It’s great when an opening sequence leaves you with both a keen desire to see what happens next and a lasting impression. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey recently began with a giant dragon imperiously smashing seven shades out of an entire kingdom of dwarves, for example, which isn’t something you see every day. Disney’s Up, on the other hand, had me and my wife crying like babies before the ten minute mark was up. Manhattan is probably my personal all-time favourite, opening with a beautiful montage of striking shots of New York, famously set to Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue. But then who could forget how excited they felt when they first saw Indiana Jones escape from the rolling boulder at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark?
You could argue that the first scene of Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. is up there with those examples, too. As the opening credits appear we follow Edmond O’Brien, playing mild-mannered small town accountant Frank Bigelow, as he paces along a series of corridors. He’s alone, accompanied only by Dimitri Tiomkin’s insistent, jarring score, which signals a certain degree of oddness and urgency is to follow. He eventually arrives at the homicide department, and tells the division’s captain he wants to report a murder. “Sit down. Where was this murder committed?” the captain asks. “San Francisco, last night” replies Bigelow. “Who was murdered?” asks the captain, his interest piqued. Bigelow pauses, looks the cop directly in the eyes, and famously says “I was”.
Yup … this is one of the all time great opening scenes, and today we can imagine the effect it had on audiences upon its initial release in 1950, who would rarely have seen such a shocking start and (I’m 99.9% sure) will not have had the surprise premise broken to them on some terminally-inconsiderate blog or other prior to their viewing.
The film uses a flashback to tell Bigelow’s story. At the start we find him harrassed and overworked. He decides to take a break from his work and his secretary Pamela Britton (Paula Gibson), a woman with whom he is in a relationship, although seemingly uncommitted to. Given begrudging permission to go forth and sow some wild oats, he travels to San Francisco, checks in at a hotel and falls in with a rowdy group that have just attended a sales convention. They take him to a jive bar, where his drink is spiked. The next day he wakes up feeling ill, and visits two separate doctors, who both independently confirm he has been poisoned; there’s no cure available and he has – at best – just days to live. The rest of the film is a race against time, with Bigelow desperate to find out who poisoned him, and why, before he shuffles off this mortal coil.
D.O.A. is a film noir classic, full of twists and turns, and includes several other genre staples: an alienated and amoral hero, a doomed romance, a femme fatale (albeit very briefly) and a dark, unforgiving urban terrain, shot in high contrast. San Francisco and Los Angeles are both filmed dramatically here, with the action switching with clockwork regularity from cramped interiors (hotel rooms, offices, apartments etc.) to the wide city streets outside. Director Maté spent years as a cinematographer, working on over 71 films before switching jobs. D.O.A.’s director of photography was Ernest Lazslo, who also worked on films as diverse as The Naked Jungle, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Logan’s Run before he died in the mid-1980s (nominated for four Oscars, and winning once for Ship Of Fools). Together the pair created one of the definitive noir visions of these familiar Californian cities. LA’s Bradbury Building in particular looks great here, and this may have influenced Ridley Scott’s decision to use it as one of the main locations for his sci-fi noir Blade Runner.
Bigelow is convincing as the innocent man desperately trying to uncover the truth, and he appears in nearly every scene, setting the pace of this frenetic movie with his rapid delivery and quickfire, impulsive actions. The character has no time to rest and contemplate the terrible hand he has been dealt, and O’Brien’s energetic performance renders the film’s premise entirely believable. The other members of the cast are solid, although Gibson is unfortunately required to be a little too wet and hysterical, and it begins to grates a little each time she appears on screen (admittedly not too often). Most enjoyable is a young Neville Brand as Chester, an unfriendly neighbourhood psychotic henchman who takes a worrying amount of sadistic pleasure from the violence he dishes out.
This isn’t just a great premise and a great opening, by any means; it is peppered with excellent moments throughout. Chief among these is the footage filmed inside a jive bar (supposedly the first time that the Beat scene was committed to celluloid). It may have dated as a movement, but you definitely get a sense of the scene’s vitality at the turn of the 50s, and can see how it acted as a forerunner for the mania of rock n’ roll. There’s also an excellent sequence shot outside where Bigelow runs through pedestrians on San Francisco’s Market Street just after finding out he is definitely dying, knocking several bystanders flying as he weaves through the crowd (this is actually a stolen shot, filmed without the city’s permission, and the pedestrians were all real people). It’s as though the character has to re-affirm the fact that, for the moment at least, he is still alive. Bigelow comes to a stop, exhausted, next to a newsstand. As he glances sideways we see a row of Life magazines stretching out, one after another. Magnificent.
D.O.A. has one or two faults, though. Bigelow’s frenetic run along Market Street is perhaps symbolic of the film’s breakneck pace; from the first moment to the last it refuses to stop still for a moment, and packs a hell of a lot of plot twists into its 83 minute running time. At times it is too fast, and confusing as a result, but the pacing does at least mean that the concept stays fresh until the end.
Also, early in the film and for reasons I cannot fathom at all, Bigelow checks in at his hotel and a series of comedy wolf-whistles are heard each time the character spots an attractive woman. It’s so jarring and bizarre I thought I was watching a version that had been tampered with for a joke, but alas…that’s sadly not the case. It’s the kind of thing you expect to find in a New Wave film from the 1960s (or the kind of thing you don’t expect to find, to be precise) but it’s completely at odds with the tone of the movie here. Perhaps it got a laugh in 1950, but today it seems extremely corny.
These are not minor quibbles – unfortunately they detract from what is otherwise a very good thriller – but overall there is much more to admire in D.O.A. than there is to pick on. Not that it matters too much, but it’s worth pointing out that it has aged very well in the subsequent six decades since its release (in fact it has aged far better than the so-so late 80s remake starring Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan). It’s a well-made, gripping and intense film, with justice done to an excellent, original story by Russell Rouse and Clarence Green. Careering along on a wave of suspense and mystery, it thankfully delivers on its brilliant opening scene and inventive premise.
(D.O.A. is available to watch free here, as the copyright lapsed in the 1970s and the film fell into the public domain.)
Directed by: Rudolph Maté
Written by: Russell Rouse, Clarence Green
Starring: Edmond O’Brien, Pamela Britton
Running Time: 83 Minutes