D.O.A. (1950)

D.O.A. takes on its subject matter with a stark straightforwardness that literally shows the protagonist as a walking dead man. Frank Bigelow gets poisoned by some slow acting stuff that allows him to run around California for a week before croaking, all in an effort to find out who was behind his impending death. Is there a better metaphor for the futility of life than that?

Things begin hopelessly enough with that most dreaded of cinema tricks – the framing device. I loathe the framing device because it is almost always superfluous to the story. I am already listening to your story, therefore I don’t need to waste my time by having your main character stand around at the beginning of the movie saying, “here’s my sad little tale, why don’t you take a listen”.

Frank’s framing device is that he goes to the cops and says he wants to report a murder – his own! Gasp! Memo to Frank: Next time you pull that gag, you’d be better served having Rod Serling do the opening. Anyway, this leads us into the story of Frank and his unfortunate encounter with a little something the bad guys like to call “luminous poisoning”.

Frank is just your everyday jerky guy, mistreating his suffocating sometimes girlfriend/secretary Paula, by doing stuff like planning a week long vacation in San Francisco without telling her. Uh, let’s see, your boyfriend has scheduled a secret trip to San Francisco and refuses to let you go along. You know, it may be time to seriously consider whether he’s really watching all those musicals because you want to.


Anyway, Frank is bound and determined to go and when he gets there the movie makes its only missteps when every time Frank sees a sexy broad in the hotel, this cheesy circus whistle goes off, giving the movie this eighties frat-party movie vibe that is completely out of place with everything else that is going on.

Thankfully it all ends rather quickly when he gets invited out by some visiting salesmen to chill with them down at the local jazz club, The Fisherman. It’s here that he tries to ditch one woman, tries to pick up another and ends up drinking a nice tall glass of poison.

The next day he’s feeling a little blah and goes to the doctor for a check up. I guess that’s another fake thing about this movie. No guy would ever go to the hospital the first morning he felt sick. Oh sure, he’d lie around for a week moaning and groaning about how much pain he was in, but under no circumstances would he wuss out and go see a doctor.


They tell him he’s got this thing called luminous poisoning which the movie admits it made up at the end of things, but assures us is based on fact. So to all you kids out there, I know the movie wasn’t specific about this, but do not drink a shot glass full of either uranium or radium. You probably better steer clear of Zima as well, but consult your physician to be sure.

Frank finds out that he only has a week or so to live and the movie follows Frank as he charges from lead to lead in his quest to find out who poisoned him and why.

I’ll give it to him, he was investigating up a storm, all with the bad attitude that you would expect from someone terminally ill. In fact, he’s about the most unpleasant hero you’re likely to see in a film, though some of his surliness could probably be excused what with him dying and all.

I tried like hell to follow Frank through all his discoveries and nodded my head knowingly whenever he figured out that someone had double-crossed him or that George was really Raymond and that Raymond had really been dead for five months, but he never had nothing to do with anything anyway and that it was all on account of the sneaky widow, but not really because it was her shady and secret boyfriend. I may have nodded my head, but it was the same vacant way I nod my head whenever anyone starts talking to me about something other than sex or college football.


Still, the very helter skelter nature of what was happening illustrates the way life for these doomed noir heroes bounces them from one dirty trick to another, the randomness and impersonality of what happens to them merely illustrating the pointlessness of existence and our powerlessness to do anything about it.

D.O.A. is a movie closer to films like Kiss Me Deadly than it is to earlier noirs like Double Indemnity or Criss Cross. As the atomic age begins to dawn, woman is replaced as the ultimate destroyer of men lead astray by a general sense of paranoia related to science and technology’s inevitable march forward. Death by slow-acting radioactivity supersedes Barbara Stanwyck’s machinations and the result is a more impersonal and therefore bleaker outlook on our fate.

We are no longer threatened just by those closest to us. There is a faceless, cold world snapping at our heels, with all sorts of scary futuristic ways of sealing our fate. D.O.A. isn’t so much a story about a guy pursuing his own killers, but a requiem. It’s an extended suicide note written by this new world on behalf of everyone in it. It’s as if it isn’t just Frank Bigelow’s file that they stamp “D.O.A.” in large block letters at the end of this film, but all of ours.

© 2010 MonsterHunter

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