Friday, May 10, 2024

Cult Corner: D.O.A.

 by Anthony King

Get jive crazy. Get hip.

April 21, 1950

Studios: Harry Popkin Productions, Cardinal Pictures, United Artists
Director: Rudolph Mate
Writers: Russell Rouse, Clarence Greene
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Composer: Dimitri Tiomkin
Editors: Arthur H. Nadel
Running Time: 84 minutes

Cast: Edmond O'Brien (Frank Bigelow), Pamela Britton (Paula Gibson), Luther Adler (Majak), Beverly Garland (Miss Foster), Lynn Baggett (Mrs. Philips)

San Francisco Noir: The Black Bird (1975), Hardcore (1979), The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950), Vertigo (1958)

Pairing recommendation: The American Friend (1977)
Alfred Hitchcock, while known as the “Master of Suspense,” gained that moniker in part to his frequent use of an early reveal of the MacGuffin. In Rope (1948), for instance, the film opens with the killers hiding a dead body and the murder weapon. From the start, we already know the crime, the guilty parties, and the damning clues. Rudolph Mate's D.O.A. takes that one step further and says, “Here's the star of the movie, and he's not getting out of this alive because he has a deadly toxin surging through his body.” This man has no great legacy to leave; no family whom to care for. He's Average Joe Businessman. But he's unwittingly wrapped up in some great scheme that guarantees his death by movie's end. There is no antidote, no cure, no saving this man. So why then does he go to great lengths to figure out who poisoned him and why? Therein lies convoluted yet surprisingly brief plot of D.O.A.

Genre film mainstay Edmund O'Brien is our Average Joe Businessman, accountant Frank Bigelow. Told in flashback, the film opens with Bigelow entering a Los Angeles police station with a wildly unbelievable tale. The cops, though, already know who he is. Bigelow recounts how he ended up in San Francisco – a business trip mixed with a little swinging pleasure – the people he first encountered at his hotel and a nightclub, and the twists and turns that ensued. With the help of his secretary/girlfriend back home, Bigelow discovers a plot involving several businessmen and more murders. If one were to refer to D.O.A. as a kitchen sink of a movie, they wouldn't hear an argument from this writer. Like most noirs of the '30s, '40s, and '50s, this film is economical in its storytelling. Yet the sheer amount of storytelling and the rabbit holes we're led down is staggering in its limited runtime. The magic trick of the film, then, is how it's able to make us care for its characters in all its momentary confusion.
O'Brien has made two previous appearances in Danny Peary's Cult Movies. The first in Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It (1956) as mobster Fats Murdock, and the second as Sykes in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969). O'Brien's work in D.O.A., his performances in Ida Lupino's The Bigamist (1953) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953), or most of his earlier work for that matter, while still thriving in genre storytelling, is a far cry from his outlandish and cartoonish character work in later films like the Tashlin, the Peckinpah, or even John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). As Bigelow, O'Brien is still frantic, high energy, and at times erratic, but it's still just a man. Sure, a man in a terrible, nerve-wracking situation, but a human man nonetheless, therefore driving the viewer to empathize with him. The other magic trick the film performs is convincing the audience that this man has a chance to live. Spoilers: he doesn't. We're told from the onset of the picture that Bigelow will die, yet a while later, when we see this man running down Market Street in San Francisco, desperate to find a cure to his all but guaranteed demise, we forget what we've previously been promised. We start to believe Bigelow has a chance at life. Because, let's face it, death is scary and we don't want to go before our time is up. O'Brien perfectly portrays a man in the throes of desperation who knows his time shouldn't be up.
In Guide for the Film Fanatic, Danny calls D.O.A. a “first-rate melodrama with an unusual, intriguing premise.” The original review from The New York Times was less positive. “Some of the long flashback visualization of his story lets off lively melodramatic sparks, but mostly it is a fairly obvious and plodding recital... As best we can unravel the tangled plot—it makes up in confusion of incident for what it lacks in the way of imaginative planning...” And, while praising the performances, the review concludes, “For all their efforts, however, D.O.A. adds up to only a mild divertissement.” As was Walter Goodman's review when the film first came to VHS in 1987. He calls it a “thriller about an accountant who gets involved with a lot of bad actors (acting pretty badly)... But never mind the tangled tale and the dumb dialogue...” In his defense, Goodman was reviewing the colorized version released on home video. “A not-so-incidental annoyance is the “colorization” that has been inflicted on a gritty movie that was made to be seen in black and white.”

For the most part, though, the '80s saw a renaissance of positive rediscovery of D.O.A. Along with Danny, author Foster Hirsch praised the film. In the 2000s, David Wood of the BBC and Michael Sragow of Salon both continued the love. And in 2008 Leonard Maltin included D.O.A. in his his Movie Guide giving the film three-and-a-half out of four stars. The film's copyright failed to renew and it eventually fell into the public domain, allowing unauthorized remakes and bastardized home video releases. In the past 20 years, though, the film has gained newfound notoriety being selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, and was nominated for two AFI lists.

1 comment:

  1. Doesn't look like it ever been released on disc. Maybe a crappy compilation dvd from mill creek, but i can't check my collection right now