Skip to main content

Do you realise what you’re saying? Why, you’re telling me that I’m dead.

D.O.A.
(1950)

(SPOILERS) D.O.A. has a fantastic premise, albeit an extremely contrived one. You can imagine the pitch; “A man walks into a police station to report a murder; his own!” The studio executives roundly applaud. This sort of gimmicky scenario can only be sustained by movie logic, and Rudolph Maté’s flashback narrative follows suit. The result is a rickety film noir, lacking the polish of the greats. But how many movies give you a hard rolling lead protagonist who also happens to be an accountant?


I first saw D.O.A. as part of the second season of BBC2’s Moviedrome. I’m unsure if this was before or after I caught the Dennis Quaid/Meg Ryan remake. In his introduction presenter Alex Cox memorably complained about the bizarre use of a Clangers whistle, which pipes up on the soundtrack every time Edmund O’Brien’s Frank Bigelow sees an attractive woman. It seems to have strayed in from an entirely different movie, the kind of thing you’d expect to accompany Harpo Marx. Perhaps Maté and screenwriting partners Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene intended to contrast O’Brien’s holiday jolly with the ensuing sobering realisation that he has been poisoned. If so, they don’t succeed; the (overlong) introductory passage is hard work. Frank may be a louse for leaving secretary/girlfriend Paula (Pamela Britton) hanging while he goes on totty-hunting jaunt in San Francisco, but Paula is hugely annoying. So much so that his dive into debauchery seems like the only sane course of action open to him. As part of Frank’s walk on the wild side there’s an amusingly over-amped depiction of a jive bar, filled with crazed hepcats.


Frank Bigelow: Do you realise what you’re saying? Why, you’re telling me that I’m dead.

Bigelow awakes from a night of carousing feeling particularly the worse for wear, so rather sensibly goes straight to the nearest doctor. The writers, never ones to repeatedly look a gift gag in the mouth, have a doctor instruct Frank “I don’t think you understand, Bigelow. You’ve been murdered!” To be honest, I probably wouldn’t be able to resist either. Even Frank is at it later. Encountering a moll, he opines, “Sure, I can stand here and talk to you. I can breath and I can move. But I’m not alive”. Even when they’ve milked that one to death there’s time for another final grim chuckle, this time involving the film’s title.


The end credits appear to verify the existence of the substance used to kill Frank (“Luminous toxin is a descriptive term for an actual poison”), just in case you thought the scene where Frank gets a second opinion and the consulting doctor comes in with a glowing test tube, which he proceeds to wave about in the dark, was over-the-top. It’s radioactive you see, and “one of the few poisons of its type for which there is no antidote”. This doesn’t sound like a fun way to go, as it attacks the internal organs and kills in the space of a week. At least the effects appear rather less extreme than those of the polonium used to poison Alexander Litvinenko back in 2006. Indeed, when Frank succumbs it ranks up there amongst the most sudden and inept movie deaths. O’Brien strikes out unconvincingly and collapses behind a desk.  


O’Brien essays the transition from skirt-chasing cheese hound to desperate bruiser quite agreeably. He has that disenchanted drollery thing going for him, the sort of act you expect from Bogart. And his encounters (barring an interminable scene where Pamela comes to visit) are generally lively. Frank’s realisation of the important things, just as he is poised to meet his maker, is suitably cynical (come on, we’re not buying that he actually loves Paula; he’s just scared of dying), and the ladies he encounters move accordingly from being positioned as lust objects to obstacles in his path. Particularly amusing is Laurette Luez as a dusky femme fatale, informing Frank “If you were a man, I’d punch your dirty face in”.


The best of his opponents is crazy grinning bug-eyed loon Chester (Neville Brand), henchman and nephew of Majak (Luther Adler). Chester is an unbridled cartoon sadist, referring to himself in the third person and fantasising over the most painful method of terminating Frank (“I think I’ll give it to you in the belly”). When Majak refers to him as “an unfortunate boy”, he’s couching the understatement.  Chester’s final scene, in which he embarks on a shooting spree in a pharmacy, rather wonderfully has him lamped by an old geezer with a bottle.


Maté, a former cinematographer, gives the location work a certain amount of zip, but the interiors tend towards the stagey and unimaginative (an exception is the opening sequence). The main problems come from the script, however. If the irony of Frank’s fate is rather forced (“All I did was notarise a bill of sale”) the trail to the perpetrators lacks flair; the mastermind behind it all is fairly obvious, and the plotting required to reach the reveal manages to be both repetitive and convoluted. Still, this is solid B-movie hokum and the irresistible premise brings with it a fair amount of goodwill.


***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

If this is not a place for a priest, Miles, then this is exactly where the Lord wants me.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
(SPOILERS) Sometimes a movie comes along where you instantly know you’re safe in the hands of a master of the craft, someone who knows exactly the story they want to tell and precisely how to achieve it. All you have to do is sit back and exult in the joyful dexterity on display. Bad Times at the El Royale is such a movie, and Drew Goddard has outdone himself. From the first scene, set ten years prior to the main action, he has constructed a dizzyingly deft piece of work, stuffed with indelible characters portrayed by perfectly chosen performers, delirious twists and game-changing flashbacks, the package sealed by an accompanying frequently diegetic soundtrack, playing in as it does to the essential plot beats of the whole. If there's a better movie this year, it will be a pretty damn good one.

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

It was one of the most desolate looking places in the world.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, broadcast by the BBC on the centenary of Armistice Day, is "sold" on the attraction and curiosity value of restored, colourised and frame rate-enhanced footage. On that level, this World War I documentary, utilising a misquote from Laurence Binyon's poem for its title, is frequently an eye-opener, transforming the stuttering, blurry visuals that have hitherto informed subsequent generations' relationship with the War. However, that's only half the story; the other is the use of archive interviews with veterans to provide a narrative, exerting an effect often more impacting for what isn't said than for what is.

What about the panties?

Sliver (1993)
(SPOILERS) It must have seemed like a no-brainer. Sharon Stone, fresh from flashing her way to one of the biggest hits of 1992, starring in a movie nourished with a screenplay from the writer of one of the biggest hits of 1992. That Sliver is one Stone’s better performing movies says more about how no one took her to their bosom rather than her ability to appeal outside of working with Paul Verhoeven. Attempting to replicate the erotic lure of Basic Instinct, but without the Dutch director’s shameless revelry and unrepentant glee (and divested of Michael Douglas’ sweaters), it flounders, a stupid movie with vague pretensions to depth made even more stupid by reshoots that changed the killer’s identity and exposed the cluelessness of the studio behind it.

Philip Noyce isn’t a stupid filmmaker, of course. He’s a more-than-competent journeyman when it comes to Hollywood blockbuster fare (Clear and Present Danger, Salt) also adept at “smart” smaller pictures (Rabbit Proof Fence

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.