D.O.A. (1950)

What’s stranger: a man walking into the homicide department of a police station and declaring that he himself is a murder victim, or that they already expected him? Both are shown in the first few minutes of Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A., which has Edmond O’Brien starring as the victim, Frank Bigelow. The film is told in flashback, as Frank relates his story to the homicide detectives. Parting from his girlfriend/secretary Paula (Pamela Britton) for a week’s vacation, Frank starts suffering mild stomach pains after a night’s partying. When he checks into a hospital’s emergency room, he can’t believe what he’s hearing, and goes to get a second opinion. The second doctor confirms: He’s ingested a lethal amount of “luminous toxin” (most likely radium, though it isn’t specified), and his body has already absorbed it into his system. He has a few days, a week at most, to live, though he is in reasonably good health for the immediate future.

With only a few days, and almost nothing to go on, Frank dedicates himself to finding his killer.

Radioactive substances: yet another reason not to leave your drink unattended.

The plot unfolds at a fast pace; honestly, it’s a little too fast, especially given the number of false leads and red herrings as Frank unravels the plot. There are a lot of times where somebody is involved in the plot to some degree, but isn’t the bad guy, and it all moves at such a brisk pace that there’s never any time for the audience to settle into thinking they know who did it. The movie actually manages to not leave time to be surprised at the twists; it’s hard to feel surprised at a revelation if you haven’t gotten comfortable with what you thought was the truth.

It’s not the film’s only problem. Maté makes some directorial decisions that took me out of the film; some are understandable, some not. During a scene when Frank is running, the scene goes through a few screen wipes to different parts of the city as he runs, and the timing of the wipes just doesn’t look right somehow. I appreciate what he was trying to do, but it just didn’t work for me. And during a gunfight scene, most of the shots are punctuated by different women in the area screaming. Granted, this is a noir standard trope, but it’s always irritated me. Worse than that, though, and most inexplicable, is that in the early scenes, whenever Frank (considering cheating on his girl) checks out a woman, there is the sound of a slide whistle going up and down. It’s incredibly cartoony, it’s unnecessary, and it doesn’t fit the mood of the overall film.

The acting is good, if mostly unspectacular. O’Brien gives an energetic performance as Frank, and most of the other actors deliver the standard level of quality you can expect from old mystery films. The women in the feature, Pamela Britton and Beverly Garland do the best they can with the limited roles they’re given, as does William Ching as businessman Halliday. Luther Adler plays a criminal ring leader, as a friendly but nevertheless ruthless and evil mastermind. Neville Brand gives what may be the best performance, albeit a brief one, as the psychotic assassin Chester.

The plot of D.O.A. has a very interesting core premise, but I felt that the odd directorial choices and the poor delivery of the revelations hampered it somewhat. It was remade in 1988, with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, and I may check out that version at a later date. As for the original, it’s still worth checking out if you like old mysteries, but don’t go in expecting Alfred Hitchcock.

Rating: 3 Stars

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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