Director: Rudolph Maté
Released in 1950, D.O.A. (short for ‘Dead on Arrival’) is a short, sharp film noir which manages to pack a lot of story into a pretty concise framework, and gives us a career –defining performance by noir-stalwart Edmund O’Brien.
The film centres around a bookkeeper named Frank Bigelow who, after a seemingly innocent (*cough*) night spent courting women during a vacation from his office and doting secretary and would-be-fiancée Paula (Pamela Britton), wakes up the next morning to discover that he had been poisoned the night before with a particularly fatal substance with no known antidote – worse yet, he’s left with a matter of days to live before the poison takes its effect and finishes him off. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bigelow suspects foul play and, beginning with a mysterious call made to his office the day before, tries to investigate the facts that led to his poisoning, and soon finds himself entangled with a shady mob conspiracy to which his work unwittingly exposed him to months before.
Beginning with Bigelow’s arrival at a police station to alert the authorities to a murder (‘Who’s murder?’ ‘…Mine’), the story is told in flashback format, beginning with his decision to take a vacation and taking it from there, before coming round full circle to the police station (think Murder, My Sweet and you get the idea). Although driven by the use of flashbacks, it mostly avoids the use of voiceover narration to guide the audience to the events of the story as it unfolds. Although given the short timeframe the story takes place over, it wouldn’t really have been needed anyway.
The story is certainly an interesting one, and becomes suitably complex as it progresses, and the overall mood is certainly bleak and shows a man in a truly hopeless situation – even for a film noir, the world of D.O.A. seems to have little left in the way of hope and redemption.
Often touted as a strong character actor (see The Killers and White Heat), Edmund O’Brien manages to take centre stage and proves his worth in doing so. His role as a faux-detective is reminiscent of his role of Jim Reardon in The Killers, though that’s no bad thing. He manages to display the panic and terror of a man suddenly faced with his last day or two of life left to live. He also captures the despair and tragedy of it when forced to make his final telephone call to Paula, reminding her of how much she meant to him and knowing that his chance of happiness is forever gone. It’s a tough role to play, but O’Brien pulls it off. The film is centred entirely around him, and certainly shows that O’Brien was as competent a lead character as he was a supporting one. Whilst he was a very prolific actor in his time, it’s a shame he didn’t get more success in his own right.
The support cast is fine, and Neville Brand is thoroughly entertaining as Chester, a hoodlum employed by the film’s villain to ‘clean up’ the problem of Bigelow’s existence, and who takes clear joy in the thought of making Bigelow suffer with shots to the gut, setting out how slow and painful he plans to make his death become. Pamela Britton is strong as Bigelow’s put-upon secretary and ignored romantic interest. The film is lacking a truly central femme fatale (not that it doesn’t have a few), but it’s the character of Paula who takes the female lead here. Thinking about it though, given the subject matter this approach probably is more effective – given the central lead is already a man doomed to fate, no amount of manipulation could make his situation any worse. Instead, the female lead is someone who truly does care for him, which makes the futility and inevitability of his situation all the more effective.
There are a few memorable scenes scattered throughout the movie – early on in a nightclub with some intense (and quite unusual) close-up shots of a jazz band in full swing as a late-night party is underway; the later scenes between Bigelow and Chester, including a dramatic shoot-out in a crowded store; and the final scene of Bigelow in the police station, as his story reaches its inevitable end and the film’s title becomes clear.
Overall, it’s a dark and quite sinister film, which squeezes quite a lot into its concise 83-minute running time. Sometimes it seems a little too short, but then it rather fits the film’s story about a man being left without any time to live. It has a unique story and Edmund O’Brien more than sufficiently takes the lead. It has earnt its place as a classic piece of film noir.