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D.O.A. (1950)

by on 2011/03/24

As I’ve mentioned before, the late-night/early-morning Off Beat Cinema was an important discovery for me some twenty years ago. It triggered — or tapped into — my deep affection for low-budget B-pictures, especially those produced from the mid-1940s to the mid-to-late Sixties. Through it, I was introduced to Little Shop of Horrors (1960), Night of the Living Dead (1968), Plan 9 from Outer Space, and tonight’s special, D.O.A.

This vintage noir, a frequently lip-serviced classic, begins and ends at night, in the depths of an urban police department. A long, nearly unbroken tracking shot follows the virtual silhouette of Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) as he arrives to report a murder: his own.

From that framework, the narrative jumps back, revealing the events which led him to the homicide division. Bigelow ran a small accounting, tax, and notary business in the town of Banning, California. He decides to visit San Francisco on holiday, feeling “crowded” by an affair with his secretary, Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton).

Once away, he joins in a hotel party, moves on to a jazz club, flirts with a barfly, and consumes a strange-tasting bourbon. The next day, awakening unwell, he’s diagnosed as poisoned with a luminous toxin. Having mere days — perhaps only hours — to live, he investigates how and why he’s been marked for death.

Unfortunately, as interesting as the setup might be, what follows becomes decreasingly so. His pursuit of truth, the twisting and turning, an apparent conspiracy . . . all seem promising in theory, yet mix poorly in practice. The plot feels wholly unplanned. Each new development distracts from an earlier issue, plus introduces new knots to untangle. There’s a difference between a stimulation and frustration, but D.O.A. isn’t aware of it.

After the faux poignancy of watching children and young couples, Bigelow’s personal romance, and a protracted, convoluted tale, I realized I no longer cared. I found him a fair-weather lothario, an ineffective hero, and an unsympathetic victim besides. Morally complex should not mean uncharismatic; a rogue must have his charms. Thus my attention gradually shifted from the movie’s plight to its style.

Despite a poor quality print of this public domain stalwart, the visual and audio riches were hard to miss. The opening shot match footsteps with the doomed percussion of timpani beats. Transitional wipes accentuate the pace of flight. Cloudy atmospheres and dreamy subsonics — like a low theremin or echo-treated harp run — convey a state of mind. Escheresque stairways suggest a recursive, conflicted struggle.

Other devices are employed much less subtly, as with the superimposed image of a drain emptying, or a demonstration of the toxin’s (literal) luminosity. However, the most disruptive effect of all is a slide whistle sound. Presumably intended to emulate a wolf whistle, it appears at least five times during the movie, when Bigelow observes attractive women passing by.

The quaint effect is less embarrassing for its sexism — a trait we may attribute to his character — than clumsy execution. Fortunately, these intrusions are grouped in close proximity, and can be dismissed fairly early on.

At present, I have seen D.O.A. three times, all in all. With an approximate gap of ten years between each opportunity, I’m not surprised the plot details keep dissipating from my mind. By the end of my latest viewing, I felt little benefit from hindsight. It simply didn’t matter “whodunit” or why. Style became the reason I stuck it out.

* * *

Full movie (public domain) available here:

Not rated

84 minutes

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