On the run from a commitment with Paula – girlfriend/office assistant, Frank Bigelow takes a gentleman’s week away from Banning to San Francisco.
He stays at the St. Francis and runs into some swells celebrating a corporate victory in the room across from his. A guy comes in to ask to use his phone. The guy invites him out with his compatriots to an evening of nightclubbing. The guys wife starts hitting on Frank. Frank gets uncomfortable and heads for the bar and orders a drink. He takes a sip from his drink and spots a pretty girl at the end of the bar. He saunters over to chat with the lady. In the process, he asks the bartender to slide his drink over to him. Not realizing that his drink has now been switched on the bar by some mystery man.
He takes a sip of the drink and realizes there’s something not right with it and asks for a new drink. He proceeds to chat with the lady, gets her number and heads back to the hotel. Prepared to call his new lady friend, Frank returns to find a bouquet of flowers and a note of love from Paula. Frank kicks himself and tears up the phone number.
The next day Frank wakes up in pain and goes to the doctor. The doctor tells him he’s fine – until the blood work/toxicology come back in.. Now they tell him he’s a dead man – he’s got luminous poisoning. He has a day, two days, at most a week to live. In disbelief he flees from the building. Goes to Dr. #2 same story. Frank has been murdered only he’s still breathing.
In the background of this, Paula has alerted him that a gentleman has been trying desperately to reach him in Banning – the home office – but she has referred the guy to his hotel in Frisco.
So this is where the story takes off. Frank is on the hunt for his killer-the man that poisoned his drink. It leads back to Frank simply having notarized a bill of sale for some iridium. The man trying to reach Frank turns up dead, apparent suicide, but the plot thickens. The man was killed by a psychopath Chester who flung him from a window. After repeated abuse at the hands of Chester, who is the henchman of the man behind the sinister plot, Chester is disposed of by the LAPD in a drug store.
What makes this movie work is Edmond O’Brien is very believable as this man conflicted by love and a desire to be free. Even though O’Brien is not handsome enough to be believable as Cary Grant or Gregory Peck in a leading man’s roll that is his strength. O’Brien has an “every man” quality to him – he’s a bit pale, he’s a little overweight, his hair’s a little stringy but you believe he’s a man. What makes you want to watch him in this is two things – first you like a guy who doesn’t take this lying down. Frank doesn’t roll over and wait to die or play out a week long maudlin love scene with Paula. The second thing is you are attached to the character. You begin to feel his palpable desperation and you hope against hope that, despite the title, he’s not going to drop dead at the end of the movie.
As the plot unfolds you begin to get a darker sense of reality however. In this film Mate has masterfully used location shooting in San Francisco and Los Angeles to present the filmgoer with the sense that the cities are alive, especially at night. The jazz club and the chase scene with Chester and the other hoods exemplify how your location can take on a life of its own in a picture. The use of the skeletal and black Bradbury building at the end of the movie is also a master stroke reemphasizing the darkness of the moment and the complex journey that Frank has gone on just to find, and kill, one man.
The editing is fast, the volume is loud, the pace is frenzied and the viewer is left dizzied wondering where the whirlwind will end. The culmination of all of this is Frank’s final scene with Paula. In the dark shadow of his hotel, Frank and Paula say goodbye, both pretending that they don’t know it’s their last.
Much like many other noir films, it is easy to fault D.O.A. with having somewhat one-dimensional female characters. You have the trampy wife, the pretty girl at the bar, the fly-by-night whore, and of course the dutiful girlfriend. It’s not to say these parts aren’t well acted, they simply aren’t given the chance to grow teeth. Frank can rest assured in his love for Paula because the other alternatives presented are all unappealing to a degree.
What’s also of interest in this story is the function of the police. For the most part Frank does all the dirty work him self. We see the police passively listening to Frank’s story, they perfunctorily make Majaks’ goons move their car, and even at the drugstore Frank has flushed out Chester so the LAPD cop has an easy shot. In fact, after the crime is committed Frank takes matters into his own hands and becomes his own policeman, judge, jury, and executioner. — LEF