Friday 5 June 2020

Movie Review: D.O.A. (1949)

A crime thriller, D.O.A. (for Dead On Arrival) is a noir whodunit filled with divided loyalties and edgy conspirators.

In Los Angeles, Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien) stumbles into a police station and announces he has been murdered. In flashback, he recounts his story.

Bigelow is a tax lawyer in small town Banning, California. He sets off on a solo one-week vacation to San Francisco, leaving behind his deeply disappointed assistant and sweetheart Paula (Pamela Britton). In the big city Frank joins a group of traveling salesmen as they hit a nightclub, where he is tempted by Jeannie (Virginia Lee) and has his drink poisoned.

Paula's phone calls keep Frank grounded, but he wakes up with a horrible stomach ache. Medical exams prove he has been fatally poisoned and has just days to live. Determined to uncover the killer, Frank's first clue is a phone call from businessman Eugene Phillips, which leads to Los Angeles and Phillips' wife, brother Stanley, business associate Halliday and office assistant Miss Foster. They are all connected with criminal Majak, glamour model Marla, a group of henchmen, and a mysterious deal to purchase Iridium.

With a remarkable opening scene tracking Bigelow from behind as he makes his way down long and mostly empty hallways to the homicide office, director Rudolph Maté introduces a sparkling film noir. The screenplay by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene gathers all the essential elements: a treacherous murder, one epic flashback, several dangerous women, one pure and dedicated love, and a flawed protagonist meandering in the wrong moral direction.

Bigelow is mulling the status of his relationship with the admittedly clingy Paula, and his flirtation with Jeannie at the bar is the telling weakness creating the opportunity for the poison to invade his body. For the small town lawyer who abandoned a loving woman, the mixture of sexual temptation and alcohol proves fatal.

Frank's subsequent one-man investigation is epic in its door-storming determination. And in his quest to uncover the killer he does not meet a single honest living soul. The phone call from Mr. Phillips leads to a Los Angeles hopelessly overrun by creeps ranging from liars to criminals all the way through to the psychopath Chester. But Frank's one weapon is his impending death. He can no longer be fearful or threatened, and so bulldozes his way through layers of deception.

With a short running length of 84 minutes, the film's final third is a rushed blur of competing names, places, lies, and events, many occurring off-screen. Maté's control of the material starts to slip and the conspiracy narrative knocks on the doors marked incomprehensible and over-convoluted.

But the commitment to style and pacing persists, aided by an uncompromising Edmond O'Brien performance and stellar on-location cinematography by Ernest Laszlo. D.O.A. doggedly adheres to a passion for emotional triumph despite physical futility, the certainty of death unleashing clarity of thought and a rage for truth.

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