Thursday, December 9, 2010

D.O.A. (1950)

How's this for an entrance? In the opening minutes of D.O.A., Edmund O'Brien staggers into a police station, asks directions to the homicide division, then plops into a chair. "I'd like to report a murder," he rasps. The attentive investigator asks: "Who was murdered?" O'Brien replies: "I was."

No kidding. O'Brien plays Frank Bigelow, a small-town accountant who gets into big-time trouble when he takes an impulsive trip to San Francisco. He makes the journey primarily to avoid the marriage demands of his lovestruck secretary (Pamela Britton). Unfortunately, while he's having a drink with new friends in a jazz club, someone gives him a toxic cocktail. The next morning, Bigelow wakes up with a killer hangover, so he visits a local hospital. That's where he gets the bad news: He's been given a slow-acting poison, and has just a day or two left to live.

D.O.A. is a textbook example of film noir, a type of thriller -- vaguely defined but instantly recognizable -- that reached its peak of popularity in the decade following World War II, when hundreds of Hollywood features combined crime melodrama, aberrant psychology, sexual insecurity, Cold War paranoia and bizarrely lit, nightmarish camera work to varying degrees. Heavily influenced by German Expressionism, and frequently directed or photographed by German emigres, films noir are notorious for tell-tale visual hallmarks – trenchcoated tough guys, rainwashed streets, lazily spinning overhead fans, slats of light spilling through Venetian blinds into smoke-filled rooms – that continue to be evoked in everything from made-for-video B-movies to ultra-stylish TV spots for expensive toiletries. But the darkness in a true film noir isn’t so much a visual scheme as a state of mind, one best summed up by the hapless of protagonist of another noir classic, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945): “Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on your or me for no good reason at all.”

The funny thing about film noir is, people who made undisputed classics of the genre during the 1940s and ‘50s didn’t think of their moody movies as anything other than conventional (albeit stylish) thrillers. If you'd been hanging around a studio commissary back then, you certainly wouldn't have heard one director tell another: “Yeah, I'm wrapping up that western, then I'm doing that film noir with Bogart . . .”

It wasn't until French critics much later coined the term film noir -- literally, dark or black film -- that film buffs became fully aware of the qualities that distinguish a film as truly noir. As Ephraim Katz notes in The Film Encyclopedia, film noir “characteristically abounds with night scenes, both interior and exterior, with sets that suggest dingy realism, and with lighting that emphasizes deep shadows and accents the mood of fatalism.” Heroes as well as villains in film noir are “cynical, disillusioned and often insecure loners, inextricably bound to the past and unsure and apathetic about the future.”

In D.O.A., O'Brien's Bigelow is a prototypical noir protagonist, a not-entirely-innocent bystander who's unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. At first, he suspects his death sentence was handed down by an elegant smuggler (Luther Adler) with whom he's had indirect business dealings. But the answer to the mystery really lies in a bill of sale that Bigelow notarized back home. The document is potentially incriminating evidence, and two co-conspirators want to destroy all trace of it.

Throughout a long flashback bracketed by Bigelow's fateful visit to the police station, D.O.A. shows how knowing you're about to die can be empowering, if not liberating. The movie refrains from stating the obvious, but there's little doubt that Bigelow behaves with uncharacteristic bravery while hunting for his killer only because he knows he has nothing left to lose, no one left to fear. He even keeps his cool during confrontations with the smuggler's chief henchman (Neville Brand), a grinning psychopath who does his best to make Bigelow's short life miserable.

O'Brien, always a dependable character actor, gives one of his finest performances here as a man who wants to make every minute count while he's running out of time. He's at his best in a surprisingly affecting scene that has Bigelow phoning his secretary, and trying very hard not to tell her what's wrong. From the look on his face and the pauses in his conversation, you can tell he's thinking about how different things might have been had he not been so quick to avoid a long-term commitment to this woman who loves him.

Polish-born Rudolph Mate (1899-1964) started out as a cameraman for the great Carl Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc) before moving to the United States to work with such notables as Alfred Hitchcock (Foreign Correspondent) and Ernst Lubitsch (To Be or Not to Be). As a director, his resume includes everything from sci-fi spectacle (When Worlds Collide) to Tony Curtis star vehicles (The Black Shield of Falworth). But he remains best known to film buffs for D.O.A., an engrossing 1950 drama that sustains an unsettling atmosphere of noirish dread even during scenes shot in broad daylight.

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