Now as I said before, D.O.A has its flaws. Dmitri Tiomkin was a great composer, but the scenes of Bigelow ogling girls at the hotel are scored like a Pepe le Pew cartoon. These scenes are silly, but a bigger problem for the film is the awful performance of Pamela Britton as Paula. Britton’s specialty was light comedy, and she had a successful career on television in the early fifties. Here, though, she’s weepy and annoying. You can't fault Bigelow for wanting to get away from Paula. She’s a cipher, a soppy, clingy mess. When Bigelow declares his love for her at the end, we just have to figure it’s the poison talking.
Luckily, the rest of the cast is superb. Luther Adler is silk-smooth as Majak, the gangster at the center of the mystery. And as Majak’s psycho henchman, Chester, the great Neville Brand is simply my all-time favorite noir nutjob. Brand only has a few scenes, but his orgasmic you-don’t-like-it-in-the-belly-do-you-Bigelow sniveling just about steals the whole damn show. I say just about because at the end of the day the film still belongs to Edmond O’Brien. This guy was the King of the Downward Spiral (see his other great crack-up performance in Shield for Murder), and here he’s all sweaty urgency in the face of certain death.
It was that certainty which drew me to this movie in the first place and which continues to pull me deeper into the noir universe. Frank Bigelow dies at the end of D.O.A. By saying this, I’m not giving anything away; it’s the title of the movie. There’s never any doubt that he’s going to die, just like there’s no doubt that I’m going to die, yet D.O.A is about as fun as a movie has any right to be. And that’s the big trick of film noir, the magic. How can a movie—how can an entire genre—be predicated on making fatalism as fun as a night at a casino?