D. O. A.: A Picture as Excitingly Different as its Title!

“A picture as excitingly different as its title!” reads the poster for Rudolph Mate’s 1950 film, D. O. A. (Dead on Arrival), and what a beautiful and accurate description that is. This is a very peculiar film noir starring Edmond O’Brien as a man who suddenly finds himself tangled up in a web of crime and conspiracies, with no way out, and with but one goal in mind, the truth. Like a lot of the films that I’ve been writing about lately, D. O. A. was not received very positively upon release, with The New York Times calling it “obvious and overdone”, but the gift of time and perspective, and the knowledge that there aren’t a lot of films from this genre that don’t take themselves too seriously, has made it one of the quintessential noir films, a whimsical and fun little movie that provides a very welcome change from the usually very dark tones and themes of noir.

The opening sequence of this film is always described as one of the most creative, unique and iconic of all time. A very long, behind-the-back tracking sequence of the protagonist, Frank Bigelow, marching into a police station, heading for the homicide division, and asking to report a murder, when asked, “who was murdered?”, the film switches to a close-up of Frank’s sweaty, weary face as he looks at the camera and says, “I was.” A very unusual situation in the first place is made even more so when we find out that the police were expecting his arrival, and simply ask him for details of the story, which he can narrate in whatever way he pleases. This being a film noir, we naturally jump right into one hell of a flashback that lasts almost the entirety of the film, where we come to know how an ordinary accountant like Mister Bigelow came to be tangled up in such a messy and fatal fate. The story begins with him deciding to take a one-week vacation to San Francisco, where upon arrival, he meets a group of people in celebration, accompanies them to a B-Bop jazz club, and drinks a poisoned drink by mistake. The doctors the next day tell him that he has a week at the most to live, and so he sets on an adventure and a quest to uncover his killer and his motives.

The film’s first half makes it very hard to believe that the makers of D. O. A. were taking any of it seriously, it’s so ridiculous and over the top, the director even asked Edmond O’Brien to render his performance as edgy and excessive as possible, and it really shows on screen. It moves at an exhilaratingly fast pace and jumps from one event to another in rapid succession, something that is embodied in the B-Bop jazz club scene, where a quintet is playing extremely fast jazz to the orgasmic elevation of all the attendants of the club. Little fact: the director went back and re-recorded the music for that scene with a big band instead of the original quintet, and that scene is one of the first depictions of the B-Bop jazz movement on screen ever. Alright, jump to the second half of the film and things begin to get a little hectic. What is a very original and fun premise for a film noir, a man that is forced into a web of crime, being both victim and detective, gets tangled up and honestly, ruined, very fast. The plot goes from being one of the most freshly original stories in noir to a very overdone tale of a detective investigating a mystery, leading himself to the head of the organization, who somehow always manages to be just as polite and elegant as he is dangerous and deadly.

One thing the film excels at however is photography, since director Rudolph Mate was cinematographer in many legendary films since the 1920’s, including The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Dante’s Inferno (1935) and It Started With Eve (1941). One scene which I really admire form this movie is the one where Frank Bigelow is running through the streets, having just found out that he has a limited time to live, while the high noon sun shines high above. That scene was shot without a permit, and you can see a lot of the pedestrians’ bewilderment as they see a frantic Edmond O’Brien running towards them. That same scene has been interpreted as the 1940s American citizen’s fear of the atomic bomb, something that could destroy life as he knows it in the blink of an eye; not a reading that I necessarily agree with, but it’s still a fun thought.

A story about a murder where the victim is the detective, and where the end is the beginning, the premise of D. O. A. is very original and fun in a genre usually overrun with stories that come very close to being too dark. With a very unusual story and structure, stellar performances and masterful camerawork, it is no wonder that this film is considered a quintessential film noir and a must-watch.


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