Saturday Night Cinema: D.O.A. (1950)


Tonight’s Saturday night cinema feature is one of the finest of the post-war B thrillers, D.O.A.

“For all practical purposes, Frank Bigelow is as good as dead when he stumbles into Los Angeles Police Headquarters to unfold a fantastic tale about his own murder. ….”

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Incredulous, exhausted, and reeling from his shockingly nightmarish medical prognosis, Frank Bigelow rests against a corner newsstand (prominently displaying issues of ‘LIFE’) and gazes up at a sun whose nurturing rays seem to have turned toxic and cruelly disorienting. The viewer half-expects our doomed protagonist to address the heavens with an echo of his opening line, “I’d like to see the man in charge..”- but no higher power is evidenced in ‘D.O.A.’, in which the apathetic and the duplicitous far outnumber the righteous, and a nondescript everyman can morph into a violent, fearless equalizer.

An accountant from the small, symbolically named Ca. town of ‘Banning’, Bigelow has been surreptitiously slipped slow-acting luminous poison while nightclubbing in rollicking San Francisco. There to sow wild oats while delaying his future with Paula, the doting secretary/girlfriend he’s left at home, Bigelow has been marked for death by an assemblage of shady types whose illegal dealings he has unknowingly – and only tangentially – taken part in. Following two darkly over-the-top hospital scenes in which the worst is twice confirmed, Bigelow – who just hours before had decided on returning home to settle down – makes a desperate, irrational dash down a bustling ‘Frisco thoroughfare in an electrifying, vividly metaphorical sequence. Prompting uneasy laughter, it’s a genre zenith…. more here

“I want to report a murder…mine.” So begins D.O.A. Told in flashback, the story tells of how vacationing CPA Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) becomes the recipient of a deadly poison known as iridium. Told by a doctor that he hasn’t long to live, Bigelow desperately retraces his movements of the previous 24 hours, trying to locate his murderer. Through the aid of his secretary Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton) (who doesn’t know of her employer’s imminent demise), Bigelow traces a shipment of iridium to a gang of criminals who’ve used the poison in the commission of a crime. But for much of the film, it remains unclear why Bigelow himself was targeted.

NY Times 1950:

For all practical purposes, Frank Bigelow is as good as dead when he stumbles into Los Angeles Police Headquarters to unfold a fantastic tale about his own murder. Bigelow is a victim of “luminous poison,” for which there is no antidote, and hence the producers of the Criterion’s new film took as their title “D. O. A.,” this being an abbreviation of a police term meaning “dead on arrival.”

It’s quite an incredible tale that Mr. Bigelow, a respectable auditor, gasps out. Some of the long flashback visualization of his story lets off lively melodramatic sparks, but mostly it is a fairly obvious and plodding recital, involving crime, passion, stolen iridium, gangland beatings and one man’s innocent bewilderment upon being caught up in a web of circumstance that marks him for death.

As best we can unravel the tangled plot—it makes up in confusion of incident for what it lacks in the way of imaginative planning—Frank Bigelow is poisoned because he had notarized a bill of sale for a purchaser who had been hoodwinked into acquiring stolen iridum. It is perhaps entirely natural for a man to want to know why he has been poisoned, so in the few days left him on earth Bigelow undertakes some remarkable sleuthing to discover the reasons for his impending demise. Just how he accomplishes this is a long and complex tale which need not be reported in a review, for that might clear up some of the confusion and “D. O. A.” would be that much less interesting.

Edmond O’Brien puts a good deal of drive into his performance as the unfortunte Mr. Bigelow. Pamela Britton, as his secretary-fiancée, adds a pleasant touch of blonde attractiveness, but the way she keeps hounding the poor fellow to express his affection is disconcerting. Luther Adler is smooth in a minor villainous role, and among others who demonstrate their helpfulness are Lynn Baggett and William Cling. For all their efforts, however, “D. O. A.” adds up to only a mild divertissement.

D. O. A., story and screen play by Russel Rouse and Clarence Greene; directed by Rudolph Mate; produced by Leo C. Popkin; a Harry M. Popkin production, released by United Artists.
Frank Bigelow . . . . . Edmond O’Brien
Paula Gibson . . . . . Pamela Britton
Majak . . . . . Luther Adler
Miss Foster . . . . . Beverly Campbell
Mrs. Philips . . . . . Lynn Baggett
Halliday . . . . . William Ching
Stanley Philips . . . . . Henry Hart
Chester . . . . . Neville Brand
Maria Rakubian . . . . . Laurette Luez
Sam . . . . . Jess Kirkpatrick
Sue . . . . . Cay Forrester
Jeanie . . . . . Virginia Lee
Dave . . . . . Michael Ross

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