Filmmaker Rudolph Maté has a damn impressive list of films under his belt as both a director and a DP. He started out shooting classics like The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940), then when set his sights on directing, he busted out noir classics like Gilda (1946) and today’s film: the dark beast known as D.O.A. As bleak and downbeat as D.O.A. is, it’s also kinda comical – borderline slapstick. This is thanks to the over the top physical performance by Edmond O’Brien, who plays a man whose time is running out quicker than you can say dead.on.arrival.
The film begins with small time accountant Frank Bigelow (O’Brien) stumbling into the L.A.P.D. homicide division. He’s there to report a murder…HIS OWN! From there the film flashbacks as Frank delivers his testimony. It all began when he wanted to get away from his fiancé Paula for a while. He needs his breathing room and Paula, who is also one of his secretaries, is happy to be attached at the hip to him. So before he’s tied down b the old ball and chain for life, he hops a plane to San Francisco to live it up one more time.
His first night there he parties with a group of Dionysian businessmen, who are more than welcoming to Frank. At the hotel, every time Frank checks out a girl, a slide whistle plays. It’s really weird, but looking at the big picture, the wacky sound effects add to the comical, Looney Tunes vibe of the later scenes. The group winds up at a jive joint, where the locals speak in hip jargon that goes way over Frank’s head. One girl calls the band “silk,” which I guess means smooth. I dig.
At the bar Frank orders a bourbon, but when he sips it, the drink tastes kinda funny. That small sip was enough to poison him though with a luminous toxin. Now the clock is ticking. Frank wakes up the next morning feeling queasy and when he gets himself to a doctor, he’s told he has up to a week to live. Frank doesn’t believe the quack, but demands a remedy. It’s too late, the doctor explains, you’ve been murdered.
This kicks off a plot as convoluted and twisting as any found in noir. Frank sets off to find his killer, running from location to location at furious speed. That’s how the film unravels once the death mark is placed on him: rapid fire. He becomes a detective, to a point, interrogating anyone and everyone that could be connected to the glass of bourbon he was given at the bar.
Frank is Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Mike Hammer all rolled up into one doomed ball of rage. As the poison begins rotting away his insides, O’Brien’s physical performance becomes increasingly like that of a cartoon character. His legs shuffle when he runs, his arms flail, his head wobbles. It’s an entertaining performance to say the least. But is he a sympathetic character? Towards the end, when he realizes his true love for Paula, I’d say yes. But when we first meet him he’s a tail chaser whose itchings for infidelity lead him to the bar, to the toxic cocktail.
Rudolph Maté really takes advantage of on location shooting, particularly on the streets. There’s LOTS of movement out on the pavement. After Frankie finds out the clock is ticking on his insides, he books it out on the street and just runs it out. The camera follows him for most of it as he bombs his way through crowds and between cars. They’re really energetic visuals.
D.O.A. is an exciting noir that’s as fun and lively as it is bleak. It’s probably the best radioactive accountant detective story live action cartoon I’ve ever seen.