"D.O.A." is, for me, about as good as B-film noir gets. Great atmosphere, high contrast cinematography and great location shooting add to the dark and gritty feel. The direction by Rudolph Mate enhanced the sense of urgency so integral to the story. And cinematographer Ernest Laszlo gave the film that dark, atmospheric look so characteristic of noir.
Edmond O'Brien brings believability and intensity to the role of Frank Bigelow, but the acting overall was not the strong point of the film. Instead, the main focus of the film seemed to be the cinematography and lighting, which is not surprising considering that the film is directed by Rudolph Mate, who photographed such films as "The Passion of Joan of Arc", "Vampyr" and "Dante's Inferno". Consequently, the strength of Mate's direction seems to lie more in the technical aspects of the film rather than his ability to work with and bring strong performances out of the actors.
The supporting cast is generally good, but not outstanding. The script contains good dialogue, but many of the best scenes of the film are essentially played silent, without dialogue, using music, atmospheric effects and most importantly, the camera to add to the scene. To its credit, the cinematography does not ever get carried away and take the audience out of the story by calling attention to itself. Mention should also be made of the musical score, which enhances the action. The exception is a sequence early in the film taking place in a hotel lobby of a San Francisco hotel, in which a slide whistle-type effect is used to convey the idea of O'Brien's thoughts as several girls pass by. This effect seemed gimmicky to say the least and served only to distract from the scene. The thoughts of the character would have been conveyed just as effectively without such an effect.
"D.O.A." has one of the most interesting premises ever created for a film noir picture. Frank Bigelow (O'Brien) takes a last-minute trip to spend some time alone before deciding whether or not to get married. The first night on his trip, he goes to a nightclub and wakes up the following morning to find he has been poisoned. From here, Bigelow must piece together the events to track down his murderer.
The plot of the film is set up by an opening scene that has Bigelow walking into the homicide squad room to report a murder...his own. O'Brien's performance is filled with such desperation and intensity it instantly draws us in to his character's story.
Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo moves his camera through the gritty, darkly-lit locations of Los Angeles, including one particularly memorable scene which involves a shoot-out inside a corner market. Mate's influence as a cinematographer is particularly evident in his handling of the chase scenes, using the camera as a kind of character, following the action intensely.
There is an amazing sense of the increasing urgency for O'Brien's character to piece together what he can in order to uncover the identity of his killer.
It is not often that I come across a film that captures my interest the way this film did. Few films have a plot that so instantly draws the audience immediately in to the story and concern for the main character. The film moves briskly through its 83 minute running time. This well-paced film uses its taut editing to heighten suspense.
The script is not filled with particularly strong dialogue but excels in presenting the events of the story in an increasingly frantic style. Certainly, the script's strongest point is that it is not heavy on dialogue and instead allows visuals to play a major part in the story. And when the visuals are as good as this, that is a definite advantage.
In contrast to the film noir productions of the major studios, "D.O.A." is obviously shot on a tighter budget. However, it is this lack of high-polished production value that adds to its atmosphere. I am reminded of Edgar G. Ulmer's "Detour", a film notorious for its shoddy production values but excellent use of technique to create atmosphere. Perhaps even more than "Detour", "D.O.A." shares a connection with that other film noir classic, "Gun Crazy", directed by Joseph H. Lewis. Whereas "Detour" was shot primarily either on claustrophobic sets or in front of a process screen, films such as "Gun Crazy" and "D.O.A." have an excellent use of location shooting.
Despite its shortcomings in terms of supporting performances and certain elements of the script, the atmospheric photography, strong direction, the lead performance of Edmond O'Brien and the excellent script of "D.O.A." make it a film that I would recommend to any fan of film noir.