by Alan Rode
“I don’t think you fully understand, Bigelow. You’ve been murdered.”
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The portrayal of an innocent John Q. Public suffering punitive consequences due to a seemingly minor transgression is an essential film noir theme of the 1940’s and early 1950’s. This compelling formula was used effectively in numerous films including Phantom Lady, Detour, Quicksand, Side Street and Desperate. All of these noir vehicles are based on the proposition that the slightest misstep by an Honest John (or Jane) can turn a pleasant existence into a one way trip to Miseryville.
This noir motif reached its zenith in D.O.A. (United Artists, 1949). D.O.A. takes the victim of circumstances theme to its darkest apogee. An entirely innocent man has his life turned upside down and horribly ended due to the most inconsequential of acts.
The film opens with the camera trailing the back of Frank Bigelow (Edmund O’Brien) as he walks into the L.A. Homicide bureau accompanied by the somber Dimitri Tiomkin score. Bigelow eases himself into a chair by the Homicide captain?s desk and proceeds to report a murder- his own. A literal whirlpool appears on screen to denote a flashback while Bigelow starts relating the final twenty-four hours of his torturous existence to a room of transfixed homicide dicks.
Frank Bigelow is a CPA from the backwater desert town of Banning, California. He is in love with his girl Friday, Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton) who is pressing him for a serious commitment, but Frank has the restlessness of a sailor who hasn’t hit a good liberty port. At length, he decides a solo vacation to San Francisco is the ticket. Bigelow tells Paula that his objective is relaxation, but after checking in at the Hotel St. Francis, he immediately hooks up with a group of hard-drinking traveling salesmen. Frank concludes the evening making an unsuccessful play for a milieu-obsessed blonde in an Embarcadero juke joint. Seated with his back towards the bar, a mysterious stranger wearing a scarf is shown switching the glass containing Bigelow’s drink.
Bigelow awakes the next morning at the St. Francis, hung-over with a bellyache to boot. After declining a hair-of-the-dog remedy from room service, he jumps on a cable car and, still feeling queasy, enters a doctor’s office. The avuncular doc initially assures him everything is okay then does a double take when the lab reports are checked. Frank Bigelow has absorbed a luminous poison that has no antidote and is 100% fatal within the week. After being advised of his diminished life expectancy, Bigelow panics and runs out of the doctor’s office. He bursts into a hospital emergency room and implores the doctor on duty for a second opinion. The doctor confirms the original diagnosis, (an era before HMOs) brandishing a glow-in-the-dark test tube containing a poison sample from Frank’s innards. When the doctor theorizes that the poison was mixed with the prodigious amount of booze Frank consumed the night before, Bigelow rants that he is clueless about why he was poisoned. It’s now the doctor’s turn to get panicky as he phones the Homicide Squad. When the shaken Frank inquires about the phone call, the doctor replies, “I don’t think you fully understand, Bigelow, you’ve been murdered!”
Bigelow flees the emergency room, running off-tackle through crowds of San Franciscans until he runs out of gas in front of a newsstand. He reflects on the finality of his dilemma, then determines to find out why he was murdered and by whom. Paula phones him at his hotel room and casually relates that a Mr. Eugene Phillips from Los Angeles, who was trying to get ahold of him repeatedly the day before has unexpectedly died. Bigelow is immediately off to L. A.; frantically pursuing the only lead to his murderer before time runs out.
The complex trail of clues and red herrings rapidly multiply in the City of Angels. Bigelow speaks to Phillips’ business partner, Halliday (William Ching), his secretary, Miss Foster, (Beverly Campbell (Garland)), Brother Stanley Phillips, (Henry Hart) and Phillips’ widow (Lynn Baggett) in rapid succession. Bigelow learns that Phillips committed suicide shortly after being arrested for selling stolen rare metal, iridium, which was purchased from a man named Reynolds. Bigelow subsequently discovers that he notarized the iridium bill of sale for Phillips when he passed through Banning some time ago. After a series of U-turns, Bigelow is kidnapped from his hotel room by a group of thugs led by the sadistic Chester (Neville Brand).
Bigelow is brought before an urbane, but sinister man named Majak (Luther Adler) who is more than curious about Bigelow’s probe. Majak tells Bigelow he is looking for the wrong man, relating that while he bought the stolen Iridium, he had no reason to kill Bigelow, until now. Chester drives Frank Bigelow to his pending execution, salivating over the prospect. Frank eschews his last rites by jamming his foot on the brake pedal and jumping out of the car. After a drug store shootout, Chester catches two slugs from a cop, and Bigelow escapes.
Bigelow bursts in on Miss Foster and Stanley Phillips and discovers business partner Halliday and William Phillips’ widow are having a long-term affair. Stanley relates his sister-in-law’s treachery while doubled over after being poisoned dining with Halliday and Mrs. Phillips. Bigelow confronts the duplicitous widow and offers to toss her over the same threshold her husband recently departed from. Mrs. Phillips admits that Halliday is actually the mythical Reynolds who brokered the crooked iridium deal and left Phillips holding the bag as the fall guy. Halliday threw Phillips off his own balcony with the sudden death being chalked up to suicide. After he discovered that Phillips was phoning Bigelow’s office trying to locate a copy of the bill of sale, Halliday poisoned Bigelow in San Francisco to take care of loose ends. Bigelow finally catches up with Halliday outside his office in the Bradbury Building and empties his revolver into him.
As the flashback returns to the Homicide Squad Office, he finishes his tale, “All I did was notarize a bill of sale!” Bigelow then drops dead on the floor. When one of the cops asks the hard-bitten Homicide Captain how to annotate the file, he barks, “Better make it dead on arrival.” A black ink stamp of “D.O.A.” is appended on Bigelow’s file and the credits roll.
D.O.A. reflects the photographic roots of director Rudolph Mate. He compiled an impressive resume as a cinematographer in Hollywood from 1935 (Dante’s Inferno, Stella Dallas, The Adventures of Marco Polo, Foreign Correspondent, Pride of the Yankees, Gilda, among others) until turning to directing in 1947. The lighting, locations, and atmosphere of brooding darkness were captured expertly by Mate and director of photography Ernest Lazlo.
Dimitri Tiomkin was one of Hollywood’s most renowned film composers who linked up with pantheon directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra to create some of the most memorable film scores in movie history. Winner of four Oscars (High Noon, The High and the Mighty, The Old Man and the Sea) and nominated for many others, Tiomkin’s D.O.A. score is integral to the melancholy mood of the film.
Edmund O’Brien carries the film with a frenetic energy that occasionally goes over the top. D.O.A. is so rapidly paced that a viewer is inclined to search for a towel to help O’Brien dry off during the movie. O’Brien was a veteran of many film noirs (Act of Murder, 711 Ocean Drive, The Hitchhiker, Shield for Murder, among others) and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1954 for his portrayal of a (you guessed it) frenetic press agent in The Barefoot Contessa.
A true craftsman, Luther Adler’s portrayal of Majak is the personification of understated evil. The film debut of Neville Brand as the vicious Chester is also notable. Brand, one of WW II’s most decorated combat soldiers, parlayed his primitive visage and simmering rage into a successful film career of nut-jobs, heavies and he-men.
D.O.A. holds up well after a half-century and provides first-rate entertainment. For film noir enthusiasts, it is a mandatory commodity. As a warning, steer clear of the 1988 remake with Dennis Quaid and Meg Tilly. Like numerous remakes of original works, it is hard to imagine a worse film.
Alan Rode is a film noir aficionado living in San Diego, California.
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