(Check out my previous film noir essay here: They Made Me A Criminal)
It has been a good run this past two months and now this film noir essay series draws to a close. Most of the films I reviewed over this time were ones I had never seen previously, and I felt inclined, at first, to continue the process here, but felt it more fitting to essay my favorite noir, the one trad noir closer to my heart than any other: D.O.A.
This 1949 film is, in my estimation, the crowning achievement of the career of one Rudolph Mate. The man began his career in German cinema in the 1910s as a camera assistant working (coincidentally coming up alongside another great camera operator in his colleague and fellow student Karl Freund) before working his way up to the role of cinematographer in the late teens. He developed a style that used deep shadows and chiaroscuro, high contrast, and a very pure cinema approach, which aided him as cinematographer for the greatest of all Danish directors, Carl Dreyer, between 1924-32. During these years, Mate contributed to dozens of films by other directors, as well as three of Dreyer’s five films (Michael, Le Passion de Jean d’Arc, and Vampyr), the latter two of which are classics not only within Dreyer’s oeuvre, but within the history of cinema itself.
In 1934, Mate worked as cinematographer on Fritz Lang’s French fantasy film Liliom, which was the last European picture of Lang’s career for many years to come. With the rise of the Nazis in Germany, many of Mate’s contemporaries had fled the continent for America. Directly after Liliom, Lang left as well, and one can assume he discussed the move with Mate as sometime in the following weeks or months Mate made the move himself.
Known primarily for comedies and action films for the majority of his American cinematographic career between 1935-39, he finally began to break away in 1940 when he provided the cinematography for Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, for which his work was nominated for an Academy Award. This proved to be the first such nomination in what would become a five-year run in which he received a nomination every year for some film or other. With the 1944 war paranoia thriller Address Unknown, the 1946 Hayworth noir vehicle Gilda, and the 1947 Orson Welles’ film The Lady From Shanghai (in which Rita Hayworth also starred), Mate had found a genre within the American Hollywood system that was perfectly suited to his artistic bent and expressionistic/pure cinema stylings: the thriller.
The Lady From Shanghai would prove to be his final job as cinematographer on a film, and finally, he was given a chance to begin directing. The first job was a test. A romantic comedy released in late 1947 in which Mate was paired as co-director with a more experienced director. He passed, and in the following year directed the classic noir The Dark Past. The year after that: D.O.A.
The film is a story about an accountant named Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) who runs a small, but lucrative firm where he employs a number of secretaries. Chief among them is Paula Gibson, a woman committed to her work and to Frank on more intimate terms. The two have been seeing each other for years, and she has been waiting on Frank to commit for years and propose to her. But Frank is feeling trapped, hemmed in, and he doesn’t like it. And so, now that he has cleared his schedule for the next week, he has plans to go to San Francisco to cut loose, and maybe meet a few handsome broads along the way.
Paula recognizes that Frank needs his space and that he needs some time away to think everything over before, at least hopefully, coming to a decision about his future prospects with Paula. But she’s none too happy with what he might pull while away and as such, she summons all of the forces of postmodern liberal authority and conscience to subversively keep him in line, without having to be physically by his side. She tells Frank, by phone after he has arrived in his hotel in Frisco, that ‘there’s nothing you can do that you have to feel guilty about.’ The effect should be lost on no one and is akin to a parent telling their child not that they have to visit their grandparents whether they like it or not, but instead that they only have to visit their grandparents if they feel like it, but must recognize how their denial of association with their grandparents will make them feel. In a word, she wants him to behave, and to like it too. Just a bit vicious, but not quite fatale.
Despite this form of warning, an odd whistling effect plays every time that Frank passes a beautiful woman in the hall. The quick rise in tone is pretty obviously phallic in nature and is tied explicitly with sexual arousal in a way that makes that first claim a little less obnoxious (as does noir’s oft-fascination with Freudian psychoanalysis as a way to interpret its protagonists and antagonists actions). Whenever these incidents occur, Frank’s face lights up as a visual signifier of his interest, which is lost on none of the women who smile upon viewing his, how should I put this, shit-eating grin. And a particular woman, a woman married to a salesman with whom she is on vacation in Frisco during a Marketing Convention, decides to take advantage of Frank’s sexual repression and lack of cool, devil-may-care demeanor, to take advantage of his puppy dog way to get him to come along with her and her friends, buy her drinks, and dance with her in the Jazz club: The Fisherman (in which some tough players swing like no one’s business that side of Miles Davis).
But things go wrong fast. As Frank is inebriated, a mystery figure finds it easy to sneak up on him and switch his drink with one spiked with poison of a luminous quality. Too drunk to notice, Frank retires to his room and falls asleep where, over the next twelve hours, the toxins seep into his system, making it impossible to pump them out. What’s worse, the doctors he consults to learn this information (he thought he merely had a stomach ache from drinking too much) tell him that this particular poison has no known antidote, and that Frank now has less than a week to live, and potentially as little as a day.
Over the remainder of the film, Frank works to unravel the secret behind why someone would want to poison a lowly accountant, would want to snuff his life out. He becomes a man on the run from, initially against the clock, and eventually away from thugs working for a mob boss who is unnerved by how much information Frank is disclosing in such a short time. As he runs through the streets of Frisco and eventually the City of Angels, some revolutionary shots are taken on the fly. Stolen shots of streets scenes in which Frank runs and pushes real people around as a man possessed, in a cinematic fever dream extending beyond the world of the camera and breaking out with manic intensity into the real world outside of the studio.
Of blacks so black and shadows so deep, and of a situation so dire and paranoiac that the film seems to move past the realm of pure cinema into the very domain of dreams, of the unconscious itself. As if this poor sap is being punished not for merely notarizing some bill of sale, some MacGuffin, six months prior, but by the very world around him acting as superego inflicting pain and suffering as a reprimand for his sexual desires, his inability to settle down and move past the infantile stage of the Puer Aeternis, to become, in a word, civil. And like all deeply, truly Christian individuals who obtain self-knowledge and thereby transfigure every day into the dark night of the soul, Frank feels always guilty for his thoughts, for what he would do even more than what he has done.
And this is why the film hit me so hard as a young religious man at University studying Religion a few years back before my second atheistic turn. It is the fear I felt. That one day everything I imagined and desired and all the sin I incurred like pollution would damn me to eternal suffering like Frank’s indiscretions of conscience damned him to death. And though I now feel free, maybe the knowledge of damnation (or nothingness in my current case) is the condition for that freedom in the same way that Frank’s knowledge of impending death freed him to become the cool, strong character he always failed to be in life. Freed him to realize his love for Paula and the vanity of time wasted. As Bukowski said, ‘Nothing is worse than too late.’
And in the end, the world’s revenge will come swiftly and mercilessly, but not before I, and you, and any other who feels the same is able to strike back. To figure out who or what administered the poison and strike back mortally against it in the hopes that in some small way we can prevent the same fate from striking another. Just as Frank tracked down and found his mortal enemy, hiding away in that great modernist beast The Bradbury Building (in which Deckard’s chase scene would occur at the climax of Blade Runner thirty years later. Surely another reason that D.O.A. grips me like no other trad film noir.) where Frank punches back at the gods who would damn him for ultimately meaningless indiscretions. And like Deckard spitting in the face of his would-be murderer moments before what seems an inevitable plummet to his death in the streets of the City of Angels, Frank pulls the trigger and shows his utter contempt for this world and every god damn son of a bitch in it who would deny him his pleasures.
That’s just the way I like it.