Monday, February 14, 2011

Tonight's Movie: D.O.A. (1950)

SPECIAL NOTE: This review of a film noir classic is being posted in honor of this week's For the Love of Film (Noir) Blogathon. The blogathon will be raising money to assist the Film Noir Foundation and Paramount Pictures in funding UCLA's restoration of another 1950 film, THE SOUND OF FURY, also known as TRY AND GET ME. Information on how to participate will appear at the end of this post. I hope all who love movies will consider contributing to this worthy cause; whether it's a large amount or a couple of dollars, it all adds up to help preserve another piece of film history.

D.O.A. is a fascinating film noir distinguished by an original plot and extensive location photography in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

D.O.A. has a superb opening credits sequence, as we follow Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien) into a Los Angeles police station. The shots of Bigelow combine with the beautiful credits graphics and Dimitri Tiomkin's score to provide a quintessential film noir moment, culminating in Bigelow reporting his own murder.

As Bigelow tells his story to the police, we learn he's an accountant from Banning, California, who went to San Francisco on vacation; the trip was also possibly a last fling of sorts, as he'd been debating whether to permanently commit to his girlfriend and secretary, Paula (Pamela Britton).

While in San Francisco, Bigelow began feeling unwell and visited a doctor, then learned unbelievable news: he's dying due to a "luminous poison." A second opinion confirmed the diagnosis.

Who poisoned Bigelow, and why? He was soon on a plane to Los Angeles to solve his own murder...before time ran out.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film, although I'll get out of the way at the outset that some of the performances and dialogue were strangely overwrought and hokey. At times the melodramatic acting turned out to be because a character, such as Mrs. Philips (Lynn Baggett), was giving a "performance"; but occasionally the film simply went overboard, whether it's the two doctors giving the disbelieving Bigelow his initial diagnosis at warp speed, Bigelow's subsequent hospital visit, or Beverly Garland (then known as Beverly Campbell, in her film debut) completely bug-eyed as she stares at Bigelow. Talk about seeing the whites of someone's eyes!

Another drawback was that as Bigelow ogles various women at the St. Francis Hotel, the viewer hears very strange whistles on the soundtrack. These rather unbelievable moments were strangely at odds with the utter reality conveyed by Bigelow's journeys through the streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles.

It's the location shooting that really makes the movie, from the cable cars of San Francisco to a scary nighttime bus ride through L.A. There's a great scene after Bigelow receives his second opinion and, panic-stricken, he runs through the streets of San Francisco. He pauses for breath next to a newstand; as he watches other people cheerfully go about their daily business, behind him there's a row of magazines emblazoned with the title LIFE. It's a bit obvious, but wonderful. The climactic shootout is also marvelous, filmed in the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles.

O'Brien is excellent, conveying an ordinary man with a touch of the heel in him (potentially two-timing his girlfriend) who learns what's really important when it's too late. He's on screen for most of the movie, believably conveying shock at being in the midst of a waking nightmare, determination to weed through a pantheon of bizarre characters in order to find the truth, and ultimately love for the loyal Paula.

Pamela Britton does a fine job as Paula; like O'Brien's Bigelow, her character is recognizably human, being a bit of a nag about their relationship, but she's basically a good person Bigelow can count on.

This was Pamela Britton's fourth movie. Her film career began with a memorable appearance as Frank Sinatra's sweetheart, "Brooklyn," in ANCHORS AWEIGH (1945). She alternated between Hollywood and Broadway throughout the late '40s; on Broadway she was a replacement as giggling Gertie in OKLAHOMA! (she also toured as Ado Annie) and created the role of Meg Brockie in BRIGADOON. In between ANCHORS AWEIGH and D.O.A. she also appeared in A LETTER FOR EVIE (1946) and KEY TO THE CITY (1950). She would later be recognized for her TV role as Mrs. Brown on MY FAVORITE MARTIAN. Britton was just 51 when she died of a brain tumor in 1974.

