On Second Thought: D.O.A. (1950)

D.O.A. is a stone-cold noir classic, featuring the famous opening of a man stumbling into a police station to report his own murder. The story, told by him to homicide detectives, takes place entirely via flashback. Frank Bigelow recounts the tale of how on a trip to San Francisco, he gets poisoned, and decides to spend the rest of his ruined vacation getting shot at and searching for his killer. The narrator/victim is an accountant, and is only thrust into the role of hard-boiled detective by his circumstances.

D.O.A., directed by Rudolph Mate, is stylistically formidable, especially for a b-movie. Early on in the film, the protagonist visits a jazz club, and the wailing rhythms and contorted angles used to frame the musicians build tensions and give the viewer the impression that Frank is out way over his head. He’s left his sweetheart back at home so she can’t pine for commitment or nag him on his trip, and so he can cruise for a new female companion. Before he finds one, though, a mysterious stranger drugs his drink.

When he reports to the hospital, the doctors inform him that he’s ingested fatal, though slow-acting, poison. The rest of the film depicts his increasingly desperate search for the culprit and his motive. While the script seems to gently chastise Frank for his philandering ways (his last wish is to tell his honey back home he should have never gone to the big city) and betrays some atomic-age angst (the poison, when isolated, has a radioactive glow), the final and most important theme is existentialism. Frank finishes his story and names his killer, only to drop dead moments later at the feet of the detectives. In a gesture that reinforces the central pessimism of noir, the lead detective announces they’ll report him “dead on arrival.” His story, and indeed his whole search for justice, gets erased, reduced to meaninglessness. That’s the way I like my noir: pitch-black.

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