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I hate formal film evaluation lists that ostentatiously rate the relative
value of certain films, such as Citizen Kane for example. I do think
Citizen Kane is a great film. But I also think that about fifteen or
other films I could quickly name are every bit as good as Kane in their own
way. (Almost any Richard Gere movie, for example. Just
This brings me to D.O.A., directed by Rudolf Maté. D.O.A. in my book is the Citizen Kane of the noirs. It's so good that I often wonder about how it got made in the first place. Since many of the people who were involved in its production are now no longer with us, I may never learn anything about its origins. That's a frustration, of course, but the more important thing is that I can recognize a great noir when I see it.
Why, you ask, is D.O.A. a great noir? The most obvious reason is its plot. A guy goes out for a night on the town and someone, a total stranger, slips him a mickey in a bar-a lethal mickey. But it doesn't kill him instantly. It kills him slowly, so slowly that he's given the chance to find out who did this terrible thing to him, and why.
Second, the film is exceptionally well made in every other respect. Okay, the Pamela Britton character is one dimensional and embarrassing, we all agree on that, but who really cares when everything else in the film is so good? Edmond O'Brien had one of the best roles of his career in D.O.A., and he took full advantage, though few critics give his performance much credit for the film's success.
O'Brien, a classically trained actor, plays a small-time Southern California businessman living his ordinary little life, minding his own business, regularly boffing his secretary (this was implied rather than made explicit; after all, this was 1949), and avoiding her whiney entreaties that they tie the knot, as he's been promising her he would do for ever so long.
You can't help liking O'Brien in part precisely because of his human flaws. He's basically decent, but harassed, overworked, and stretched to the limit by the pressure put on him by Britton. What adult male couldn't identify with this man, or at least sympathize? His very insignificance as one more human ant on the planet Earth, and the terrible thing that's about to happen to him, are the essence of great film noir. (Detour, although by no means a favorite noir of mine, is nevertheless another perfect example of an ordinary man, a small-timer, minding his own business and unexpectedly colliding with Fate and all that it has in store for him.) We resonate to D.O.A. because fate and contingency have been the fundamental conditions of life on the planet earth since before the beginning of history. Our time on Earth is brief and our lives but little scraps of paper blown about by the wind toward endings we know not. We live noir lives.
The film's particulars are wonderful. From the sunny hick town of Banning, the movie switches quickly to San Francisco. If ever there were a noir town, it's Frisco. (Hitchcock picked up on that real quick; watch Vertigo again to see how he saw the eerie side to that town, with its creepy deserted streets, little ghostlike fog-blown urban hills, and other abandoned places suggestive of loneliness and soullessness.)
From here one great noir scene follows another in astonishing succession: the smoky, crowded jazz bar where the sweaty black musicians are blowing up a storm (to an all-white 1949 audience of course), while a murder is silently committed with a switched drink. The doctor holding the eerily glowing glass tube of luminescent poison and informing O'Brien, "You've been murdered." O'Brien running through the crowded downtown streets like a madman, as if velocity could help him escape his fate. O'Brien, after being shot at, a gun now in his own hand, looking for his killer in the abandoned processing plant. His encounter with Luther Adler's insane, sadistic henchman played by Neville Brand. Brand, speaking softly, glints of spittle in the corners of his mouth, nutty little eyes lighting up with anticipated pleasure: "I'm gonna give it to you in the belly. You're soft in the belly, aren't'cha? " Then the fantastic night scene in the crowded Los Angeles drugstore with Brand stalking him among oblivious customers-till shots ring out, then screams, followed by death. Finally, again at night, O'Brien's confrontation with his killer, which (inevitably) occurs in the Bradbury Building, that great architectural shrine to noir, scene of so many other noir films.
