Year of Release: 1950 Directed by Rudolph Maté. Starring Edmond O’Brien, Pamela Britton, William Ching, Lynn Baggett, Luther Adler, and Neville Brand.
"I want to report a murder." "Where was this murder committed?" "San Francisco, last night." "Who was murdered?" "I was."
If that opening exchange is not one of the most engaging and fascinating premises for a murder mystery, then I don’t know what is. After haphazardly walking down the corridor to the Los Angeles homicide headquarters, Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) demands to see the officer in charge and tell him the details of his murder on the previous night. The rest of the film is a flashback of the previous thirty-six hours, which are also the last hours of Bigelow’s life.
The flashback begins on the previous morning when Bigelow decided he needed some time away from his work and from his girlfriend Paula (Pamela Britton). Consequently, he left for a weeklong vacation in San Francisco. While there, he began flirting with other women at a bar. The next morning he wakes up with a headache and stomachache. Bigelow does not believe he drank enough to be hung-over, so he has a doctor examine him. The news stuns him: within the last twenty-four hours he has received a lethal dose of luminous toxin.
A post credit note informs the viewer that luminous toxin does in fact exist, and all the events in the film are scientifically possible. A simple Google search reveals otherwise, but a fictitious poison does not undermine the suspense or chilling power of the mystery in D.O.A.
The doctor further informs Bigelow that the quantity of poison that he received could not have been accidental; therefore, he is a homicide victim. On hearing the news, Bigelow begins his own frantic investigation, which forms the remainder of the film.
Bigelow conducts his investigation with impressive efficiency, which makes sense given that he has no more than forty-eight hours or so to live. He is alert and carefully reviews all the events that occurred the previous day. He trusts no one and views everyone he meets as a potential suspect. Whenever a character mentions something that they should have had no way of knowing, Bigelow instantly calls attention to it.
Unfortunately for Bigelow, every person that he interviews clearly has something to hide, and many of those secrets have nothing to do with his poisoning. As a result, he is sent down several wrong trails, some of which become nearly as life threatening as the toxin.
There are a few early events in the film which are meant to send the viewer down the wrong trail as well. Bigelow twice has his drink unknowingly switched on him while in a bar. While it is obvious that one of these switches was used to poison him, whether the poisoning occurred from the subtle or blatant switch is a plausible mystery until the end. Bigelow meets many people, and their secret connections are not revealed until the film’s climax. Even if one correctly guesses the identity of one of the criminals, who else is involved and who is innocent will remain a mystery.
The only small misstep is the film’s ending where it becomes slightly clichéd. After tenaciously searching for his murderer, Bigelow finally meets him by pure luck. He solved the mystery through interrogation and deduction, but catching the person behind it was a timing coincidence. That is a very minor flaw, but it does cause a very slight letdown towards the film’s end.
An aspect of the film that has no flaws at all is Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, which is instrumental in setting the mood throughout the film. The opening music utilizes a percussion heavy minor march underscoring Bigelow’s final walk to reveal the dark mystery. The two scenes in the bars both contain live music that temporarily relieves the ominous atmosphere. All the music matches the scenes and camera work, being perfectly synchronized with the film edits. When a scene fades, it fades. If a new scene begins, a new cue begins as well.
Director Rudolph Maté, who was originally a cinematographer, directs the camera very effectively. He makes frequent use of tracking shots, which follow Bigelow without interruption as he investigates, and the tracking shots place the viewer with Bigelow throughout the movie. The inherently longer nature of tracking shots adds to the suspense as well.
A murder victim solving his own killing is a clever and exciting idea for a film noir, one which maintains its intrigue throughout all of D.O.A. The fast moving plot, many characters, and several possible outcomes keep the viewer guessing, and the skilled direction and scoring add to the thrilling nature of the film.
Content Advisory: Some violence and menace, including gunfights and beatings. Not rated.
Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: A