Noirvember 2016: D.O.A.

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For the month of November Noirvember, I’ve decided to catch up with some classic pieces of film noir. The American 1940s-50s movement devoted to cynical fast talking anti-heroes, predatory femme fatales, smoky back rooms, “one last scores,” and dark shadowy pasts. From The Maltese Falcon to Touch of Evil, film noir has been an essential part of film history. Next up this month is Rudolph Maté‘s D.O.A.

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If my last Noirvember film was a bit slow, DOA is entirely the opposite. It’s a pretty lean movie, launching from one scene to the next with a rapid desperation your more talky noirs can’t seem to muster up. While the plot of a man searching for his own murderer before he dies has been recycled a bit, this original noir is well worth the watch.

Regular average joe CPA Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) gets it in his head one day to take a vacation to San Francisco to get away from it all. His secretary and girlfriend Paula (Pamela Britton) takes offense when he won’t let her come with her, but he goes anyway. While there, he parties with a bunch of traveling salesmen and at a jive joint called The Fisherman, and a mysterious man swaps his drink. He wakes up the next day to a stomachache and upon seeing two different specialists, discovers he has been poisoned and has only a day or so to live. He then goes on a frantic hunt to find his killer.

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In typical noir fashion, Bigelow’s undoing turns out to be something fairly innocuous. He’s a regular old guy who got caught in a bad situation that comes back to haunt him later. Out of the noirs I’ve watched this year, this one feels most like a traditional noir to me. There’s a lot of fatalism that comes with being poisoned and knowing your time is running out. The plot also feels quite a bit like a Hitchcock picture, because even though Bigelow is not wrongly accused of anything, the fervor with which he attempts to uncover the mystery that surrounds him recalls movies like The 39 Steps or North by Northwest. I think that’s sort of how O’Brien comes across too, his life was pretty humdrum before and now that he’s dying it’s become much more thrilling. It takes a singular kind of person to spend his last days not with his loved ones but playing amateur detective.

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Director Rudolph Maté started out as a cinematographer, working with such directors as Carl Theodore Dreyer, Ernst Lubitsch and the aforementioned Alfred Hitchcock. It really shows here, taking great advantage of its locations on an obviously low budget. The film starts with a series of lengthy tracking shots of Bigelow walking into the police station, subtly punctuated with dissolves. We see him from behind, the walls closing in on him and the high contrast lighting oppressive. We later see Bigelow’s murderer shot from behind as well, and when he comes back the repetition of the framing gives him away immediately. The aspect of this film I most appreciate though, is the pacing. The film hurtles from set-piece to set-piece that sets it apart from a lot of your talkier noirs.

I really liked DOA, a sort of adventure flavored noir. I appreciated both the visuals and the pacing, as well its great use of San Francisco and Los Angeles locations. Though in some of its dialogue and character relationships the film can feel quite dated, its style still seems very fresh to me. It’s in the public domain and therefore easily accessible, I would definitely recommend it for anyone looking for a classic noir.    

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“I don’t think you fully understand, Bigelow. You’ve been murdered.”

Long story short: 3.5/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Variety review
New York Times review
Full film on Youtube

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