Tuesday, July 12, 2016


I can breathe and I can move, but I'm not alive because I took that poison, and nothing can save me.
I watch a lot of film noir. To some people, the term means trenchcoated detectives, laconic voiceovers, femmes fatales, and cigarette smoke. I think of it more as a directorial style, a style that uses harshly geometric, minimalistic (= dark) photography and unpityingly logical plots taking place beyond the boundaries of "normal" society to create an atmosphere of emotional detachment and alienation. Yes, chain-smoking dicks and dames figure largely in such films, but that's because the world they inhabit lends itself so readily to the style. Some of my favorite films noir don't involve detectives at all.

That includes D.O.A., a film that wasn't appreciated at the time of its release (1950) and isn't very well known today. It's in the public domain, and you can watch it at the Internet Archive, which no doubt has to do with its obscurity. Edmund O'Brien plays Frank Bigelow, an accountant and notary public who, months prior to the opening, notarized a seemingly innocuous transaction, a chance happening that sends him down a black rabbit-hole of madness and murder. Most films noir have a certain sense of predestination, but this one takes it a step further: it's narrated by a dead man.

Grim humor and dark irony punctuate Bigelow's nightmare urban odyssey. In confronting his nonsensical, undignified position (the human position), he seizes control of his destiny, loses all fear, and achieves a kind of justice, only to keel over in the film's final minutes. One of the last lines is the homicide captain's dispassionate "Call the morgue!"

D.O.A. has some corny elements toward the beginning, as many films noir do, but rapidly descends into darkness, madness, sweat, and grit. I appreciate it a little more every time I watch it. It also has an almost science-fictional feel, with a search for stolen iridium and a "luminous toxin" that glows in the dark. And it must have one of the best openings of any movie ever:
Bigelow: I want to report a murder.
Captain: Sit down. Where was this murder committed?
Bigelow: San Francisco, last night.
Captain: Who was murdered?
Bigelow: I was. 
Anyway, because this is my blog, and I can do whatever I like, here's some of my favorite stills:
The opening sequence. Bigelow marches through a dark police station.

"I want to report a murder."

Pamela Britten plays Paula, Bigelow's sweet but slightly clingy
secretary-girlfriend back home.

The madness begins: a San Francisco jive club.

"He's flipped. The music's drivin' him crazy." Meanwhile, the faceless
killer prepares the luminous toxin.

"You've got it, all right." A doctor confirms his diagnosis with a glowing
test tube. Bigelow has one day to live.

"I don't think you fully understand, Bigelow. You've been murdered."
Bigelow races down a crowded street. A neat sequence filmed without
permit, and without the bystanders' knowing what was happening.


Now on the trail of his own killer, he journeys to Los Angeles, where he
encounters tart, unprofessional secretaries...

...and gun-toting models.

Soon he's getting shot at...

...and chasing phantom gunmen through abandoned warehouses.

Someone doesn't like him sticking his nose in.

But he's utterly fearless now. "He's not afraid," says Majak. "You can tell
from a man's eyes when he is afraid. Look at his eyes."

Chester, one of the creepiest henchmen I've seen. "That's the way I wanna
see you go, Bigelow...niiice and slooow."

But it's Chester who goes, in a drugstore shoot-out.

Beautiful on-site night photography.

The final interview with a not-so-grieving widow.

Surrounded by people but utterly alone.

Crawling on hands and knees to gain a few hours of life.

A few hours to go to the final confrontation at...

...the Bradbury Building, Los Angeles. Is this actually the exterior of the
Bradbury, though? I don't think so.

This, however, is clearly the interior. Recognize it? It's where the climax
of Blade Runner takes place. A lot of movies have been filmed there.

The faceless killer.

The final shot. "Better make it 'Dead on arrival.'"


  1. It's so weird to think of this movie as obscure. When I was growing up in the 70s, all my friends and I saw this at some point or another. We all loved that opening and the slide whistle. Did any man ever sweat as profoundly as Edmond O'Brien? Weird, grim, funny, I love this (I think I actually own a copy).

    1. Yeah, growing up in the 80s, I guess I saw a newer set of old movies, though I did watch the Saturday matinee on the local UHF station most weekends. Got to know Vertigo that way.

      The slide whistle always makes me laugh (and cringe). I love how brutal the doctors are, and then there's the part right afterward, when he sees people in various stages of life, and it's basically shoved in his face that he's as good as dead. He has this stricken expression while the movie is basically making fun of him.

      I also love how he gets dirtier and dirtier, and sweatier and sweatier, as the movies progresses. He's almost a madman by the end – he goes from threatening people to saving their lives to locking widows in closets to crawling around on buses to kissing his girl goodbye to gunning a guy down. He's like a one-day superhero. And then, boom, he's DOA. It's great.

      I do own a copy. It's off-brand, but not bad.