The large supporting cast has a few recognizable faces, such as Neville Brand and a young Jerry Paris -- if you don't blink you can also recognize Hugh O'Brian as a bar patron -- but many of the actors are relatively little known, which adds to the film's realism.

D.O.A. was directed by Rudolph Mate, who also worked as a cinematographer on films such as GILDA (1946). The outstanding black and white photography for D.O.A. was by Ernest Laszlo, who also shot IMPACT (1949) in San Francisco.

This film will be shown again on Turner Classic Movies on March 5, 2011. It's also available on VHS and multiple DVD editions; the DVD can be seen via Netflix. The movie has apparently fallen into public domain and some DVD prints may be disappointing, but the copy I recently recorded from TCM was excellent.

INFORMATION ON CONTRIBUTING TO THE FOR THE LOVE OF FILM (NOIR) BLOGATHON: Extensive info on the Blogathon, with relevant links, can be found at the Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films. Be sure to visit their blogs as well for links to posts by other blog participants, headed by the one and only Leonard Maltin. You'll recognize the names of many classic film bloggers on the list, which was up to over 80 names at last count, and this is also a great opportunity to check out unfamiliar blogs.

Most importantly, visit PayPal to contribute to the restoration and preservation of THE SOUND OF FURY (1950), which was directed by Cy Endfield and stars Frank Lovejoy, Lloyd Bridges, Kathleen Ryan, and Richard Carlson. Thanks! (Update: At times the PayPal link from my site doesn't appear to be working; if there are any problems with it, kindly head toward the links just above to either the Self-Styled Siren or Ferdy on Films, where you'll find a working link.)


Blogger Tinky said...

Melodrama doesn't bother me in noir; I think actors are supposed to be overwrought. A good selection!

3:11 PM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I haven't seen this on in years. Thanks for putting the TCM airing notice; with luck I'll catch it next time around. I like movies with location scenes, though when it comes to LA and San Francisco, I'm more apt to recognize settings from other movies than I am to knowing the actual city sights first hand.

3:28 PM  
Blogger panavia999 said...

Back in the 70's, this appeared on TV and my mother said "it's the greatest film noir ever". We a cranked the antenna around trying to get the station, then we sat in the dark at midnight watching on a TV with terrible reception. A callow youth, I'd never heard of film noir. D.O.A. is a great introduction to the genre.
I agree with Tinky - any overwrought emotions in this film are appropriate. I'd be in a panic too if someone sneaked luminous poison in my shot o' scotch. When someone says film noir I always think Edmond O'Brien first. A fabulous and versatile actor Always a pleasure to watch him and what a great ensemble of noir stalwarts in this film.

4:32 PM  
Blogger KC said...

I was also surprised by the little touches of humor in D.O.A. I expected it to be much blacker overall. The whistle effects amused me though. I like a little silliness in my noir.

8:56 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm curious how I'll react to the humor and more melodramatic moments when I see it again -- I won't be so surprised next time. :)

Thanks to all for the feedback!

Best wishes,

9:03 PM  
Blogger Joe Thompson said...

I agree that the hokey performances and especially the whistles are startling at first, but they work within the movie, which is one of my favorite noirs. Even the name Bigelow sounds funny to me. As a San Franciscan, I love it for the location work, although, as with all movies set in the city, the geographic distortions can be disorienting. At one point, Bigelow, staying at the Saint Francis Hotel, hops on inbound Powell Street car 519. Miraculously, he hops off an outbound car at Powell and California.

10:05 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for your comments, Joe! That's pretty funny about the mixed-up geography.

I really feel like I need to watch this film again soon and reassess the melodramatic style...I keep thinking of the doctor delivering the lines "You don't fully understand, Bigelow. You've been murdered." Hokey or not, it's classic!

Thanks for stopping by. :)

Best wishes,

10:08 PM  

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