1949 - Not Rated - 83 Mins.
|Director: Rudolph Mate
|Producer: Leo C. Popkin
|Written By: Russell Rouse and Clarence Green
|Starring: Edmund O'Brien, Pam Britton, Neville Brand
|Review by: John Ulmer
Rudolph Mate's "D.O.A." opens with what is quite possibly one of the greatest film beginnings of all time. A disheveled man strides calmly into a police station and walks firmly down the halls of the large building while the credits role. As they come to an end he arrives at the homicide division of the station. "I'd like to report a murder," he says. "Who was murdered?" a cop behind a desk asks. "I was," he replies.
The key to "D.O.A." lies not in its silly, ridiculous plot but rather the buildup of tension, and the horrific realization that you are to die and nothing you can do will stop this. The only thing you can do is find the man who did kill you and figure out why. Edmund O'Brien does this in "D.O.A." He plays an accountant named Frank Bigelow (who is not, ironically, a male gigalo). Frank takes a vacation away from his small town and ends up in a noisy downtown bar. He orders a drink, moves across the bar next to a young woman, asks the bartender to pass his drink down, sips it, and his face goes awry. "This isn't my drink," he says. He orders another and shrugs off the event.
The next morning Frank feels strange. He goes to see a doctor. The doctor has some bad news: Frank has swallowed a dose of "luminous poison," a glow-in-the-dark, lethal substance that kills in a day, sometimes two days, but never longer than a week. At the end of the film is a disclaimer telling us that luminous poison is a real substance. However, it fails to tell us if it really acts as a slow-killing toxin, or if it is just some non-lethal substance used as an acid or adhesive (you never can tell).
There's a terrific scene after Frank is told he will die. He flees the doctor's office like a madman and runs through the city. The camera follows him forever, using dissolves and finally it all ends when he comes to the bar he was at the night before. He knocks on the door but nobody inside answers. Distraught, he asks for another opinion from another doctor. It is confirmed that he will die.
Frank retreats to his hotel a beaten man. Imagine how it would feel if you knew you were going to die within as short as a day or even a week? What would you do? Frank doesn't take the time to answer this - he departs on a game of detective, trying to track down his killer. He finally figures out that it is all over a sales claim Frank filed months ago that would prove a sale between two men, one of whom didn't want it known. But the killer is still out there...and which man is the killer?
If "The Third Man" (1949) is the father of all film noirs, "D.O.A." (1949) is the mother. It isn't quite as skillful or believable or atmospheric as the former, nor as daring or haunting, but it still remains one of the best film noirs of all time, right alongside "The Maltese Falcon." The idea may be silly but the basic idea behind it - knowing you will undoubtably die - is the horror of it all.
Edmund O'Brien is a bit of a weak casting choice - he doesn't seem quite as manly as the main character should be - but I suppose he does well. He is a short man and looks a bit comical sometimes. He doesn't have a very strong screen presence. Let's leave it at that. Humphrey Bogart of Joseph Cotten would have been better choices, but we can't always have what we want in a low-budget B-movie from the 40s, can we?
There is some terrific material in "D.O.A." It has elevated to a type of cult classic stature over the years. It was even remade in 1988 with Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan and Daniel Stern, but the outcome was an unfortunate, laughably bad campus farce about an author who was killed over a student's novel - miles away from the plot of this film. Some movies are just not meant to be remade.