D.O.A., Dir. Rudolph Mate, 1949, 83 mins, Talking Pictures TV
Darn it, I was so chuffed at stumbling upon a rare showing of noir classic D.O.A. in the schedules, a film I’ve been trying to see for a few years now.
The word’s ‘frantic’, ‘dizzying’ and ‘disorientating’ spring immediately to mind regards Rudolph Mate’s 1949 noir thriller D.O.A. Once this film begins it doesn’t let up the mad pace at all; in this respect it feels surprisingly modern, but I actually thought it detracted from what it could have been. A scene in a jazz club (musical numbers a frequent trope of films of the period) features a band careering through a number so fast its a wonder none of the payers keel over (or any of the club patrons, for that matter) and pretty much summarises the film as a whole. It’s a maelstrom of kinetic energy.
Which is the whole point, I suppose- the films premise, after all, regards a dying man’s last hours, racing to identify who poisoned him and why- Edmond O’Brien’s Frank Bigelow is literally a dead man walking. Its a killer premise and one that has gained this film a classic status, but in reality the film doesn’t entirely work and there’s a few issues that for me question if it really deserves that ‘classic’ moniker.
For one, the relationship between Bigelow and his secretary, Paula (Pamela Britton) never convinces. Its something common to some of the films of this period, particularly noir, as if a romance is a mandatory element forced into the script, awkwardly tagged into a story that didn’t have one nor need it. Indeed, it leaves protagonist Bigelow looking like a complete heel, running off to San Francisco for an impromptu break to fool around with whatever dame he can pick up. Maybe we’re supposed to just put it down to male jitters at the prospect of settling down with Paula but it doesn’t show him in a particularly good light, indeed only making it worse when Paula tells him “…there’s nothing you can do that you ever have to feel guilty about” as if condoning his actions when he departs for his planned debauchery. It badly ages the film, but worse is what happens once he arrives in San Francisco, with the most astonishing editorial decision I have seen (or rather heard) for a long time- the wolf-whistles that litter the soundtrack whenever Bigelow lecherously eyes some dame that crosses his path are quite jarring, and wouldn’t even fit in a Carry-On movie, never mind a noir thriller… a mind-boggling addition to the film that almost ruins it completely. Some attempt at accentuating the humour, maybe, as if the studio thought the film too dark even for a noir? I actually thought I was watching a copy of the film that had been tinkered with by someone goofing around, it felt so out of place. Its horrible.
The mad pace of the film also left me questioning its own internal logic, indeed it quite confused me during the proceedings regards who did what to whom, and why. Its a mystery that doesn’t really feel substantial enough; a little like how nobody making John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon really understood that films plot, never mind the viewers of it over the decades since. As regards D.O.A., it was apparently something to do with Bigelow notarizing a bill of sale for a shipment of stolen iridium that could put the crooks who shipped it behind bars, but more so that Bigelow’s death would also cover-up a murder that had been staged to look like a suicide, but it was all played and explained so frantically I must confess I didn’t entirely ‘get’ it – instead it very much felt like watching one of those modern films that disguise plot-holes by editing things so tightly that viewers don’t have the time to take stock and question what’s actually going on. When Bigelow is being shot at or pursued by a trio of thugs, I actually questioned who the hell these guys were, it was like they’d been dumped into it from some other movie.
Which all makes it sound that I didn’t enjoy D.O.A. at all, which isn’t entirely true, but I was left not at all convinced that the film fully deserves its reputation as a noir classic. To me it was a film that could and should have been a great film let down by its inept execution. Was the crazy pace its undoing, or those wolf-whistles that kept on taking me out of the film, or that unconvincing romantic sub-plot (not at all helped by the film jarring to a sudden halt when Paula arrives in LA and she and Bigelow have a melodramatic parting that could raise sniggers as easily as the sympathy its actually trying for)? There’s too many things wrong about the film weighing down upon what it gets right. Or maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention.
All I know is, had this been remade in the early ‘fifties with a more skilled director, and maybe John Alton handling its photography, accentuating better the noir -or even horror- aspects of the doomed hero, and maybe a script that dropped the romantic handle or linked the romance to a femme fatale that was involved with the crime (at least then justifying that romance), then I think it would likely have resulted in a much better film. Which is of course that old chestnut of me criticising a film for being what it isn’t, more than what it is. Maybe my coolness to the film on this viewing will thaw upon subsequent watches when I’m more accustomed to its plot and its weird wolf-whistles/ apparent misogyny (for once, here’s a film that possibly deserves a disclaimer before its titles regards representing dated attitudes, something that rarely bothers me but did here). Time will tell.
At least I have more time than Bigelow…