Thursday, September 7, 2023

D.O.A. (USA, 1950)

"The medical facts in this motion picture are authentic. Luminous toxin is a descriptive term for an actual poison."* 
* Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Klaus.
Along with When Worlds Collide (1951 / trailer), D.O.A. is the last truly noteworthy film of Rudolph Maté (21 Jan 1898 – 27 Oct 1964), a former cinematographer and colleague of Karl Freund (The Mummy [1932]) who worked on visual masterpieces like Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928 / full film) and Vampyr (1932 / full film). As such, it is hardly surprising that the cinematography and direction in D.O.A. is often rather exceptional and emotionally reflective of the character's internal sense. 
A trailer
to D.O.A.:
D.O.A. is also a legendary film noir that was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" in 2004, alongside such fine stuff as our Short Film of the Month for July 2021, Duck and Cover (1952), and the feature films (among others) Enter the Dragon (1973 / trailer, with Jim Kelly), Eraserhead (1977 / trailer), Unforgiven (1992 / trailer), and that film in which Elvis did not bend over to pick up soap, Jailhouse Rock (1957 / trailer). 
Unlike all those feature films, however, D.O.A. has, due to carelessness on the part of the production company, long fell into the public domain, so the movie is relatively easy to come by, if not usually in poor quality transfers. (Oddly, the original trailer is not easy to come by.) It behooves one to try to locate a good copy of the movie, for only then can one truly enjoy the B&W cinematography.
D.O.A. opens with a long tracking shot (not without a cut) that follows the film's doomed hero Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien* [10 Sep 1915 – 9 May 1985], not long before his ever-increasing weight weighed him out of lead roles and into character parts) as he walks into LA city hall and through the long hallways to the homicide division of the LA police department (which, at the time, was still housed in La La Land's iconic building). The shot, while hardly as complicated or baroque as the uncut tracking shot found eight years later opening Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958 / tracking shot), does a good job at foreshadowing what is to come in the film itself: an unstoppable man with a goal pushing forward with determination. At this point in the game, Bigelow's goal is merely to reach homicide and tell his story — only to find, to his surprise, that when he says his name they already know who he is, and that they express neither skepticism nor surprise when he states that he has been murdered. 
Of The Killers [1946], White Heat [1949 / trailer], The Hitch-Hiker [1953 / full film], The Girl Can't Help It (1956 / trailer), Fantastic Voyage [1966 / trailer], The Wild Bunch [1969 / trailer], The Love God? (1969, see Gina Dare), Dream No Evil (1970 / trailer) and so much more. His final days were sad ones, but at least he didn't know what was going on.
And this is when the movie does something that normally never works, which is kick into flashback mode* (but luckily never flashback within flashback). In D.O.A., however, for a change knowing the final outcome (Bigelow's unavoidable demise) actually buttresses our identification with our generically normal, everyday man hero: he has no future, and everything he formerly had — a normal, if not somewhat mundane everyday life, just like us and you — is gone. In that sense, everything he does for the rest of the film has a sense of pointlessness, as nothing will change his outcome — but in the case of this Joe Schmoe, there  a desperate desire for justice, for revenge, and that drives him onwards. 
* Another masterpiece of existential film noir that is hardly damaged by its flashback structure is Edgar G. Ulmer's earlier, cheaper and likewise decided as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress — if 12 years earlier in 1992 — low budget masterpiece, Detour (1945 / full film / trailer). 
And who is Bigelow? Pretty much a typical nobody: a 33-year-old man (looking much older than that, as was normal well up into the 1970s) with a successful if unexceptional business as a notary and tax consultant in the nowheresville that is 1950s' Banning, California (then: pop. 7,034). And, seemingly, he is a woman magnet, going by the way his client Kitty (Carol Hughes [17 Jan 1910 – 8 Aug 1995] of Red Dragon [1945 / trailer]) acts around him. Hemmed in and dissatisfied by his surroundings, and obviously unsure of his relationship with his somewhat clingy but unquestionably in love secretary, Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton [19 Mar 1923 – 17 Jun 1974], a former the celebrity spokeswoman for Blatz Beer), he wants some time off alone in sin city, otherwise known as San Francisco — perhaps to sow wild oats one last time, perhaps to reconsider his dull but secure life and love in less-than-fabulous Banning.
The life of
Pamela Britton:

