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From its startling opening sequence in which a man wanders into a police precinct house to report a murder - his own - to its inevitably fatal conclusion, D.O.A. (1950) is a relentlessly dark tale told in flashback, a technique that adds inmeasurably to the film's complex plot as flashbacks occur within flashbacks, pulling you deeper into an endless rabbit hole. The journey into darkness begins as Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien), a small-town businessman, travels to San Francisco to enjoy a final bachelor weekend before marrying his fiancee Paula (Pamela Britton). Once there, Bigelow hooks up with some fellow conventioneers who make their way to The Fisherman, a smoky waterfront pub where the jazz is like wild and crazy, man. Amid the pounding rhythm of the band and the transfixed patrons, a stranger slips up to the bar unnoticed to swap Bigelow's drink with a lethal cocktail. From here the story quickly spirals into a nightmare as Bigelow discovers he has been poisoned with iridium, a toxic mineral, and that he has only a few days to live. His final act is to track down his assassin and learn the reason for his own murder.
One of the most imaginative and frenetic entries in the film noir genre, D.O.A. works as both a detective thriller and as a bleak, nihilistic melodrama. Its doomed central character is distinctly different from most protagonists in this genre in that he is completely reckless and often takes dangerous personal risks. But after all, he has nothing to lose since he's a walking dead man anyway. Edmond O'Brien is ideally cast here and author Eddie Muller pays him a fitting homage in his book, The Lost World of Film Noir (St. Martin's Griffin): "Realizing that the convoluted plot is little more than a succession of gab-happy interrogation scenes, director Rudolph Mate gave O'Brien free rein to push the proceedings to a fever pitch. O'Brien responded with a performance more animated than Daffy Duck. He frantically lunges in and out of rooms; you can almost see the animated motion lines poof from the doorframes. He skitters and slides down hallways, outrunning his feet in the best Chuck Jones tradition. O'Brien is so overheated he can't stand still for a moment, lest he drown in a pool of sweat."
D.O.A. was based on Der Mann, Der Seinen Morder Sucht, a 1931 German film directed by Robert Siodmak, which dealt with a dying man's investigation of his forecoming demise. Rudolph Mate stuck to the original premise but adapted a much darker tone that presents a chaotic view of contemporary society. The film also offers two alternate tours of San Francisco and Los Angeles which aren't on any tourist map. These aren't the colorful local attractions you've seen in postcards but noctural glimpses of police stations, waterfront dives, and dark, deserted streets that are inexorably linked like a giant maze with no exit. In 1988, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, the creators of Max Headroom remade D.O.A. with Dennis Quaid as the doomed hero but it was universally panned by the critics and not popular with audiences either.
Of interest to collectors of film trivia is the presence of Diana Barrymore in an uncredited bit part in D.O.A. . The daughter of famous actor and legendary alcoholic John Barrymore, Diana also led a troubled personal life and was at the lowest point in her career when she appeared in D.O.A. She made her final movie appearance the following year - also in an uncredited bit - in The Mob but made a brief comeback effort in 1958 with the publication of her autobiography, Too Much, Too Soon. Despite the book's success, she took her own life in 1960.
Producer: Leo C. Popkin
Director: Rudolph Mate
Screenplay: Clarence Greene, Russell Rouse
Art Direction: Duncan Cramer Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Costume Design: Maria P. Donovan
Film Editing: Arthur H. Nadel
Original Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Principal Cast: Edmond O'Brien (Frank Bigelow), Pamela Britton (Paula Gibson), Luther Adler (Majak), Beverly Garland (Miss Foster), Lynne Baggett (Mrs. Philips), Neville Brand (Chester), William Ching (Halliday).
by Jeff Stafford