Clarence Doolittle: She’s wonderful. She’s just about the loveliest…Only, you know something? I can never talk to her. I can never talk to girls at all. I never know what to say. The Girl From Brooklyn: What’s the matter with you? You’re talking to me, ain’t you? Clarence Doolittle: Oh, you…Oh, I mean…I mean, you’re different. You’re from Brooklyn.
Rudolph Maté was one of Europe’s most accomplished cinematographers, whose camerawork for The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, France) and Vampyr (1932, France/Germany) rank among some of the most distinctively shot films of all time. When he took his talents to Hollywood in the 1930s, his excellent output did not stop, with films such as Dodsworth (1936), Stella Dallas (1937), Foreign Correspondent (1940), and To Be or Not to Be (1942) among these later works. By 1947, Maté launched his directorial career and his work in D.O.A. (which stands for “dead on arrival” and is based on the 1931 German comedy film The Man in Search of His Murderer) is excellent, though somewhat let down by its whirlwind pace which can make the latter half of the film quite difficult to follow and the inconsistently-written dialogue that ranges from the incisive to cringeworthy corniness. D.O.A. is a good noir that needs desperately needs someone to give it a restoration. Immediately.
The film opens with a sensational development: accountant Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien) is followed in a behind-the-back tracking shot as he walks through the halls of the police station to report his own murder. The LAPD aren’t surprised and already have his information given to them from San Francisco. Cue the flashback and noir-style cynical narration and we soon learn Bigelow sipped a shifty drink filled with “luminous toxin” (explained as iridium, but even the film’s science is sketchy) and that there is no cure at this late stage. The doctors give Bigelow a week to live at most, but most likely only one or two days. Bigelow - with the inadvertent assistance of his secretary girlfriend Paula (Pamela Britton, whose character is based in Los Angeles) - seeks out his murderer and his or her intentions. Flying almost immediately down to Los Angeles, he crisscrosses back and forth across the City of Angels to question the likes of Miss Foster (Beverly Garland), Mr. Halladay (William Ching), the widow (Lynn Baggett) of a man named Eugene Phillips and her brother Stanley (Henry Hart). He also runs into a posse of gangsters and the film really becomes complicated from here.
Before you ask whether or not this film has a happy ending please do yourself a favor and read the title of the film. Bigelow is a doomed man as is established in the opening few minutes and he could care less about dying. All he cares about is finding his murderer and dispensing of that person. How Bigelow goes about dashing across San Francisco, hopping on the first plane down to SoCal, and zipping across Los Angeles in a matter of what is probably less than twenty-four hours seems nigh impossible. He finds himself in a series of frightening and spine-tingling situations and shootouts that I wish upon no one. Bigelow never sits down or stands still in this movie unless he has to as he elects to pace about and sprint his way across the length of this film. The way he even enters rooms is excessive in its animation. His performance is completely overwrought (look at that picture above this write-up for crying out loud!) and it is brilliant in that respect as only when his character is faced with his impending death does he truly begin to actually live. But my debauched desire for entertainment did not care if D.O.A. was realistic or not in all of its depraved chaos. The premise of a future homicide victim investigating his own imminent murder is a mouthwatering prospect and D.O.A. delivers on arrival.
While Maté sat in the director’s chair, another accomplished cinematographer Ernest Laszlo controlled the cameras. His work is most masterful just before and during action scenes. Along with film editor Arthur H. Nadel, their aggregate work results in a film as fidgety as the main character. A lack of a clean, restored print makes it difficult to ascertain the effectiveness of the lighting schema as film noir is known for its extreme chiaroscuro - contrasts between lights and darks. The suspense-building is superb and the fast editing and fluid camerawork has ensured that D.O.A. has barely aged since its 1950 release. It is still a devilishly exciting experience as the twists and turns and the presence of psychopathic henchmen (Neville Brand in particular) allow D.O.A. to be a whirlwind of a noir, a shot to the arm of action and desperation.
Then there is Dimitri Tiomkin’s “what the hell is going on”-inducing score. String runs are everywhere in a glorious hodgepodge of extremely complicated minor key passages covering too many octaves in too little time and using far too many slurs for a majority of the film. If it didn’t accompany Bigelow’s anguished state, Tiomkin’s score might be classified as music for music’s sake. Though it might not be the most pleasant to listen to, it fits the film extremely well.
And though some might digress, I consider D.O.A. to be a narrative mess. The film moves so rapidly in the second half and introduces several characters in a short span of time. One might be hard-pressed to explain the resolution of this rollercoaster of a film noir and this does make the conclusion less rewarding as it should be. The character of Paula is underutilized and the romantic subplot doesn’t feel deserved. But yet, D.O.A. is a solid film noir that refuses to release the viewer by the scruff of the neck, dragging us along with Bigelow as he bounds across the city and witness his case of diaphoresis. The San Francisco running scenes were shot without a city permit so one actually sees confused civilians bumping into O'Brien during his performance. In Los Angeles, the final showdown with the murderer is set in the Bradbury Building amid its iron staircases and ornate railings - the building would later be used in Blade Runner for its climax, too.
D.O.A. is a film noir unafraid of wreaking havoc. Considering that Bigelow is living on borrowed time, it is a hell of a way to live out an otherwise unremarkable existence beforehand. As it is in the public domain, D.O.A. has over twenty companies that offer a home video version and - as a result - the prints comes in various levels of quality. Though sorely lacking of a restoration, D.O.A. remains perversely entertaining for its very premise and its obdurate refusal to slow down.
My rating: 7.5/10
^ Based on my personal imdb rating. Half-points are always rounded down.
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Maleducado y antipático, así era Ryan Clayborne. Desde que lo conoció, Jorie Peters prometió pasar el menor tiempo posible con el hosco ranchero. Tener que organizar su boda era solo una cuestión de mala suerte. Pero las chispas que saltaban entre ellos suponían un gran peligro. Lo último que Ryan necesitaba era que una coordinadora de bodas se paseara por el rancho. Debía centrarse en su matrimonio temporal con una amiga de la que no estaba enamorado. Pero nada más ver a Jorie su vida y su corazón se pusieron cabeza abajo. Ryan estaba decidido a hacer lo correcto… aunque nunca le hubiera parecido tan incorrecto.