Dollar Deals: D.O.A. (1950)

Sorry to disappoint folks, but there will be no extreme beach volleyball involved in this film at all. I do assure you that within a few years you'll probably be able to find that movie in the dollar bins, but tonight I bring to you a bit of film noir that was well worth the buck I put down for it. There is some bit of controversy as to if this film fits a classical standards of film noir, but does it get any more bleak when a man becomes obsessed with finding his own murderer? Especially when that man only has hours to live because he woke up...

D.O.A (1950) starring Edmond O'Brian, Pamela Britton, Luther Adler, Neville Brand. Directed by Rudolph Mate. 

Frank Bigelow (O'Brian) is living the quiet life in Banning, California. He runs a small notary and accounting office along with his secretary and girlfriend Paula (Britton). Feeling the pressures of his job, and perhaps Paula's intent to see a wedding ring on her finger, Frank takes off for a week in San Francisco. He meets up with a pack of traveling salesmen and parties the night away in a Jazz club, but in the morning he wakes with an acute pain in his stomach.

At first he thinks it will subside, just an ill aftereffect of too much drink, but when the pain persists he seeks out a doctor. They break the news to him as gently as they can, but Frank can't bear to hear it. Only after getting a second opinion does he accept that he has been fatally poisoned. With only a day or two to live, Frank begins to track down any lead that might uncover his murderer. With the Jazz club closed and the traveling salesmen already moved along, his only clue is the frantic calls from a man he had never met. He calls Paula back at the office to see what the man had wanted, but the man,Eugene Phillips, is dead.

Frank rushes to Los Angles, where Phillips has died, looking for any kind of answers. Soon the rumpled suit accountant is up to his neck in double crosses, red herrings, and dangerous dames. His time is running out, so with a fevered determination Frank must use every second he has left if he wants to uncover the mystery. 

Film Facts

--The Jazz Band Frank sees in the Fisherman club is played by Von Streeter and members of his band The Wig Poppers, but the music was provided by Maxwell Davis, a saxophonist and record producer who worked on early R&B and Blues tracks from Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and T-Bone Walker. 

--The Bradbury Building which was used in this film has seen lots of screen time in films like Bladerunner, Double Indemnity, and Chinatown. 

--The scene where Frank runs down the street after learning his was poisoned was a"stolen shot". None of the people on the street knew what was going on or that a movie was being filmed. 

The Bug Speaks
Perhaps the hardest thing about talking about this film is the nature of the film itself. With so many ups and downs and ins and outs, it is impossible to truly give a synopsis without giving much of the movie away. Part of the real fun of this film is the sheer volume of false leads and red herrings that stand in the way of Frank learning the truth. When it does come out it seems both sublimely simple and ultimately unpredictable in a way that modern Hollywood should take a long hard look at. 

This film is virtually unformulaic. From the first scene where Frank stumbles into a police station to report a murder, "Who was murdered?" "I was.", you know this is going to be a ride unlike any other film out there. It does take a moment to get started and drags ever so slightly though Frank's night of debauchery, but once the accountant is on the case, the film takes on the same feverish pace that Frank does. This is after all a man with little time on his hands, and the second and third acts fly along at a breakneck pace that I can think of very little to compare it to except perhaps the underwhelming Jason Statham film Crank.

The acting is spot on from all parties involved. Edward O'Brian (The Wild Bunch, The Killers )makes Frank such an easily identifiable pencil pushing stooge, but more astounding is how the transition from number cruncher to face puncher is so seamless that the performance feels both genuine and inspired. Pamela Britton ("My Favorite Martian")is also very good in her limited time on the screen. She and O'Brian make for a very real feeling couple. There are also a couple of great performances from a couple of the film's many heavies. Luther Adler is wonderfully aloof and menacing in the most gentlemanly way as criminal mastermind Majack. 

Speaking of Majack, perhaps the most memorable performance of the film comes from Neville Brand as the vicious thug Chester. This was Brand's first featured performance and he would go on to perform in the cannibal film Eaten Alive as well as hundreds of other movies and TV shows. His frenzied performance added the appropriate amount of menace that capped out the already dark story of Frank Bigelow. 

The film is well helmed by former cinematographer Rudolph Mate taking the big chair for only the fourth time. Mate would go on to direct many more film including The 300 Spartans which detailed the same battle of Thermopylae which was detailed in the blockbuster 300. Mate shot the film taking full advantage of night locations, dark corners, and shadowed faces. In fact there is one shootout in a warehouse against an unseen assailant which looked textbook as to how a scene like that should be handled. Sharing the credit for the film's look is cinematographer Ernest Laszlo who would go on to win an Oscar for his work on Ship of Fools and be nominated for Logan's Run. 

Mate makes very few errors with the film and practically the only one is the use of a slide whistle near the beginning of the film whenever Frank sees an attractive lady. This comical and completely inappropriate device is cast off quite quickly, but the presence of it is even more bothersome once you've seen what lays ahead in the film. Whatever possessed him to use such a sound effect I will never be able to fathom.  

All around the film is a pulse pounding thrill ride which hasn't at all been marred by the passage of time. In fact I wish there were more films that could mix thrills, action, and mystery in such a dynamic format. Perhaps it was not as masterful a film as Touch of Evil or The Maltese Falcon, but the feeling of panic and desperation that pervades the  film and permeates the viewer is untouched in my book. This is one that will end up costing me well more than a buck as I try and track down a high quality version of the film, but if you haven't seen it then drop a dollar on it or stream it from below for free. 

Bug Rating


  1. Yes, I have seen this in many years but it is certainly a classic film noir gem. Recently a sort of remake, or homage type film perhaps, was made with Jason Statham called Crank. I saw it a couple weeks ago and remembered thins fine film and after your write up I want to find this again.

    Bill at the Uranium Cafe


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