D.O.A was the first film noir I ever saw. I couldn’t have been more than thirteen years old when I stumbled across it in a videocassette bargain bin at Wal-Mart. I’m not sure why I bought it. I had no idea what “film noir” was, had never heard of Edmond O’Brien, and had not yet developed an affection for any movie that predated Star Wars. But the plot sounded interesting: an ordinary guy on vacation in San Francisco discovers he’s been incurably poisoned and has less than two days to track down his own killer.
Since D.O.A is the film that began my love affair with noir, I have to admit I’m pretty biased in its favor. It’s not a perfect movie, but it is an exceptionally entertaining piece of work. It stars Edmond O’Brien in his most famous role as Frank Bigelow, a small town accountant who’s starting to feel boxed in by his girlfriend Paula (Pamela Britton). Paula wants Frank to marry her; instead, Frank buys Paula a beer and tells her he’s going to San Francisco to do some sinning before he settles down with her. When he checks into his hotel in the big city, he finds plenty of opportunity for sin. His neighbors are a rowdy bunch of salesman who throw liquor (and their wives) at Bigelow and take him along to a jazz club called The Fisherman. After a blistering jazz number, Bigelow tries to pick up a sexy girl at the bar while an unknown man with a flipped up collar and turned-down hat sneaks him a drink spiked with poison. When Bigelow wakes up with a stomachache, he heads to the doctor. The prognosis: “You’ve been murdered.” With time running out, Bigelow darts around San Francisco and then down to LA in search of his killer.
The exact who and why of the murder aren’t really the point of a movie like this, and to be honest I’m rarely interested in the exact who and why of murder plots, anyway. As Raymond Chandler once noted, a good mystery is one where you don’t have to read the last page to be satisfied. A murder plot is just a puzzle, and D.O.A isn’t really a puzzle. As directed by former cinematographer Rudolph Mate` and written by the longtime screenwriting duo of Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene, D.O.A is more like a sprint through the dark environs of film noir.
It is a movie of surfaces, and it belongs to a genre of surfaces. Great noirs dig deep, of course, but the cosmetic elements are what we love about these movies. It was the elements of D.O.A that I fell in love with the first time I saw it: the ties and coats, the casual location shots of San Francisco, the constant pouring of alcohol and lighting of cigarettes, the intensity of the jazz scene and the way the music from that scene echoes into the next. The very artificiality of the thing—the beautiful harshness of the black and white cinematography, the hardboiled poetry of the language, O’Brien’s frenzy—all of it was like a smack needle for me. Once you become a noir junkie, only another dose will do.
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?