Cinema doesn't get much more tightly wound than the anxious premise for Rudolph Maté’s film noir standard-bearer. A mussed-up man stumbles into a Los Angeles police precinct and tells the chief he wants to “report a murder”: his own. What follows is the poor guy’s explanation of the previous day’s events, which will leave him a corpse by the end of movie. “D.O.A.’s” flashback storyline was a bold innovation when it came out in 1950, one of the 20th century’s most seminal years for world cinema. “All About Eve,” “Gun Crazy,” “Rashomon,” “Los Olvidados” and “Sunset Boulevard” were all released the same year.
Rudolph Maté was a renowned cinematographer of Polish descent whose work on “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1927) and “Gilda” (1946) established his first-class reputation. For “D.O.A.” Maté made clever use of locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles to add to the story’s potent sense of urgency. Scenes of his lead character running through crowded sidewalks were shot guerrilla-style without permits. His memorable use of interiors in the now-famous Bradbury building in Los Angeles illustrates Maté’s ingenious ability to instill noir’s shadowy elements from Art Deco designs.
Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) runs his own business as a small-time accountant in the desert town of Banning, California. Mr. Bigelow carries on an affair with his emotionally suffocating secretary Paula (Pamela Britton), a blonde with more sense than he gives her credit for. A weeklong vacation in San Francisco promises to give Frank a chance to sew a few wild oats — with Paula’s bluffing permission — if he is to give any serious consideration to a romantic future with her.
In a tip to the atomic age, during Frank’s first night in Frisco, a mysterious man slips him a radioactive mickey at a “jive” bar that features fiery jazz music played by an all-black band for a crowd of rowdy white “jive-crazy” fans. Maté’s depiction of San Francisco’s delirious jazz scene provided cinema’s first look at what would be termed the Beat Generation by the end of the decade.
Diagnosed the next day as only having “a day or two days — a week at the most” to live, Frank goes on an all-out rampage to track down the man who “murdered” him and carry out his revenge.
A high-concept movie before there was such a thing, “D.O.A.” foreshadowed the poisoning of (possibly) Yasser Arafat and (definitely) Alexander Litvinenko — via polonium-210 — by a half-century. Although the movie stumbles through a checklist of well-worn film noir clichés like fumbling for change at the bottom of an ill-kept purse, its poison MacGuffin keeps the audience on tenterhooks right up to the final frame when the police captain stamps “D.O.A.” on a missing person’s report. Like any great film, “D.O.A.” keeps its promise.
Not Rated. 83 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)