by David Cornelius
“D.O.A.” contains one of the best plot gimmicks ever invented for a film noir. In the movie, Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) is given a slow-acting poison, and he has only a few days to find out who killed him before he finally dies. It’s a snappy mystery trapped in between murder and death, and it stands as one of the finest of the post-war B thrillers.And the movie’s a true B picture all the way. O’Brien, a second-tier star, is the film’s biggest marquee name. The story utilizes a minimum number of sets and characters, hoping to cram as much action into as little a space as possible to maximize thrills while keeping spending on the cheap. There’s a level of grit and sweat in the film that comes from its low budget, yet this plays perfectly into the grimy vibe of film noir. And what the film lacks in scope, it makes up for in clever ideas and colorful characters. This may be a cheap production, but hot damn, is it memorable.
"Noir genius, on the cheap."
Memorable right from the start, when O’Brien barges into the police station and demands to see “the man in charge.” Check out this exchange:
Bigelow: “I want to report a murder.”
Detective: “Who was murdered?”
Bigelow: “I was.”
Cue music sting, and everyone in the audience sits up and starts to take notice. What a kickoff.
We then flash back as Bigelow spins his story, in which we learn that he’s just a mild-mannered small town accountant who drove out to San Francisco for a brief vacation. After a night of wild partying at a few swingin’ jive clubs, he wakes up with one mother of a hangover. A visit to a doctor reveals the worst - he’s been poisoned, and with no cure, he only has a few days left.
But poisoned by whom, and why? After Bigelow takes a manic tear through the city streets (filming without permit, hidden cameras captured O’Brien plowing over unsuspecting pedestrians; it’s a great bit), he settles down for the worst. What to do with your last remaining days? Well, how about solving your own case?
And so this mild-mannered small town accountant slowly but surely becomes a snarling tough guy straight out of the hardest of detective yarns, telling dames that they’re “up to this in your pretty little neck,” ducking shots from creepy hit men, seeing more action in these few days than he’s seen in his entire life. Death, it seems, will make a new man out of you.
In one scene, Bigelow visits the widow of a former client, hoping for a lead. Not twelve hours after the man had killed himself under mysterious circumstances, Bigelow just barges right in and asks the woman, “do you know why your husband committed suicide?” It’s tactless and rude, but Bigelow has no time to be subtle.
Neither does the movie. “D.O.A.” has to pack in as much action as it can afford, quickly and cheaply. So we’re rushed through a convoluted mystery plot that takes Bigelow from criminal to criminal, clue to clue, in seemingly record time. This is a film you have to watch several times to get all the ins and outs, and yet that first time is a doozy enough, what with all the crazy characters and situations.
Consider crime lord Majak (Luther Adler), who lets Bigelow into his lair. There’s a brilliant moment when the two are walking and talking, and Bigelow makes a slight movement toward a door. Without so much as a blink, Majak interrupts his speech with a quick “That’s a closet, Mr. Bigelow” - and then right back into his previous discussion. It’s at this point we realize we - and Bigelow - have entered a whole other dimension.
That dimension cracks wide open when we meet Majak’s toadie, Chester (Neville Brand). Chester is described by Majak as a psychopath, but a better description would be a head comprised of nothing but sneering eyes and a massive, evil grin. There’s a delicious scene, the epitome of 1950s B noir, that has Chester driving Bigelow out to whatever usual place Chester takes people to kill them. Grinning, leering, giggling, Chester is delighted by the idea of killing our hero. “I think I’ll give it to you right in the belly,” he declares. It’s creepy, devilish, and great fun for fans of detective thrillers who like their baddies colorfully demented.
It’s strange that once the flashback - and Bigelow’s adventure - ends, and once we return to the police station, the film ends exactly as we know it will, and yet somehow we’re still surprised. Several noirs begin with a main character dead, then backtrack to that point, but “D.O.A.” is slightly different; its lead is “dead,” but not entirely so, and so there’s still the question of how Bigelow will wind up by the final frame. I will not tell you if he lives or dies, but I will say that what happens manages to become a surprise to us, even though we see it coming from far away.
That’s good storytelling, the ability to involve and surprise an audience despite a previous knowledge of the conclusion. “D.O.A.” is a collection of master storytellers, from screenwriters Russell Rouse and Clarence Green (who made this their most memorable script; although they later went on to pen such limp doozies as “The Oscar,” here they shine in every scene) to composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who reminds us again how music can be a highly effective story tool.
At the helm is director Rudolph Maté, a former cinematographer (he shot such great-looking classics as “Vampyr,” “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” and “Glenda,” among many others) who made his directorial debut here. It’s often that a cinematographer-turned-director will often make a movie that’s more visually striking than usual, and “D.O.A.” is no exception. Maté fills every frame with as much a visual charge as the budget will allow - watch the manic energy of the jive club sequence, for example, or Bigelow’s panicked run through town. Watch also for quieter, darker, even sexier moments sprinkled throughout. Maté made sure his film was above all a treat to watch, both in the manic story and in its imagery.There are better noir films out there, of course, but most of them were A pictures working with more money and a more relaxed schedule courtesy of the big studios. “D.O.A.,” meanwhile, is a classic example of great filmmaking on a budget - tighten the pocketbooks, but open up the ideas. This is a brilliantly inspired story, briskly told with thrills and chills and plenty of mystery movie cool. So inspired was the story that it was remade in 1988 as, of all things, an A picture starring Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan. Don’t let the bigger stars and the flashier look fool you; the original B picture’s the only way to go.
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originally posted: 04/09/05 07:01:19