*** out of 5
"I don't think you fully understand, Bigelow. You've been murdered!"
I stated at the beginning of the month that my plan for Noirvember was to watch chronologically a series of film noir films that were entirely new to me. This one is a cheat, but I wanted to include it in my schedule this year because it's been many years since I saw it last, and having recently purchased it on DVD, I wanted to see it again. So sue me. It's a personal and sentimental favorite, for the reason that it was one of my first introductions into the world of noir. Seeing it again so many years later it has been an interesting experience.
This is, bluntly, a bizarre oddity.
The story itself makes little logical sense, but to try to apply logic is to miss the point. D.O.A. is an exercise in nightmare storytelling and dream logic. This is a world where seemingly everyone is against one man, with little apparent reason, and even less explanation.
Dimitri Tiompkin's score is also a strange brew- from the punchy opening sequence, to Inner Sanctum-esque organ stings to evocative violins. The nonsensically weird slide-whistle sound effects, which are thrown into the soundtrack as O'Brien's character does some girl-watching in hotel where a raucus party is going on, seem cartoonish and out-of-place, but if we think of this as someone's nightmare, they make perfect sense- in a dream or a nightmare, absurdity is commonplace and even logical. That seemingly logical reality in a dream is part of what makes them so frightening.
Similarly terrifying is the sequence after he discovered he's been lethally poisoned. He wanders the streets aimlessly, like James Mason in Odd Man Out, watching the dance of life go on without him- a child playing with a ball, a young couple embracing on the street in from on him.
In many ways, this plays like a pastiche of the great noir moments, all bundled together in one monstrous nightmare. Other, more "realist" noirs seem to always have a reason for their hero's woes, but here, it all comes down to an insane misunderstanding, a whim of fate- the sort of thing that we begin to see more and more of as the noir cycle continues.
I'm not even going to attempt to explain the plot, or all the characters' relationships to one another. As I say, this is a dream world, where everything connects, and none of it makes any sense. Take for example the relationship between O'Brien's character, Bigelow, and his faithful secretary, Paula (Pamela Britton) When first introduced she comes across as almost needy and controlling - giving a sense that O'Brien is trapped and smothered by her attentions, and needing to get away from her for a while. Then you see that he is so tethered to her that he can't help calling her daily, even while he's girl-watching on his vacation. But who is it that he ends up relying on when everyhing goes down the drain? You guessed it. as in a dream, she morphs into an idealized companion, the perfect girl he never knew he always loved.
Or watch how quickly O'Brien shifts his characterization from the gentle, soft-spoken and shy businessman to one who is first terrified, filled with despair, then finally so hardboiled by his lack of anything left to lose that he can stare down the barrel of a gun, take repeated hits to his agonized stomach, then turn and punch the man in the face while he's holding the gun and beating him with it.
There are femme fatales everywhere in this dream world, and unreasonable betrayals by friends and strangers alike. There are conniving underworld bosses like Luther Adler's Majak character, and wild-eyed psychpaths like Neville Brand's Chester, a creepy henchman who, like Albert Dekker's character Armitage in the 1950 film Destination Murder (which came out within months of this), speaks of himself in the third person as he takes O'Brien on a ride to try to kill him someplace private.
Finally, in keeping with that dream-world sense the story has so thoroughly established,the ending that finally comes is as sudden and shocking as waking from a nightmare. His story told, O'Brien drops dead in the police headquarters, and is pronounced dramatically to be "Dead On Arrival."