VOD film review: DOA
James R | On 23, Nov 2020
Director: Rudolph Maté
Cast: Edmond O’Brien, Pamela Britton, Luther Adler
DOA is available for free on Talking Pictures TV Encore.
“I want to report a murder.” “Who was murdered?” “I was.” That’s the irresistible opening to 1950 thriller DOA. The jet-black film noir begins with Frank (Edmund O’Brien) going to the police to report his own death – a tracking shot that plays out under the opening titles and sees Frank walk down endless corridors until he reaches justice, like a nightmarish extended cut of the opening to The Prisoner.
The kinetic momentum doesn’t let up from there, as the stakes of Frank’s situation fuels the narrative with an urgent energy. It also pushes Frank from his day job as an accountant into the world of an amateur detective – a neat twist on noir’s conventional gumshoe figure. Edmond O’Brien behaves appropriately, making his transformation into a hard-boiled antihero as unlikely as it is convincing; what starts out as a sweet suburban romance with secretary Paula morphs into a doomed quest, after Frank discovers that he’s been poisoned by “luminous toxin” (which the end credits take pains to insist is scientifically accurate).
Who has signed his slow, painful death sentence? The script from Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene (who worked together on The Well and The Thief and both won an Oscar for Pillow Talk) is a deliciously winding affair, with a string of other dead bodies gradually emerging, along with dodgy dealers, intimidating goons and femme fatales. It’s all wrapped up in a familiar flashback structure that allows for both suspense and a morbid awareness of unavoidable fate, which makes this one of the darkest entries in the noir genre.
Director Rudolph Mate, who was DoP on Gilda, ensures the moody atmosphere lingers, whether that’s a smoky nightclub or a striking outdoors sequence in which Frank is running through the San Francisco streets (for real, as it was filmed gonzo-style without permission). Underpinning it all is the irony that this may be the most Frank ever seems to have cared about his ennui-filled existence, tipping his death into something deceptively lively – a spiralling maze of lies, passion and murder that starts with a man demanding to see “the man in charge”, only to met with a disinterested shrug.