(1949) Directed by Rudolph Maté; Written by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene; Starring: Edmond O'Brien, Pamela Britton, Luther Adler, Beverly Garland, Lynn Baggett and William Ching; Available on DVD, Kanopy and Amazon Prime
“You knew who I was when I came in here today, but you were surprised to see me alive, weren’t you? But I’m not alive, Mrs. Phillips. Sure, I can stand here and talk to you, I can breathe, and I can move. But I’m not alive, because I did take that poison, and nothing can save me.” – Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien)
D.O.A.* starts off with a dynamite premise, told from the perspective of a man whose hours are numbered. In the opening scene, our protagonist, Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien), arrives at a police station to report a murder – his own. The ensuing story, told in flashback, recounts his strange tale about how he came to be fatally poisoned, and his thirst for vengeance. His frenzied quest, as a man with nothing left to lose, takes him to Los Angeles (where the famous Bradbury Building makes an appearance) to track down a business associate, and back to San Francisco.
* Fun Fact: D.O.A. marks the film debut of Beverly Garland, who appears as Miss Foster, Mr. Phillips’ secretary.
As he’s introduced to us, Frank is a bit of a heel, but as the film progresses, he gradually becomes more sympathetic. He plans a solitary vacation to San Francisco, which doesn’t sit well with his co-dependent girlfriend/secretary Paula (Pamela Britton). Apparently never hearing the aphorism “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” she calls him repeatedly, sends a bouquet to his hotel room, and sensing that he’s in big trouble, travels to San Francisco to meet him. As obnoxious as her behavior seems on the surface, it serves to ground Frank, causing him to re-evaluate his relationship with her, and form a belated appreciation for her efforts.
In the space of a few days, Frank experiences all five stages of grief, as outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book Death and Dying (Source: HDSA.org) : 1) Denial – After he begins to feel a stomachache, a trip to the doctor confirms all isn’t well. Due to the poison he’s unwillingly ingested, he only has days to live. His incredulous reaction is understandable, given the circumstances (“This is a mistake. This could be a mistake.”); followed by 2) Anger – Unwilling to accept the bad news, Frank storms out of the office (“You’re crazy!”); 3) Bargaining – Frank visits another doctor, which only confirms the first prognosis; 4) Depression –This is best illustrated by the scene when Frank waits by a newsstand, watching happy couples pass by on the street. They’re presumably investing in bright futures – a future he and Paula will never share; and finally, 5) Acceptance – As indicated by the somber opening and closing scenes, Frank is resigned to his fate.
The filmmakers are purposefully coy about the poison, referring to the substance as “luminous toxin.” Judging by its glowing properties, we can deduce it’s something radioactive, but that’s about it. The end credits assert that luminous toxin is a real poison, but we’re left in the dark (pun intended) about what it is, specifically. The acting, along with the music from Dimitri Tiomkin, is turned up several notches, matching the frenetic pace of the film. This tone works well for Neville Brand’s memorable performance as Chester, a sadistic thug who takes pleasure in causing pain (He hits Frank in the stomach just to increase his suffering). D.O.A. packs a lot of entertainment in a scant 83 minutes, with a labyrinthine plot, ambiguous motivations, a host of colorful characters, and a fatalistic streak running throughout. If there’s one lesson the film teaches us, whatever you do, don’t notarize any illicit radium shipments.
One word of caution: Since this film is public domain, poor copies abound. The DVD I rented from Netflix looks like it was copied from VHS. Alas, there’s a better version streaming on Amazon Prime.