Let's stop for a moment and go back to an earlier part of the film. Fatally poisoned, still not quite believing what has happened to him, exhausted and uncertain of anything, O'Brien has run for block after block, but now his energy has finally petered out and he finds himself alone near the docks. Utterly depleted, all hope lost, he wearily leans against the side of an old wooden newsstand in an otherwise bleak, abandoned area. Eyes glazing over, he's terrified, trying to catch his breath. During a medium close-up we briefly study him, then notice something to his left, a single long vertical row of magazines, all identical covers, arranged down the side of the kiosk just half a hand away from him. He isn't looking at them, isn't really aware of them, but we are. For just a few seconds we see: Life, Life, Life, Life, Life, Life, Life. Then the film quickly moves on and goes about its business, as if we had been shown nothing of importance.
You tell me this isn't a great film noir.
One of the best film noir flicks of all-time (along with The Killers).
DO NOT CONFUSE THIS WITH THE REMAKE!! The film stars our unattractive
hero, O'Brien, as the man who has been poisoned and is told he has only
24 hours to live. He has no idea who did it and spends almost the
entire film tracking down the dirty rat that done him in. It's amazing
how many wonderful noir films O'Brien appeared in over the years.
The pacing is good, acting top-rate and very noir-ish, and it manages to pull so much out of a very simple plot with minimal sets. In other words, it gives a fantastic "bang for the buck" and modern filmmakers would really benefit from learning a lesson or two from DOA.
I just checked the IMDb Top 50 Film Noir films and for some odd reason this film is not listed. How is this possible?
Forget the crappy 1980s remake starring Dennis Quaid, this is the real deal! From the fantastic opening sequence ("I want to report a murder" ... "Who was murdered?" "I was") to the inevitable end, this is an utterly brilliant thriller that will have you riveted to your seat! Edmond O'Brien, a great character actor who was in everything from the classic rock'n'roll movie 'The Girl Can't Help It' to Peckinpah's western masterpiece 'The Wild Bunch' (he played the old coot, you probably won't recognize him here), is the "hero" who is told he has been poisoned and has days, maybe even hours to live. He frantically tries to find out who did it and why. Some people complain that O'Brien's character isn't all that likable, but I think that makes the movie even stronger. When you DO find out the who and why it doesn't really make that much sense but I don't think it matters all that much in the end, the journey is the thing, and only a very picky Noir fan could be disappointed with this. On top of that, Neville Brand, who later in the 1950s played Al Capone in 'The Untouchables' TV series, and later still starred in Tobe Hooper's gonzo cult classic 'Death Trap' (a.k.a. 'Eaten Alive'), plays one of the most memorable screen villains of all time, the dim witted Chester, a real nasty piece of work! 'D.O.A.' comes with my highest recommendation. If you like thrillers you'll LOVE this!
Frank Bigelow: "I want to report a murder."
Homicide Captain: "Where was this murder committed?"
Frank Bigelow: "San Francisco, last night."
Homicide Captain: "Who was murdered?"
Frank Bigelow: "I was."
It must be the dream of all directors to open a film with a scene or line which carries great impact and remains in the memory. The opening line in D.O.A must rank among the most dramatically effective and intriguing lines that has ever opened a movie. This is the quintessential film noir. Edmond O'Brien as the tough, hard drinking businessman who has grown tired of the normalcy of his life and the clinging Paula. His holiday in San Francisco is an opportunity to break the shackels. The premise that the hero has been given a slow poison for which there is no cure, and only a day or so to solve his own murder before he dies, is exceptional. We also have an array of sultry "bad girls", a seedy villain and a manic hitman. Rudoph Mate directs brilliantly, not missing a moment to twist and turn the action at a fast pace with no dull moments. Scenes of O'Brien running through city streets after he has learned his fate are superb with incredibly realistic wide shots. The fact that his direction is so effective makes one wonder how he could have allowed the lapses of ridiculous canned "wolf whistles" whenever the hero passed a good looking girl in the early scenes. Although these "wolf whistles" are really out of place and very annoying, the film is so effective that we can forgive the indiscretion. This is a classic example of a brilliant plot superbly told in a way that is still gripping 50 years after it was made. D.O.A. defines Film Noir.
