This film is the kind that doesn’t kid itself at all- it knows what it is and is pretty happy to have it that way. It’s filled with the classic tough-guy, ‘real-to-life’ dialog of the thriller, while staying a foot ahead of the audience. This is because the director, Rudolph Matte (the great cinematographer behind many a film-noir and Carl Dreyer’s masterpieces) has such a clever hand of the material. One wrong step and it could slip into being too hokey. In fact there is a camp factor in a couple of scenes; the subject matter almost slips into Naked Gun parody before stepping back up for air. But for the fans of mysteries of today would want to check this out, as it provides a twist on the usual logic of the sub-genre (if a genre at all). While not as ‘dark’ as other film-noir pictures, it still ranks very high in it storytelling, having a potent enough story to tell, and a slew of actors just pushing the limits of the B-movie style.
Edmond O’Brien is at his absolute best as the worried Frank Bigelow, worried because he’s in a rotten predicament: poisoned by a random drop of ‘luminous poison’ at a jazz club, with no chances of survival. The one thing to do then is to investigate it, ‘his’ way, through searching the histories of men like Phillips and Rakubian. One has to pay attention to his story a few times, but after a while everything does come together, adding to the suspense. O’Brien doesn’t play him very naturalistically- it’s actually quite great at being a simply cinematic performance, with the occasional swagger, roughness, but determination of the best of the doomed heroes of these stories. There’s soul in his work, even as he says lines fast or with such vigor to maybe go overboard. But it works, especially because of the other cast around him being so solid. Several are good, and a few are stand-out; Luther Adler as Majack gives some worth in his scenes, and especially a small but very memorable part for a nasty character, Chester, done to a T by Neville Brand (the little dialog scenes between them are as shamelessly pulp as any other film like this, but compelling and very entertaining).
Aside from the merits of most of the cast, and Matte’s visual approach (much of the outside running scenes and chase bits are shot right on location, like in a pre-guerrilla style of film-making), there’s the aspect of the script. Stories like this are hard to come by now, even ones being almost this simple. At the same time, the screenwriters implement a kind of twisty logic that happens in the course of the film. The sort of MacGuffin lies in the bill of sale (as maybe I missed something) as it’s the last thing to worry about. What one looks for in something like D.O.A., is how the written matter can go through the director’s visual mind-warp. Under the radar in a sense, the film does some techniques that wouldn’t of made it had it been a bigger A-list film. Two examples of this were striking to me, making D.O.A. of some note (this is besides the adept on-location work. One was the mix of shots shown in the jazz club scene, the musicians. This is a great, great little scene, adding a sense of atmosphere that another filmmaker would’ve passed over. Another was during a short scene when Bigelow arrives at the hostel- women pass by, and with each one a little sound effect comes through. This is whimsy, maybe, or maybe just some un-explainable little joke put into the film, but either way its terrific. When a filmmaker can add a little flavor to the film like that, it elevates the material.
D.O.A. is on a short list of numerous writers regarding the histories of 40’s-50’s ‘film-noir’ pictures in America as one of the premiere examples, and it’s not far from the truth. It’s compact enough to not make Bigelow’s strange mix of abrasiveness, confusion, and drops of tenderness to his secretary/love interest Paula, while allowing enough of a story to be told to make it feel complete. And that scene near the end in the hallway…