D.O.A (1949) Directed by Rudolph Maté
A verbatim noir, formulaic and nothing out of the ordinary as a 1940s thriller, but a potent noir nonetheless with an enticingly lethal premise that has the extraordinary at its creative nucleus. D.O.A., directed by Rudolph Maté and produced by the short-lived Cardinal Pictures, contradicts its ontology and instinct by revealing that a clichéd and rhetorical script can reframe conventions and be an idiosyncratically inventive film. Narratively, it is conditioned and subordinated by the structural template of the classic American crime film; it begins in medias res, introduces its mysterious thesis which will transition into the typical flashbacks that will resolve our doubts and eventually condense a conclusion and resolution to the intricate initial thesis.
Elementary even in its development, yet the unerringly ingenious screenwriting duo of Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene give this neurotic story a pulpy value nuanced with functional contrivances and high doses of literary authenticity worthy of a distinctive and immersive modern mystery novel. Edmond O’ Brien, charmingly cynical and sly, plays the “walking dead” Frank Bigelow in this venomous plot where his long-awaited vacation in a hedonistic San Francisco hotel, away from the bureaucracy of his job as an accountant and notary public in Banning, devolves into a maddening struggle to discover who is behind his impending death. Bigelow goes from having fun drinking and flirting with women to receiving the disconcerting news that he has been poisoned with the deadly and incurable luminous toxin, which circulates relentlessly inside his body.
Rudolph Maté’s virtuoso background as a cinematographer, and in general his renowned collaborative work with major filmmakers on some of the most visually robust masterpieces, suggests he has a keener eye for composing light, shadows, emotion and form but not when looking through the camera’s viewfinder as a director. D.O.A is full of distractions that ruin the narrative momentum, aside from a ruinous sound design, personally my interest in the film was complete when the thriller was more about a man just days away from imminent death despairs and loses his mind, and when it was about a man just days away from imminent death goes on an intricate search for the perpetrators of his misfortune my interest is neutral. The offbeat story operating on a traditional and architecturally recycled spectrum has a number of directional inconsistencies that prevent me from thoroughly enjoying its noir richness in their entirety. What Maté does best as a master of cinematic composition is tangibly, and tactically, to install an unrestricted tension in the simplicity of the framing and the hermeticism of its design. In this sense, Maté’s imprecise direction leaves traces of elegance and forcefulness despite the obvious mistakes.
As well as its authenticity, it seems to me that the historical context adds gravitational weight and symbolic verisimilitude to this 1949 production. Indeed, like all acidic post-war noir, the allusions in its political dimensions resonate with the stupor of its mirages with reality. D.O.A.’s anxious atmosphere makes it an essential product of its time, its disturbing paranoia and conspiratorial perversity never evade contemporary geopolitical concerns but rather express them with a deafening echo in the fictional realm. Just at the threshold of the cold war, in the year where all the political pieces took the exact dangerous steps for times of bellicose threats, hegemonic conflicts and aggressive McCarthyism to reverberate and expand in the following decades, D.O.A. was released in theaters making an allegorical response to the situational frenzy but above all, and more importantly, to the delirium of society.
Watching Frank Bigelow gradually convince himself that he is really going to die from that invincible toxin is a stark figurative depiction of the psychological instability left by World War II on human society. D.O.A. is an exercise in mysterious monomania, cruelty and sensuality, so expressive and obvious that not even the Hays Code could hide it. DEAD MAN WALKING!