This film is the kind that doesn't kid itself at all- it knows what it
is and is pretty happy to have it that way. It's filled with the
classic tough-guy, 'real-to-life' dialog of the thriller, while staying
a foot ahead of the audience. This is because the director, Rudolph
Matte (the great cinematographer behind many a film-noir and Carl
Dreyer's masterpieces) has such a clever hand of the material. One
wrong step and it could slip into being too hokey. In fact there is a
camp factor in a couple of scenes; the subject matter almost slips into
Naked Gun parody before stepping back up for air. But for the fans of
mysteries of today would want to check this out, as it provides a twist
on the usual logic of the sub-genre (if a genre at all). While not as
'dark' as other film-noir pictures, it still ranks very high in it
storytelling, having a potent enough story to tell, and a slew of
actors just pushing the limits of the B-movie style.
Edmond O'Brien is at his absolute best as the worried Frank Bigelow, worried because he's in a rotten predicament: poisoned by a random drop of 'luminous poison' at a jazz club, with no chances of survival. The one thing to do then is to investigate it, 'his' way, through searching the histories of men like Phillips and Rakubian. One has to pay attention to his story a few times, but after a while everything does come together, adding to the suspense. O'Brien doesn't play him very naturalistically- it's actually quite great at being a simply cinematic performance, with the occasional swagger, roughness, but determination of the best of the doomed heroes of these stories. There's soul in his work, even as he says lines fast or with such vigor to maybe go overboard. But it works, especially because of the other cast around him being so solid. Several are good, and a few are stand-out; Luther Adler as Majack gives some worth in his scenes, and especially a small but very memorable part for a nasty character, Chester, done to a T by Neville Brand (the little dialog scenes between them are as shamelessly pulp as any other film like this, but compelling and very entertaining).
Aside from the merits of most of the cast, and Matte's visual approach (much of the outside running scenes and chase bits are shot right on location, like in a pre-guerrilla style of film-making), there's the aspect of the script. Stories like this are hard to come by now, even ones being almost this simple. At the same time, the screenwriters implement a kind of twisty logic that happens in the course of the film. The sort of MacGuffin lies in the bill of sale (as maybe I missed something) as it's the last thing to worry about. What one looks for in something like D.O.A., is how the written matter can go through the director's visual mind-warp. Under the radar in a sense, the film does some techniques that wouldn't of made it had it been a bigger A-list film. Two examples of this were striking to me, making D.O.A. of some note (this is besides the adept on-location work. One was the mix of shots shown in the jazz club scene, the musicians. This is a great, great little scene, adding a sense of atmosphere that another filmmaker would've passed over. Another was during a short scene when Bigelow arrives at the hostel- women pass by, and with each one a little sound effect comes through. This is whimsy, maybe, or maybe just some un-explainable little joke put into the film, but either way its terrific. When a filmmaker can add a little flavor to the film like that, it elevates the material.
D.O.A. is on a short list of numerous writers regarding the histories of 40's-50's 'film-noir' pictures in America as one of the premiere examples, and it's not far from the truth. It's compact enough to not make Bigelow's strange mix of abrasiveness, confusion, and drops of tenderness to his secretary/love interest Paula, while allowing enough of a story to be told to make it feel complete. And that scene near the end in the hallway...
When I started watching all the film noirs I could find, I was a bit
disappointed in this. However, after three viewings I now find it
decent. It's nothing super, but certainly better than what I though at
first. A big help is having a better print of the film. This is one of
those movies that always had a poor VHS quality transfer and many times
the same on DVD. Finding a good print is hard, although I finally got a
decent one with this Killer Classic DVD set that includes this movie.
The story, like the print, is not always easy to follow, either, even though the premise is very simple. A man discovers he has been poisoned and there is no hope for recovery. Before he dies, he retraces his steps to find out who "murdered him" (even though he's still alive when saying that) and why.
