reeling.
Editor's Note: In the years since D.O.A.'s release it has fallen into the public domain. A free version is available for download here: http://www.archive.org/details/doa_1949