Saturday, December 7, 2013


Many classic film noir plots deal with the doom of their main characters as they descend deep into mysteries and intrigue that lead them to their death or damnation, but few are as explicit in this regard as D.O.A. (1950). The film opens ominously as our hero marches into a police station to report his own murder, and the rest of the movie is a flashback detailing what led him to this point. Unfortunately, what begins as a grim, stark spin on our main character's impending mortality gets off track, to steal a line from the movie, and becomes stuffed with unconvincing, melodramatic filler.

After a night of drinking while on vacation in San Francisco, accountant Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien) awakens not feeling too well. He goes to a doctor and learns he's been poisoned, most likely slipped into one of his drinks the night before, and by now, it's already too late; Bigelow will die. With only a couple of days left at most, he sets out to find who has murdered him and why.

The beginning of D.O.A. opens with a lot of promise as Bigelow (whose face we can't see yet) walks down long, massive hallways, his back to the camera, and the film generates a sense of unease and anticipation in this wordless sequence. Then, he reaches the homicide division of the police station, and we finally see his haggard, tired face when he says it's his own murder he's reporting, and then the story proper begins. It's an effective, attention-grabbing opening that tells us we're not going on a happy, carefree journey but rather something all together nefarious and darker. Literally, we're watching a man march to his death.

But then, the main story begins, and the eventual revelations about who poisoned Bigelow, why, and how are ultimately revealed as ordinarily anti-climactic. Instead on Bigelow's impending doom and his confrontation with that fact, the movie devotes more time to the more pedestrian elements of a stolen metal, a nagging girlfriend Bigelow can't commit to, and stereotypical gangsters, widows, and double crosses. The dialogue, while having its moments of hard-boiled wit, falls mostly into either plot exposition or overblown melodrama, the latter especially by Pamela Britton as the girlfriend Paul. If it wasn't for the fact our main character was already dying, there really isn't much to separate this narrative from dozens of other film noirs of the period.

Outside of the opening sequence and a few other scenes (notably the shootout in the empty plant and the showdown between Bigelow and the film's main villain), the direction is flat and not particularly inspired. I imagine someone like Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, or Howard Hawks using this setup for a visually striking, atmospheric tapestry, but here, it's mostly entrances and exits and nothing especially stylish that makes you stand up and take notice. What's worse, in a movie just 83 minutes long, it takes nearly thirty minutes to get Bigelow discovering he's been poisoned; that's just way too long.

While watching D.O.A., I was reminded a bit of Chan-Wook Park's Oldboy (the remake directed by Spike Lee is currently in theaters). Both movies deal with a man who only has so much time to learn who was responsible for the crimes committed against him and why, but while Oldboy ventures into territory where the protagonist learns answers he wishes he could unlearn, D.O.A. is disappointingly simplistic and straightforward. The story of a doomed man searching for answers should have the feel of a paranoid nightmare, but D.O.A. comes off as just another crime picture.

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