Tuesday, January 07, 2003

D.O.A. (1950)

I had avoided this one because it sounded so gimmicky, but I kept seeing it referred to as a great, almost archtypal film noir, so I broke down and watched it and was pleasantly surprised. Edmund O'Brien is an insurance man from a small town in California who travels to San Francisco for a long weekend, partly to get away from the smothering attentions of his secretary/girlfriend (Pamela Britton). She warns him about the wild life in the big city, and indeed he gets roped into some partying with wild conventioneers who are staying in his hotel. He doesn't wind up doing anything too decadent, but during a visit to a jazz club, his drink is spiked and he winds up with a terminal case of "luminous poisoning." There is no cure, but he still has a week to live, during which he sets out to find his killer. The opening scene, which follows him into a police station where he reports his own murder, is truly classic. What's missing here is any depth of meaning or theme, except, I guess, an observation on the whims of fate. O'Brien, though tempted, remained faithful to his clinging girlfriend, so he's not even paying for any cosmic misstep. I suppose it's a good example of the noir philosophy of man at the mercy of an irrational universe. Neville Brand is memorably creepy in two good scenes as a sadistic tough guy: in one scene, he brutally kicks O'Brien in the gut over and over, and in the other, someone winds up with a bottle smashed in his face. The "mystery" is in some ways just a Hitchcock "McGuffin," getting incoherent along the way. It got to the point where I didn't really care who had poisoned him or why, although the solution does wind up tying into the theme of chance and fate. The most coherent message here seems to be, stay in your own backyard, or, as learned less dangerously by Dorothy, there's no place like home. Not a masterpiece, but worth seeing, especially for noir fans.

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