“ Genre: Drama / Theatrical Release: 1950 / Director: Rudolph Maté / Actors: Edmond O'Brien, Pamela Britton, Luther Adler, Beverly Garland, Lynn Baggett ... / DVD released 2003-03-18 at Alpha Video / Features of the DVD: Black & White, DVD-Video, NTSC „
Edmund O'Brien as Frank Bigelow
Pamela Britton as Paula Gibson
Luther Adler as Majak
Neville Brand as Chester
No, this is not a review of the awful 'DOA: Dead or Alive' (2006), thankfully. This is the edge-of-your-seat film noir masterpiece from 1950, darkly directed by celebrated cinematographer Rudolf Mate and starring Edmund O'Brien as the unluckiest innocent bystander ever.
Even if you're not an old film noir buff like I am, this movie is a must-see. The story is timeless, its horrific premise something that could happen to any hapless bystander in any era. I've seen this several times, from when I was a small child to the present, and it never loses it impact. This will suck you in from the very beginning, when mild-mannered accountant Frank Bigelow arrives at the local police station looking weary and dishevelled and announces 'I want to report a murder.'
OK, that's pretty bad news but not so shocking to all of us moviegoers hardened by a life of modern flicks where murder is pretty much de rigour in everything. However, the following conversation ensues: 'Sit down,' says the homicide captain. 'Where was this murder committed?' 'San Francisco, last night,' replies Frank. 'Who was murdered?' 'I was.'
Huh? Is Frank just some kind of nut? What can he possibly mean?
It quickly transpires that the police have already been informed that someone called Frank Bigelow has been slipped a slow-acting poison by someone in San Francisco and has only 24 hours to live, and they have been looking for him. So, they are relieved that he has now brought himself in, and that he can tell them himself what happened. With time being of the essence, he begins to recount to them the many complex events of the past day.
The story dissolves into flashback material of his intensive and determined hunt to find out who did this to him and why. His tragic scenario begins with his having been sent out of town to San Francisco on a business trip, joining some fellow hotel guests for drinks at a local bar there, and then feeling a bit unwell the next morning with what he at first thinks is just a hangover.
When the suspected hangover doesn't shift, he visits a local doctor who discovers that Frank has somehow ingested what he calls a 'luminous poison', a lethal radioactive substance, and breaks the bad news to him that too much of it has already been absorbed into his system and that he only has a day or two to live. 'You've been murdered', the doctor sadly sums it up.
In a state of shock, Frank sets out to try to find out how and why this happened, getting involved with lots of very dodgy situations and often dangerous characters in his quest for an explanation. He is able to determine that it was slipped into his drink at a jazz club attended by himself and some of his fellow hotel guests, but can not determine any idea as to why. Little by little he starts to put the pieces together, despite resistance and obstruction the whole way throughout the sleazy underworld his search leads him into, and more twists and turns than you can shake a corkscrew at.
This is an excellent example of the film noir genre, with the darkest story imaginable and atmosphere so thick you could slice it with a knife, with gloomy sets and seedy bars patronised by dubious characters. Direction is superb and cinematography is in top Noir form, with effectively dramatic use of darkness and shadows. This is a black and white film that HAS to be in black and white for that true Noir look and feel.
The one small thing that mars it a bit for me (and for many other movie buffs, from the comments I've read) is a misguided attempt at humour in the beginning of the film, when Frank stays at the San Francisco hotel and there is a big boozy convention in progress: a series of loud wolf-whistles was dubbed into the soundtrack each time an attractive woman walks by, as if this is a fluffy comedy rather than the spooky tragedy it soon turns into. Maybe this was a way of establishing a contrast between the light-hearted everyday situations Frank's life normally consists of and the really extreme stuff that happens next, but it tends to jar. Luckily, this is the ONLY flaw in the film, so don't be put off by it!
Acting is superb on all counts, with really psycho bad guys (such as Chester, a specially deranged sadistic killer maniac who goes around referring to himself in the third person, played by the wonderful Neville Brand who is one of my all-time favourite bad-guy actors) and wisecracking dames: 'If you were a MAN, I'd punch your dirty face in!' is one of my favourite female wisecracks amongst the many that the once mild-mannered but rapidly toughening-up Frank receives.
Edmund O'Brien is absolutely compelling in what is probably his best-ever role as the likeable, ordinary office paper-pusher who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up the victim of extremely cruel fate. He seems born to play the part, and it's hard to imagine anyone else playing Frank Bigelow so well. A really poor remake was made of this in 1988 which, much as I like its star Dennis Quaid, is not worth seeing!
For those who are not aware of it, 'D.O.A'. is the acronym for an American medical phrase often used by police, 'Dead on Arrival', hence the very apt title for the film.
Recommended as a definite must-see, even for those who wouldn't normally watch old films. This is a real classic.
My copy is not the same DVD as that depicted on this page, but is from a collection called '50 Dark Crimes Classics', in which there are no extras, so this is a film-only review.
Also on Ciao.