Weekend Film Recommendation: D.O.A.

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Last week, I recommended The Turning Point, starring Edmond O’Brien and featuring Neville Brand in a small part as a vicious killer. For a change of pace, this week I recommend a film starring Edmond O’Brien, featuring Neville Brand in a somewhat larger part as a vicious killer: 1950′s D.O.A.

D.O.A. has one of best opening premises in the history of film noir. A man stumbles down an impossibly long, shadowy hallway at the police station, followed by a tracking camera. Upon meeting the officer in charge of homicide investigation, he announces that he wants to report a murder: His own. What follows is partly a mystery/action story and partly an existential meditation.

The central character, Frank Bigelow (O’Brien) has a life that screams conventionality. He’s an accountant in a small town with a small town girlfriend (Pamela Brittan) who is nagging him to do the decent thing by marrying her, settling down, and having a conventional family. This is a noir film, so naturally Bigelow wants nothing more than to flee. He goes for a wild weekend in San Francisco, where he ogles sophisticated urban beauties and swills liquor until for an inexplicable reason, someone covertly poisons him with a lethal, slow-acting toxin. After the terminal diagnosis is confirmed, s justly famous film noir sequence commences as Bigelow races madly through the crowded streets until, exhausted, he looks up to heaven and then down to see a little girl’s ball at his feet. He returns the ball to the girl and then sadly stands up, knowing that he will never be carefree as a child again for he is doomed to die, and very soon at that (Nice touch: Look at the particular magazine arrayed next to him in the shot above).

Although Bigelow cannot save his life, he is driven to understand why he will die, and thus spends his final precious days not enjoying what remains, but ruthlessly pursuing his killer. With his death in no doubt, he transforms from a mild-mannered accountant into a fearless, even brutal, angel of vengeance. He doesn’t fear death from the assorted villains he encounters, just the prospect of dying before he can find out why a nobody accountant from a nothing small town was worthy of cold-blooded, calculated murder.

As you would guess, D.O.A. offers much to chew on thematically. It can be enjoyed at one level as an exciting (if overly complicated) crime mystery, but at another level it’s a philosophically engaging take on venerable film noir themes of isolation, futility and the cruelty of fate.

Director Rudolph Maté earned his place in movie heaven as a cinematographer, including in my prior recommendations Vampyr and Gilda. He directed much less often, and that’s a good thing because he didn’t attain the same level of excellence in that role. Here, he allows some of the actors to go over the top too often, and there is also an embarrassingly puerile use of a “Va Va Voom” sound effect when O’Brien sees attractive women that is completely inconsistent with the noir mood.

I would say I wish Maté had been director of photography instead, but that wouldn’t be fair to Ernest Laszlo, who gives the film a stunning look, especially in the street scenes in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The crowded street shots must have been particularly challenging from a technical viewpoint.

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Neville Brand, in a role that helped make his fairly successful if completely typecast career, is admirably scary here as a psychopath, and Luther Adler makes a smooth, cultured but ultimately nasty villain. As mentioned, some of the other performances — including O’Brien’s — are uneven, but all the main actors have their moments.

The basic existential conceit of D.O.A. is not about a man trying to prevent his death; he doesn’t have that power. Rather, it’s all about the desire to know why — why me and why this fate? The best noirs never answer this question, but bathe the audience in the agony of being unable not to ask it nonetheless. D.O.A. is a noble example of this tradition.

D.O.A. is in the public domain, so you can watch it for free on Internet Archive. However, that print looks nowhere near as good as the digitally remastered version, which as of this writing is free for Amazon prime subscribers.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.