Directed by Rudolph Mate, D.O.A., from 1950, is one of the classics of the film genre, a film ahead of its time that put off some early reviewers. It begins with one the greatest hooks in film history: a long tracking shot of a man, from behind, walking through police headquarters. He enters the door marked “Homicide Division,” asks to see the man in charge, and tells him he’s there to report a murder. “Whose murder?” he’s asked. “Mine,” he replies. The man isn’t thrown out of the office, instead they know who he is and proceed to listen to his story.
D.O.A., though not told in real time, is one of those films that has a deadline. Edmond O’Brien stars as the man trying to solve his own murder, and along the way he’s often rude, but only because he doesn’t have much time. In a way, it reminded me of that Simpsons episode where Homer only has 24 hours to live after eating incorrectly prepared blowfish, only in the film, O’Brien expresses no need to have sex.
O’Brien plays Frank Bigelow, an accountant in a small California town. He’s off to San Francisco for a vacation, ostensibly to get away from his secretary (Pamela Britton), who’s pushing to make their romance more permanent. When he gets to Frisco he’s instantly on the prowl, and we even hear a slide whistle playing a wolf whistle sound whenever he sizes up a pretty girl.
He meets some people and goes out to a jazz club (in one of the first representations of the beat culture in cinema). A mysterious man switches his drink. The next day, he feels a pain, and goes to a doctor. He’s told he’s ingested “luminous toxin” and has only a few days to live.
The rest of the film is O’Brien tracking down clues to find his killer. He starts with a man who was trying to get ahold of him, but later committed suicide. Britton finds the connection–O’Brien once notarized a bill of sale for the man. This leads to stolen iridium, and O’Brien chasing all over Los Angeles (if traffic were presented realistically, he would have run out of time). Some of the clues seem a little convenient, but Mate and O’Brien never let up the sense of time running out, which keeps the film taut. It’s only 83 minutes long, so there’s really never a dull moment once the diagnosis is made. There are some nice set pieces, such as a shootout in a drug store and a scene in a warehouse where O’Brien tries to avoid a sniper.
D.O.A. is a fine example of the genre and is easy to find–it’s in the public domain and there are more than 20 releases on home video/DVD.