Sunday, March 18, 2012

D.O.A. (1950) - A Fine, Classic Film Noir

Edmond O'Brien D.O.A. 1950 film poster
"D.O.A." (1950).

Edmond O'Brien failed to develop into a major headliner, which is a bit of a mystery because he had the goods. Talented, strong, handsome, he could have become iconic. Instead, he settled into a comfortable career playing the gruff newspaperman, the gruff colleague, the gruff....  Here, though, he shines in a very polished performance as a man literally at the end of his rope, but going out with style.

Edmond O'Brien D.O.A. 1950
"D.O.A." is a film of rough gents and fast dames like Laurette Luez, pictured here with Edmond O'Brien.

"D.O.A." (1950), a Cardinal Pictures production directed by Rudolph Maté, has a plot that has been done so many times, in so many ways, in so many settings that it is difficult to enjoy the story solely for the story's sake. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, well, then this is one of the most respected films in the archives, because it seemed like every detective series of the 1970s had an episode on this theme. But even if you figure out the plot in the first five minutes, there are so many other reasons to enjoy "D.O.A." that it is still well worth viewing.

1947 Olds 66 D.O.A. 1950
That is a 1947 Olds 66 in this exquisite street scene.

It is not giving anything away to reveal that Edmond O'Brien, always a good character actor and here given a chance at a solid leading role because he has that "everyman" quality, learns he has been poisoned and only has a short time in which to find out why before he dies ("D.O.A.", in case anyone was wondering, is hospital/police jargon for "Dead On Arrival"). The film concerns the O'Brien character's determined attempt to track down the perpetrator(s) and hopefully mete out some justice during his remaining hours.

Woman smoking D.O.A. 1950
"D.O.A." is film noir at its height.

So O'Brien's character, Frank Bigelow, a mild-mannered insurance man, goes on a frantic search that turns up lead after lead, always tantalizingly close to figuring out what happened but with numerous dead ends. Naturally, everything falls into place so that an investigation that undoubtedly would take the police weeks or months to conclude, if in fact it were ever solved, falls nicely into place in a day or so. The point is made repeatedly that this quick resolution is possible only because Bigelow has nothing left to lose and can blunder around without being worried about getting shot. Along the way, Bigelow strong-arms women and takes crazy risks a healthy man would avoid, but his fearlessness alone gets him through doors others wouldn't get past (it also helps that his adversaries are crazy bad shots). Overall, it is the atmosphere that will grab you, not the plot, which weirdly resembles a modern video game - Bigelow reaches one level, solves it, then it leads him to another level, and so on. Each lead is another level of the game. Bigelow wastes no time mastering each level, and at each he gathers information, or weapons, or both. Another odd resemblance is that Bigelow specializes in giving his opponents wicked one-liners as he leaves, much like Arnold Schwarzenegger giving the "Hasta La Vista" line.

Deserted warehouse D.O.A. 1950
The chase scene through the deserted building in D.O.A. is dynamite.

The phrase "film noir" is so over-used that it is kind of annoying, but it certainly applies here. Director Maté had cinematography as his background in the '20s and '30s, so he knew just what to do with the camera. The light-and-shadow game is played out to the extreme in this film and you either like that or you don't. There are all sorts of visual metaphors that comment silently on the proceedings, and events take place at night as well as day. The acting is a little melodramatic at times, and a bit too blasé at others (such as the police to whom O'Brien tells his story), but those wild swings fit in perfectly with this type of film. There is a haunting score by Dimitri Tiomkin that helps underscore the forbidding atmosphere.

Neville Brand Edmond O'Brien D.O.A. 1950
Neville Brand, classic tough guy in "D.O.A."

One of many reasons to enjoy "D.O.A." is for the glimpse it gives at normal life in the 1950s. Bigelow runs down a street, and we see ordinary people walking along going about their 1950 business (and they really were, they didn't know about the film being shot). Bigelow gets on a city bus, and we see a 1950s downtown street, replete with diners and motorcycle cops and soda shops. There are terrific shots of San Francisco and Los Angeles that give a glimpse at what life was like in that vanished era that now seems like it is from another, well, century.

Neville Brand Edmond O'Brien D.O.A. 1950
Let's look at that D.O.A. scene again, close up. Does this remind you of any famous real-life incidents?

Jack Ruby Lee Harvey Oswald D.O.A. 1950
Thirteen years later.

In terms of the performances, O'Brien is solid, if a bit uneven in his characterization at times. Neville Brand (his film debut) gives the best performance, though, overacting like crazy as a psycho killer who injects some badly needed energy into the film when it starts to drag a bit. He reminded me a bit of Clu Gulager in 1964's "The Killers," or Klaus Kinski in, well, just about everything he ever did. Evidently these sidekick or underling roles were ones where actors were told to emote like crazy and let it all hang out. "Hammy" doesn't quite capture it, but comes close. If it is possible to steal a picture in such a role - Neville Brand does it. Which, come to think of it, may be one of the reasons that Edmond O'Brien had difficulties getting beyond being a character actor himself.

Neville Brand D.O.A. 1950
Ever wonder where Klaus Kinski got his "crazy man" schtick from?  Does that wicked grin look familiar? Neville Brand should have gotten a patent on the crazed-thug look.

Anyway, forget the erudite comments about how this is the ultimate noir film and so forth. Who really cares, except film students? Take it for what it is, a terrific, atmospheric film that you will probably enjoy if you like black-and-white murder mysteries with some great visuals and good, if uneven, performances. A fine way to while away an afternoon. Sometimes I will put on some 1950s instrumentals like "Theme to Peter Gunn" in the background and leave "D.O.A" playing on mute - the scenes are better than any dialogue could make them with the right music playing.

The original copyright holder failed to renew the copyright, so "D.O.A." is in the public domain. You can usually find complete copies on Youtube.


No comments:

Post a Comment

privacy policy