In the genre of film noir, the 1949-50 film D.O.A. (for “Dead On Arrival”) is recognized as a classic example of the style. Films noir are typically identified as gritty crime dramas, usually American, almost always set at night or in dark places, and usually involving the night life to some extent, filling the screen with cigarette smoke and dangerous dames. They are not bright happy movies, hence the name “black film” (in French).
With a running time of under 90 minutes (1 hour and 23 minutes)
The movie opens with the focal point of the movie, Frank Bigelow (played by Edmond O’Brien) marching with grim purpose down the hallways of a Los Angeles police station. The camera follows Bigelow as the music, loud and sinister, swells to a halt as Bigelow arrives in the office of the Homicide Division. Bigelow asks to see the man in charge, and says he wants to report a murder.
He is taken to the Captain, who asks where the murder was committed. Bigelow answers “San Francisco, last night.” The next question is “Who was murdered?”. We finally get to see Bigelow’s face, obviously suffering the effects of a harrowing night, distressed and exhausted, his tie loosened and collar unbuttoned. After a dramatic pause, he replies simply, “…I was.” The Captain, showing no reaction to this surprising news, asks if he’s Frank Bigelow. When he confirms it, the Captain informs him that they’ve been looking for him.
And thus we are hurled immediately into a “whodunit”. After the attention-grabbing opening scene, our hapless victim begins telling his story, and the pace slows as we are taken back in time a few days. Frank Bigelow is a Notary Public, specializing in accounting and income taxes. About as thrilling an occupation as one could imagine, next to lion-tamer (nod to Monty Python).
We find out later that Frank Bigelow has been poisoned over the sale of some iridium – a very rare metal whose isotopes are radioactive – a deal he notarized that went sour, but the poison has not yet taken full effect. Some mistakenly think that he was posioned by the iridium, but the poison is only identified as “luminous toxin”, a chemical that makes the blood glow in the dark. Almost comically so, actually, as it is demonstrated in the film.
The poison is delivered while Bigelow is out carousing at a jazz club while on vacation in San Francisco. A mysteriously overdressed man switches drinks with Bigelow while he is distracted with Jeanne, one of the “jive crazy” regular patrons.
The jazz club scene is one that I watched several times. There is so much packed into it. It is set in a club called The Fisherman, which is packed with white people seemingly trying way to hard to not only enjoy the music, but to appear as if they are enjoying it. In one quick crowd shot, the entire bar seems to be rhythmically challenged. Not one of them seems to be capable of staying in time with the breakneck tempo of the band. If someone in the crowd was having a seizure, it would have gone entirely unnoticed. Everything about this scene is over the top – the quick edits, the camera close-ups, the patrons’ exuberance, the musicians’ intensity, and Frank Bigelow’s clear dissatisfaction with the whole thing, and that is what makes it so delicious.
The film’s music is worth a special mention. The score is provided by Dimitri Tiomkin, one of the most versatile composers in American cinema from 1931 through 1968. He would score such diverse and memorable films as The Guns of Navarone, It’s a Wonderful Life, Giant, Dial M for Murder, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and the unmistakable theme for the popular television show Rawhide (which used a bullwhip as a percussion instrument). D.O.A.’s score is, as I mentioned before, loud and sinister, and at times frantic. It is anything but subtle.
Then there is the music in the club. The house band is called The Fishermen, but it’s mostly jive-swing artists James Von Streeter and his band, the Wig-Poppers. The club scene opens with Streeter himself appearing first with his saxophone, blistering through some of the most intense jive you’ve ever heard, and each of the band members appears in turn. As incredible as the performance is, and as incredible as the performers are, it is really a lip-sync. The actual saxophonist was an even bigger jazz legend, session musician Maxwell Davis. The music was a significant departure for Davis, who would later become a major founding influence in the considerably mellower R&B genre.
The film has few corny moments, but one is particularly annoying. To illustrate that Bigelow is a bit of a womanizer, every time he ogles a woman (which seems to be quite often) we hear a slide-whistle doing a slow “wolf-whistle”. O’Brien’s acting is plenty enough to convey his womanizing, and the slide-whistle shatters the “fourth wall” quite uncomfortably and unnecessarily. The whistle does, however, only last for the first 20 minutes, adding to a clear distinction between the moods of the film before and after the pivotal point of the poisoning.
After the club scene, Bigelow awakens the next morning feeling a little off. He visits a doctor who informs him very dramatically that he has been poisoned, he has already received a fatal dose, and there is no known antidote to this “luminous toxin”. The doctor tells him he has anywhere from a day to a week to live. Bigelow instantly assumes a “dead man walking” urgency for the rest of the film.
Does Bigelow find his killer? Does he avenge his own death? Does he survive the poison? If you think the movie has a happy ending, you’ve forgotten that it’s a film noir.
A 1988 remake of D.O.A. starring Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan was poorly received, because it was poorly done. The story was stripped of its film noir setting and grit, and the neutered result was a film that seemed to completely miss the point of the original that inspired it.
You can watch the film at the Internet Archive by streaming it in their web player or downloading it in various formats to play on your computer. I downloaded the MP2 format to watch (the cleanest but largest of the formats), and that is where all of the screen grabs I have used in this review originated.