I am not sure how many times I have seen D.O.A. Probably somewhere between 8 and 18, but it is always enjoyable and today I gave into the temptation to see it again, rather than take a chance with something new.
D.O.A. is one of the most celebrated entries in the film noir genre. It hard to say exactly how much this is due to the innate qualities of the film, or to the fact that the copyright lapsed in 1977, creating widespread exposure through cheap VHS tapes, DVDs and TV screenings. The central plot conceit is certainly original, and is a perfect fit for the film noir genre. A businessman from a small town in California races through the streets of San Francisco to figure out how and why he has been given an irreversible poison before it kills him. Unfortunately, this great idea is executed in an uneven way. There are moments of cinematic genius which transcend the small budget and tight shooting schedule of the film, but at other times the acting and direction is pedestrian or sometimes just plain bad.
The opening sequence is intriguing and must have been quite innovative in 1950. As a tense march courtesy of Dimitri Tiomkin builds tension, we see only the back of a man walking into Los Angeles Police headquarters, ask a patrolman in uniform for directions, and walk down series of corridors to come to a door marked “Homicide Division”. There are a number of lap dissolves, but it feels like one continuous shot. Had the Steadicam been invented in 1950, there is no doubt that it would have been used. When he says that he has a murder to report and the murdered person is himself, the desk sergeant doesn’t bat an eye. He has been expecting Frank Bigelow, having been contacted by the San Francisco police. Invoking the favored film noir narrative device of the flashback, 90% of the plot unfolds as one long flashback. When the flashback ends Bigelow, not surprisingly, drops dead.
In between there is a lot of good story telling with a few weak patches. When Bigelow checks into a San Francisco hotel, looking forward to a week-long vacation, having left behind his secretary/girlfriend and all the worries of his work as a CPA, he immediately begins leering at the women in the lobby. While this adds one of the few light-hearted moments in what is a pretty tightly-wound film, the overdubbed sound effect of a wolf-whistle that sounds like it was supplied by Hanna-Barbera makes it hard to take the movie seriously. The character of Paula, Bigelow’s devoted secretary and girlfriend, is well-written and endearing, but at times Pamela Britton is a bit lacking.
But alongside these few problem areas are some fantastic and innovative sequences that become all the more amazing when you consider the period and the budgetary restraints director Rudolph Maté was working with. When Bigelow is informed by two doctors that he has ingested a “luminous poison” for which there is not antidote and it is too late to get it out of his system, he rushes to another clinic for a second opinion. When the grim prognosis is confirmed, and this doctor informs him that he has “been murdered,” the doomed man races through crowded sidewalk like a crazed person, pushing pedestrians out of the way and dodging traffic in an amazing tracking shot (with a few lap dissolves) that lasts two city blocks. The fact that this was a “stolen shot,” done without any filming permit or notification to the public, and probably with a camera hidden in the back of a truck, lends the scene a gritty realism that is absent the film noirs produced by major studios and mostly shot on studio back lots.
Bigelow finds out the key of the mystery is a bill of sale he notarized for a rare mineral that turned out to be stolen. He gets his hands on a photograph of a man who was supposedly the buyer, leading him to a photographer’s study where he learns the man’s identity, when he leaves the building, shots rain down on him from an abandoned warehouse next door. In another fantastic tracking shot, he moves through oil drums and boxes with bullets ricocheting around him, and he enters the building where he has a gun battle with a completely unseen opponent. The trail leads to a group of gangsters who were behind the mineral theft and illegal sale. When the leader of the gangsters decides that Bigelow knows too much about the sale, he sends him off with his psychotic henchman Chester (Neville Brand). They drive in front of an obvious rear projection screen, but when the trapped man looks over to a pair of motorcycle cops in front of a movie theater, this is another obvious stolen shot of a real location. Bigelow escapes and the battle between the two men moves into a drugstore, which is clearly also a real location, making for a kind of documentary realism that lost in even the best noir films.