The 12th film contained in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set is the classic film noir D.O.A. Before I get into reviewing this film, there’s an oddity that I feel the need to point out. According to the back of the Fabulous Forties box, D.O.A. was released in 1949. However, according to Wikipedia, imdb, and almost every other source out there, D.O.A. was released in 1950. In short, it’s debatable whether or not D.O.A. actually belongs in the Fabulous Forties box set but it really doesn’t matter. D.O.A. is a classic and, along with Night of the Living Dead, it is undoubtedly one of the best B-movies to ever slip into the public domain.
D.O.A. opens with a lengthy tracking shot, following a man named Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) as he walks through the hallways of a San Francisco police station. Frank walks with a slow, halting movement and it’s obvious that he is not a healthy man. When he finally steps into a detective’s office, Frank announces that he’s come to the station to report a murder — his own.
Frank is a small-town accountant who came to San Francisco for a vacation. After a long night of drinking, Frank woke up feeling ill. When he went to a doctor, he was informed of two things. Number one, he was in overall good health. Number two, he only had a few days to live. Sometime during the previous night, Frank was poisoned with a “luminous toxin.” There was no antidote.
The rest of the film follows Frank as he attempts to figure out who poisoned him and why. It’s an intriguing mystery and I’m not going to ruin it by going into too many details. Over the course of his investigation, the increasingly desperate Frank comes across a gangster named Majak (Luther Adler). This leads to a lengthy scene in which Majak’s psychotic henchman, Chester (Neville Brand), repeatedly punches Frank in the stomach. It’s a scene that, even in our far more desensitized times, made me cringe. I can only imagine how audiences in 1950 reacted.
(There’s also a shoot-out at a drug store that can stand alongside almost any modern-day action sequence. Regardless of whether the film was made in 1949 or 1950, it still feels like a movie that could have just as easily been made in 2016.)
But really, the mystery is secondary. Instead, D.O.A. is truly about Frank and how he deals with the knowledge that he is going to die. Before being poisoned, Frank is the epitome of complacent, middle-class suburbia. He’s engaged to Paula (Pamela Britton) but he’s in no hurry to marry her. He’s got all the time in the world. When Frank goes to San Francisco, he epitomizes the bourgeoisie on vacation. He goes to the 1940s equivalent of a hipster nightclub, not because he’s actually interested in what the scene is all about but because he’s a tourist looking for a story to tell the folks back home. When he checks into his hotel, he leers at every passing woman with a casual sexism that would not be out-of-place on an old episode of Mad Men. Frank is floating through life, confident in his own complacency.
It’s only after he’s poisoned that Frank actually starts to live. He goes from being passive to being aggressive. Knowing that he’s going to die, he no longer has anything to lose. Only with death approaching does Frank actually start to live. Frank’s realization that he waited to long to live makes his final line all the more poignant.
D.O.A. is a classic! Watch it below, you won’t be sorry!