Guest blogger Rick Armstrong writes:
As a man crosses the street into a police station, huge 3-D letters fill the screen with the film’s foreboding title. The camera follows along behind the man as he staggers down a hallway to Dimitri Tiomkin’s march-like theme. As he enters the office of the Homicide Division, the man’s determined face becomes visible for the first time. He tells the division chief he wants to report a murder. When the chief inquires who was murdered, the man calmly replies: “I was.”
From this gripping opening, D.O.A. spins a film noirish flashback which explains how an unassuming tax accountant named Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) came to be a murder victim. The tale begins with Frank leaving for a week vacation in San Francisco, so he can get away from his possessive girlfriend Paula (Pamela Britton). Frank cares for Paula, but he’s unsure about making the commitment she wants from him.
His Bay City hotel is overflowing with traveling salespeople (it’s Market Week) and attractive women who keep distracting Frank. He goes to several nightclubs his first night, drinks a lot of bourbon, and wakes up feeling unusually nauseous. When he visits a physician, the doctor informs him that he has ingested luminous poison, which has already been absorbed into his system. There’s no antidote. He could die within 24 hours–he will die within a week. Frank spends his final days trying to figure out who killed him and why.
The rest of the film unravels in a convoluted fashion as Frank encounters crooked businessmen, violent thugs, and treacherous women. Ironically, the questions that drive Frank–the mysteries of who and why–become secondary to the film’s colorful characters and atmospheric locations.
O’Brien gives a believable performance in the lead role, but he gets upstaged by the secondary villains. These memorable heavies include Luther Adler as the polite Hispanic gangster Majak, Neville Brand as his homicidal henchman Chester, and Laurette Luez as a beautiful, but tough-minded, Majak accomplice. When Frank treats her roughly for not answering his questions, she snarls back: “If I were a man, I’d punch your dirty face in.”
Chester, on the other hand, prefers to punch Frank in the stomach. When Frank winces from pain caused by the poison, Chester chides him about being “soft in the belly.” Majak shows his sensitive side when he orders Chester to leave Frank alone and privately explains about Chester: “That unfortunate boy–he’s psychopathic. He’s not happy unless he gives pain. He likes to see blood.”
Director Rudolph Maté makes effective use of the San Francisco and Los Angeles settings. He stages imaginative chases through a deserted factory and a busy drugstore–a thrilling set piece which climaxes in an unexpected shootout. Overall, though, he fails to recapture the level of excitement generated by the opening scene. The screenplay certainly deserves some of the blame. The mystery angle, involving stolen goods and a missing bill of sale, doesn’t work well in D.O.A. The film also lacks suspense, in a traditional sense, because there’s no doubt that the protagonist will die.
Aside from the premise, the most interesting aspect of the script lies in its moral depiction of Frank. Although Paula clings to Frank, she truly loves him. Frank thinks he may love her, too, but he want s to sow some wild oats before settling down. Once in San Francisco, he ogles all the women at the hotel. He dances the rhumba with an attractive woman across the hall. He even tries to pick up a stranger in the nightclub where he’s poisoned. Ultimately, he remains faithful to Paula. However, his death is an indirect result of his impure thoughts. His San Francisco trip and his pursuit of other women give the killer an opportunity to poison him discreetly–an opportunity which would not have presented itself had Frank stayed with Paula in the first place.
The two official remakes, Color Me Dead (1969) and D.O.A. (1988), jettisoned the moral context for a more conventional approach. They actually functioned better as mysteries, but they lacked the interesting characters, dark urban settings, and the originality (of course) that distinguished the 1950 version.