Considering how good D.O.A. is, it does have a number of sloppy goofs in the editing [see: Paula & Bigelow's conversation in the Banning bar], boom mic and camera shadows [often], or furtive glances at the camera [see: Bigelow's first visit to a doctor's office and the later scene when the psycho killer Chester (Neville Brand* [13 Aug 1920 – 16 Apr 1992]) leads Bigelow away to be killed]. Luckily, all the sloppy goofs are easy to overlook and don't do any real damage to the narrative or mood of the film — unlike, perhaps, the idiotic wolf-whistle sound reflecting the thoughts of small-town Bigelow, after he arrives in his hotel in big-city San Francisco, whenever he is confronted by any of the multitude of attractive and unnaturally willing women teeming around the hotel. A momentary derailment of the film that is quickly forgotten once Bigelow's desire to experience the fun life at its fullest ends up with him at a wild jive club called The Fisherman: there, while distracted at the barcounter by the pleasurable visuals of what is surely an easy lay, the bar fly Jeanie (an uncredited Virginia Lee [23 Jul 1924 – 22 Nov 2008] of The Black Widow [1947 / colorized]), a mysterious male figure switches Bigelow's whiskey glass...** 
* Character actor Brand, below from the film, had already acted in movies, but D.O.A. is his first onscreen credit. He went on to a long career on TV as well as in diverse films good and bad, including Kansas City Confidential (1952), Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive (1976), Graydon Clark's The Return (1980, see Jacqulin Cole) and Mr. B.I.G.'s Without Warning (1980), the trash classic Evils of the Night (1985 / trailer) and so much more. 
** In an obvious and amusing attempt at foreshadowing Bigelow's fate, drinks and glasses are often overly obvious and prominently placed in numerous scenes throughout the movie — only to become almost entirely absent from the movie after Bigelow is poisoned.  
While the concept of "luminous toxin" is easy enough to accept, D.O.A. does stretch believability — even for the health system in 1950 — in that Bigelow finds out rather quickly that he has been poisoned: first at a smaller private practice, where Dr Matson (Frank Jaquet [16 Mar 1885 – 11 May 1958] of The Vampire's Ghost [1945 / full film]) and Dr. Schaefer (Lawrence Dobkin [16 Sept 1919 – 28 Oct 2002] of the forgotten 1962 version of The Cabinet of Caligari [trailer]) quickly confront him with the facts, and then at the hospital, where Dr MacDonald (Frank Gerstle* [27 Sep 1915 – 23 Feb 1970]) both promptly sees him and subsequently confronts him with a vial of Bigelow's own glowing blood.
* D.O.A. is the feature film debut of Frank Gerstle, a manly man whom we all know from such fun stuff like E.A. Dupont's The Neanderthal Man [1953 / full film], The Magnetic Monster [1953 / trailer], Killers from Space [1954 / trailer], Vice Raid [1959 / trailer], The Wasp Woman [1959], The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake [1959 / trailer], Monstrosity [1963 / trailer], Shock Corridor [1963 / trailer] and more, if usually in small parts. Also making her film debut in the movie, below from the film, as a brunette instead of a blonde and in a small but pivotal role as the secretary Miss Foster: "Beverly Campbell", otherwise known as the great Beverly Garland (17 Oct 1926 – 5 Dec 2008), of too many films to list here. 
What do you do, where can you run, when suddenly confronted by the fact that you are going to die, not in months or weeks, but possibly hours or days, and not because of some illness or accident but because someone unknown, for whatever reasons, has poisoned you? In Bigelow's case, upon realizing that the beautiful sun won't shine on him much longer and children are not in the stars for him, his only desire is to find out who has killed him — and the key clue is given to him by the woman he will now never marry, Paula.
One of the key elements of D.O.A. that is so engrossing is that the viewer never knows more than Bigelow himself. We learn the what and the why and the who as he himself pieces it all together, slowly and methodically and determinedly, sifting through the lies and half-truths of those involved, and escaping even earlier death at the hands of those guilty or those whose boat he simply rocks too heavily. (To be exact, the boat of crime boss Majak [Luther Adler (4 May 1903 – 8 Dec 1984), of films as diverse as The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955 / trailer, with Farley Granger) Joseph Losey's remake of M (1951 / full film) and the Blaxploitation flick Mean Johnny Barrows (1975 / trailer)], who sees Bigelow as a danger he would prefer to do without.)
And along the way, Bigelow uncovers the truth and barely cheats bullets or capture, a Joe Schmoe turned unstoppable and imperturbable force of determination, intermittedly confronted with all that which he is going to lose, which he is never going to have — above all in the form of his faithful "secretary" Paula, whom he realizes much too late he truly loves. 
And in the world within which he is now moving in his desperate desire to find his killer, Paula's virtues — directness, truthfulness, loyalty, concern — seem to be a rarity shared by virtually no other woman in the film, from Sue (Cay Forester [26 Dec 1921 – 18 Jun 2005] of Five Minutes to Live [1961], Blonde Savage [1947 / full film] and Queen of the Amazons [1947 / full film]), the wife of the businessman across the hotel hall, to Mrs. Philips (the allegedly air-headed future suicide Lynn Baggett [10 Ma 1923 – 22 Mar 1960]), the widow of a man Bigelow didn't even know was linked to him, to the beautiful but coldly calculating model Marla Rakubian (Laurette 34-24-35 Luez [19 Aug 1928 — 12 Sept 1999], of Prehistoric Women a.k.a. The Virgin Goddess [1950 / full film], seen below to the front left with some 20th Century Fox starlets in 1949). 
D.O.A. is a quick, well-structured crime film about a fish out of water who, due to the cynical, cold-hearted selfishness of others whom he had never met, ends up losing everything that he never really realized he had (i.e., life and love and future). Had he remained in Banning, had he not decided he needed to see more of the world, he might well have died a grizzled grandfather. Instead, he becomes a man with little time and no future, which causes him to metamorphose into an unstoppable, unflappable man driven less for justice than simple retribution. By the end of the movie, one feels satisfied with his success in the latter regard, but one nevertheless feels the "victory" is an empty one: he has lost more than he has won, and he has no second chance. From the moment he walked into the homicide office, he was D.O.A. 
D.O.A. has since gone through a mundane TV-level color remake from Australia, Color Me Dead (1969 / full film), which totally destroys much of the "unfair" existential mystery of the original by introducing the why at the start instead of leaving the viewers in as big of a mystery as the film's main protagonist; a decent if less-moving, typically 80s rewrite starring Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan in 1988 (trailer) that actually feels more dated than the original version; a truly pointless and terrible "remake" set in San Diego titled Dead on Arrival in 2013 (trailer); and an almost equally as lousy Louisiana-set version, also titled Dead on Arrival, in 2017 (trailer). Do yourself a favor, skip them all and just see the original. 
Full movie:

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