If High Concept is Hollywood’s idol, then D.O.A. must rank as its definitive Golden Calf. How many aspiring writers rack their brains yet for a set-up this good? The Popkins Harry and Leo must have flipped wigs when this one came their way. I checked reviews. Phrases like novel twist and offbeat idea were bandied freely. The inspired gimmick and sock opening was all over publicity from United Artists. Crime thrillers were otherwise common as cigar coupons and you worked hard in 1949 to distinguish yours from two dozen others playing the same week (and note these side-by-side theatre ads shilling double features --- with all four crime dramas!). Cheap to make (they had to be), street mellers were like flip-books made from tabloid newspapers where you got to see violence otherwise read on cold print in bus stations and subways. D.O.A. couldn’t be as trashy or explicit as quarter paperbacks of the day, but how many of their born losers took such punishment as Edmund O’Brien sustains here? Postwar noir is rife with stomach abuse. Just last week I saw John Payne getting his tossed in Kansas City Confidential, while Bob Mitchum’s hardened abs, softened up regularly in most events, are specifically targeted in His Kind Of Woman (Don’t mess up his face …). Blows to the breadbasket are that much worse with luminous poison coursing through one’s belly. D.O.A.'s vial of it glowing in an otherwise darkened examination room is the stuff of magic peculiar to the best of film noir. One scene like this makes up for labored comic bits like that slide flute we hear whenever O’Brien spots wolf bait in hotel corridors. Unlike "B" westerns where you had to at least put up clapboard to simulate a frontier town, cheap thrillers need only haul cameras a few blocks down to achieve unimpeachable reality. D.O.A. goes one better by shooting authentic pavements in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. O’Brien’s frenzied run down multiple crowded sidewalks gets as many genuinely startled reactions from pedestrians clearly unaware of the fact they’ve joined extra ranks. Nor does anyone seem to notice what must have been a discreet camera car following. Watching street shot scenes often becomes a game of spotting those crowds looking at the camera as though it were a mirror. Usually they’re gathered in the distance, beyond points where they could be chased off or otherwise contained. Night scenes in D.O.A. revealed one shot where onlookers are gathered to watch Neville Brand in front of a drug store. Being across a darkened avenue, they’re less distracting, though it looks to be hundreds of them mesmerized by a movie shooting in their neighborhood.
D.O.A. was accurately sold as a motion picture, with ads italicizing the word to emphasize speed that never flags once its hero lands behind the eight ball. Frantic jive and bee-bop are disorienting precursors to violence and death, a noir prescription going back to Phantom Lady. Obsessive jazz-ing paved roads to ruin even for heroes uninvolved with criminal enterprise. Young Man With A Horn followed D.O.A. into theatres by weeks and warned of consequences that might flow from jamming gone amok. What’s scariest about D.O.A. is those cramped interiors. O’Brien suffocates on budget sets even before he’s slipped the potion. That jazz bar looks like the Marx Brother’s stateroom in A Night At The Opera. D.O.A.’s crunch for economy serves well the oppressive atmosphere where chaos and closeness could easily find lethal doses laid (or mislaid) among a row of drinks. Edmund O'Brien plays his ordeal out of both barrels. Maybe it’s overripe as others have noted, but nightmares come true might arouse such response from any of us, and what precedence did the actor have for a role and situation like this? There had been an early thirties German film Robert Siodmak directed in which similar ground was covered, but that would have been no easier to see in 1949 than it is now. D.O.A. really was something new. If Metro or Warners had thought of it first, I suspect they’d have bungled the job with needless "A" trappings. At the least, we’d have endured process screens to excess and star doubles pulling second unit duty on SF and LA streets. D.O.A. director Rudolph Maté isn’t a well-remembered name today, but he should be. Starting out in cinematography, he lensed European classics Vampyr and The Passion Of Joan Of Arc. Working stateside by the mid-thirties, Maté’s was a style recognizable even if you missed the credits. Dodsworth, Foreign Correspondent, Sahara, Cover Girl, and Gilda were all his. Maté’s craftsmanship was such that even 16mm prints of films he shot looked better than 16mm prints of anything else. He began directing after the war, a sure hand from the start as these credits will attest --- The Dark Past, Union Station, Branded, When Worlds Collide. Maté’s star vehicles always flattered their subject. Granted Tyrone Power, Tony Curtis, and Glenn Ford did work of more lasting repute for others, but none gave greater pleasure than these made under Rudolph Maté’s direction --- The Mississippi Gambler (my college crowd burst into applause at the end), The Black Shield Of Falworth (despite its scope version having been seen nowhere since 1954 --- Universal shot it both ways), and The Violent Men (Columbia’s first feature in Cinemascope/stereo).
Showmen generally ignored ballyhoo suggested in pressbooks. They knew best how to peddle their shows and recognized the absurdity of cockeyed schemes such as one shown here. Some people think a girl needs a good sock once a while, that she asks for it, and has it coming to her. Exhibitors reckless enough to embrace such crazed promotion were encouraged to give free passes for fifty word essays as to when men might be justified in striking a woman. One shudders to imagine consequences flowing from such a stunt being implemented today. I’m betting few theatres bought into this fool notion of publicizing D.O.A. Many kept art shops and staff on hand to create their own displays for newspapers and custom heralds. Domestic rentals for D.O.A. capped out at $604,000, a fair enough number for a noir without stars, but short of what a name like Dick Powell delivered with Pitfall (1.3 million) or numbers generated by a typical George Raft thriller (Red Light and $747,000). Ownership of the negative reverted back to Harry Popkin, and it wasn’t long before D.O.A. started showing up on television, well in advance of major studio post-48 features being available for broadcast (NYC viewers began seeing it on home screens in November 1953). By the time cult membership was conferred in the seventies, prints of D.O.A. had achieved kinship with its title, for most were banged 16mm victims of systematic syndication abuse. Apparent public domain status brought scavengers to further denigrate the once crisp and evocative black-and-white image. Collector/distributor Wade Williams tracked down the Popkins and negotiated for original elements they still owned, the result made available on DVD from Image. D.O.A. hadn’t looked so good since 1950. I can’t help wondering where the family kept that negative. Out in the garage? Dad's sock drawer? A really remarkable soundtrack CD for D.O.A. is recently out from Screen Archives Entertainment and Chelsea Rialto Studios. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score in fact accompanies me as I write this. SAE and Chelsea have done a splendid job restoring the original tracks. Girlfriend Ann came in the house a few minutes ago and made me turn off the CD because the music was too intense (she just left --- it’s back on again!). A twenty-eight-page booklet included with the disc is filled with background; notes on the film, Tiomkin, as well as photos from D.O.A. Why don’t more DVD releases provide such nice supplements?