Film Noir Classics: D.O.A.

In the opening moments of Rudolph Mate’s suspense heavy film noir masterpiece D.O.A. (1950) star Edmond O’Brien is filmed in a tracking shot as composer Dimitri Tiompkin’s barreling percussion and tension filled strings accompany the images on the screen. As O’Brien’s character walks into police headquarters his motivation for doing so is unknown until the credits end and he opens the Homicide Division’s office door. He is introduced to us as Frank Bigelow a man the police have been looking for. He then reports a murder: his own and recounts his tragic yet unique story to the officers…

Through the flashback we learn Bigelow ran a small accounting business in Banning, California in the desert near Palm Springs and decided to take a vacation to San Francisco. His girlfriend Paula (Pamela Britton) wants to go but he doesnt want to take her and she gets angry but the two make up and go have a drink at a local bar. Paula lets Frank know that she thinks him taking a break from work and their relationship might be good for them.

Bigelow ends up traveling to San Fran by himself and checks into the St Francis Hotel. We get a bit of humor from the screwball sound effect that occurs when pretty women walk by. Bigelow’s room happens to be adjacent to the Market Week event which has been held all week for traveling salesmen. Sam Haskell one of the salesmen invites Bigelow to have a drink with him and the rest of the folks across the hall in his room. The group then invite Frank to go out with them to a club where a swing band is playing. The joint is hopping and the young hepcats are yelling “go on! get it!”. After one of the guys wives comes on to Frank, he is chastized and leaves.

A mysterious man walks into the bar while Frank notices a blonde girl who the bartender tells him comes in often alone. Frank says hello and buys her a drink. Nearby, the mysterious man drops a mickey finn in Frank’s drink and leaves. Frank takes a swig and he notices it tastes strange. Frank talks Jeannie (Virginia Lee) a bit more then heads back to his hotel.

The next day Frank wakes up with what he thinks is a hangover then orders some tomato juice from room service. When he looks at the juice he sends it away still feeling a bit ill. He becomes alarmed enough that he goes to get a medical checkup and is appropriately shocked to learn that he’s been poisoned. The doctor explains the unique type of serum attacks the vital organs, works quickly with no signs of illness then suddenly kills the victims and worst of all: there’s no antidote. Frank is given from one day to a few weeks at the most to live. He is convinced the doctors are crazy then goes to another clinic to get a second opinion, but hes notified its true. The doctor shows Frank that the toxin is luminous (glows in the dark) give the scene a bit of a sci fi touch. Frank runs desperately down the street and across town. As Tiompkin’s score gets faster and more bold Frank walks in unison with it we visually see that he realizes he needs to rise to the occasion and become a detective to find out who’s behind his murder. His first thought is to go back to the club where he inbibed the liquid the night before but cant get in. Then he goes back to Haskell’s room to confront him but hes gone leaving him out of luck.

Paula phones Frank at his hotel room letting him know that one of his clients Mr Eugene Phillips has recently died and that he had wanted to speak to Frank before his passing. After finding out about Phillips’ business being in Los Angeles, Frank flies down to investigate what Phillips actually died from but is met with anger from Phillip’s coworkers Mr. Halliday (William Ching) and a secretary Miss Foster (Beverly Garland) for being so aggressive in his questioning of Phillips’ business. Bigelow’s assuming Phillips was poisoned is quickly proven false when Halliday informs him he had committed suicide jumping from the balcony of his apartment.

Frank next meets with Phillips’ widow (Lynn Baggatt) and his brother Stanley (Henry Hart) but they don’t know why he wanted to speak with Bigelow before he died either. Frank does however find out from Stanley that Eugene was mixed up in a strange business deal concerning a rare metal called Iridium. This unseen red herring leads Bigelow deeper into a maze of mystery and murder as time ticks away on his own life clock.

Look for a memorable appearance by a young Neville Brand as a psychopathic thug named Chester and a sequence which takes place in the Bradbury Building which will look familiar to fans of Ridley Scott’s neo noir/sci fi classic Blade Runner (1982).

D.O.A is an exceptional noir thriller that takes a simple plot idea and uses that to its full advantage as a way to drive the story forward with a constant urgency and tension. The ending is easily one of the most bleak and downbeat of its kind as well. This film, like Sunset Boulevard which was released the same year, have a similar first person character flashback structure that became a classic trademark of film noir.

The film was later remade as Color Me Dead (1969) directed by Eddie Davis and again in 1988 under its original title directed by Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton starring Dennis Quaid in the Edmond O’Brien role.



Editor-In-Chief of The Grindhouse Cinema Database/Furious Cinema contributor. Pete is a rabid movie geek who enjoys everything from wild n' crazy exploitation/cult flix to big budget mainstream classics. His other interests include: graphic design, cartooning and music.

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