The story gets a bit complicated. Like a Sherlock Holmes or Charlie Chan mystery, there are a number of suspects that keep popping up. Many of them are hard to figure.
This is an odd film noir for several quirky things in this movie. The lead character, "Frank Bigelow" (Edmund O'Brien), is strange and kind of stupid in the beginning. There are a half dozen of these dumb whistle-like wolf call sound-effects that come out every time he sees a pretty woman. It just doesn't fit in a tough film noir. Then there is his possessive girlfriend/secretary "Paula," (Pamela Britton) who is constantly calling him and paranoid about his whereabouts. She acts more like an insecure, nagging wife but she obviously cares a great deal about him. But, man, give the poor guy some space!
The dialog in this film ranges from incredibly stupid to very clever and solid film noir material.
We also see one of the most sadistic people I have ever seen on film: "Chester," played by the sadistic-looking Neville Brand. Wow, is this guy sick or what? He reminded me of "Vera" (Ann Savage) in "Detour." Those two would have made an interesting couple! Brand's character is only interested in one thing in life: inflicting pain and the slower and more brutal, the better.
Anyway, if you find a good print, tolerate some of the goofy things in the film, this is an interesting film noir that gets better with each viewing, as you understand the story better.
DOA was made on the cusp of Edmond O'Brien's transition from leads to
character roles and it may very well be his career part.
It's a cheaply made thriller and it shows in spots. But it more than makes up for it in originality of plot and the performances of a superb cast of players.
DOA involves nothing less than Edmond O'Brien solving his own murder. He's in some kind of business and as a sideline he makes a little extra money as a notary. He notarizes a bill of sale and in doing so is a witness to a piece of evidence that a man who was a party to the sale had no reason to commit suicide.
But the perpetrator doesn't slip O'Brien something fast acting like cyanide. No he gets something called luminescent poisoning which is slow acting, but irreversibly fatal if not caught within a few hours of ingesting. When he learns what happens, O'Brien has nothing to lose in his hunt for his own killer.
Best in the cast of supporting players without a doubt is Neville Brand who invades Lyle Bettger territory in playing a psychopathic thug in Luther Adler's employ. Adler himself is always good as are good girl Pamela Britton and bad girl Beverly Garland.
The film was made on a shoestring, but occasionally those films can prove worthwhile.
An exceptionally well thought-out and executed film noir. A man who is fatally poisoned with a slow-acting substance wants to discover who killed him -- and why. The answers seem pathetically insignificant compared to their repurcussions. O'Brien provides a solid "everyman" type leading performance that puts Gary Cooper and Glenn Ford's best attempts at the same to utter shame. Bev Garland puts in a good show too as a sort of misunderstood femme fatale in a minor key. Credit should go to director Mate and photographer Laszlo, who match the words and feelings of the story perfectly, neither showing us too much or too little at any time. The narrative force of this story is strong because it is focused on one man, with whom we can identify, who has been placed in an exciting, intriguing, and terrifying situation by events out of his control.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Good mystery about an accountant who had the wrong guy for a client. A sinister killer needs to see him dead in order to tie up any unforseen loose ends that may louse up his scheme. Very well done with a realistic sense of how something like this would go down. Neville Brand made a perfect evil creep as Chester the psycho, a part he always plays to perfection.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The poison that forms the plot of this movie does actually exist. However, one glass of it will not kill you unless it is VERY concentrated and then it would be glowing! I doubt if anybody would drink that stuff in such concentration. However, in the late 1920s and early 1930s a patent medicine was sold in the United States. It was called "Radiothor". It was a small amount of radium within water; sold in 1 oz bottles. A few bottles would not hurt you, but a few people bought quite a few of those bottles and drank them. They died slow, lingering deaths (it took months of agony before death released them). The man who marketed this product was put in prison and the Food and Drug Administration was created to keep this from ever happening again.
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