Video Reviews: D.O.A. (1950)
Reviewed by Jerry Renshaw, Fri., Dec. 3, 1999
D: Rudolph Maté (1950); with Edmond O'Brien, Pamela Britton, Luther Adler, Beverly Garland.
In 1950, Edmond O'Brien was at the top of his form, typically in "everyman" roles. His fleshy features and stocky build made him an unlikely leading man but a believable victim of circumstance. In D.O.A., he plays Frank Bigelow, a man poisoned by a lethal, slow-acting toxin; with only 24 hours to live, he sets out to find the men who wanted him dead and why.
Directed by Rudolph Maté, this is one of the finest examples of film noir both visually and thematically. Its dime-novel plot embraces the near-existential fatalism so common to noir; what could be more fatalistic than a dying, desperate man who knows he only has hours to live? With the end in sight, Bigelow has nothing to lose as he hunts down the culprits. Another common thread of much pulp fiction was a fixation on gadgets, and the tools used to find Bigelow's murderers embody the state of the art for 1950 gadgetry. Maté made the best of a modest budget and gave the movie more than the usual dose of dark, expressionistic lighting and camerawork by the brilliant Ernest Laszlo, responsible for the noirs Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and While the City Sleeps (1956), as well as Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965), Fantastic Voyage (1966), and Star (1968). Maté first made a name for himself as a cinematographer in Europe, where he shot Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Vampyr (1932). In the states he shot dozens of films, working his way up from B-movies to such films as Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1942), Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942), Charles Vidor's Gilda (1946), and (uncredited) Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai. In 1947, after breaking into directing with some low-budget films including a couple of minor noirs (Union Station, The Dark Past), Maté became a journeyman director of Westerns, action pictures, and the like. Screen heavy Neville Brand also turns up, in an early role that points to some of the classic villains he would play in later films. O'Brien himself is not an entirely likable character; he's a womanizer, Scotch slurper, and chain smoker, with hair in need of an oil change, but he rises to the occasion when he finds out what's happened to him. The plot inherently moves itself along quickly, making D.O.A. one of the more suspenseful noirs of the period and a box-office success for 1950.
Forget the tepid 1988 remake; this is the real thing, with a lean, propulsive plot that would do novelists Cornell Woolrich or Dashiell Hammett proud.