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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Another 1949 Crime Scene

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?


Blogger Joe Thompson said...

John: Thanks for writing up a movie I have always enjoyed. The street scenes of San Francisco and Los Angeles are a joy to watch for us transit and history fans. I look forward to seeing the dvd with the clean images.

Joe Thompson ;0)

11:00 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

I don't know about you, but this movie was creepier than any horror movie for me when young - I couldn't believe it when he croaked at the end, it wasn't fair! At least when I was a kid, it seemed that way, but later I understood he was beyond normal plot arcs from Hollywood - I may have been too young to see that, but I immediately realized it was meant to be a radioactive poison; thank god for the all those Cold War scares, at least they helped me figure that out right off. I still obsessively watch this if its on - O'Brien was perfect for this one, with the criminally under-used Pamela Britton, and this had my second-fave Neville Brand role, next to his work in "Stalag 17" - I loved that guy's work.

11:46 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Mate also shot Laurel & Hardy's "Our Relations" -- supposedly he always wanted to work with them.

My wife feels the same way about the "Vertigo" soundtrack as your girlfriend does with "DOA." Women -- they can't take the pressure!

7:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another interesting "B" film directed by Mate is the 1953 Universal thriller, "Forbidden" with Tony Curtis, Joanne Dru and Lyle Bettger. Stuntman David Sharpe is front and center doubling for Tony in this one and also has a small part as a henchman.
There is some wonderful nighttime photography at a shipyard that looks fabulous and I'm watching it from a SLP VHS recording from a long-ago airing on American Movie Classics.

2:46 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

John, I like "Forbidden" a lot and regret the fact no one shows it. For that matter, most of Maté's 50's films remain unavailable. In addition to the handsome look of his films, this director had a real grasp of story and pace. Another minor name, like George Marshall, that deserves a closer look.

East Side, I play that "Vertigo" soundtrack a lot myself --- soothing accompaniment for all occasions! Right now I'm listening to (my favorite composer) David Raksin's "Hilda Crane" score. I can't say enough about Screen Archives Entertainment and Chelsea Rialto. Their CD soundtracks are out of this world and a bargain for all they give you.

4:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear John -- Really glad you liked the Fields piece -- it is a cute story, I think , and as I said, Carlotta Monti was really something else! Here's a little something your current post pried from memory: Years ago,I was living in Santa Monica, not far from the beach, and one afternoon,was in our neighborhood liquor store. I remember I was looking thru some magazines, when suddenly I hear this booming, croaky voice , momentarily stsrtling me: "Hey! You got a men's room in here?" I turn around and much to my surprise (shock) realize oh my god -- it's Eddie O'Brien! I hate to say this, but the poor man looked just ghastly -- bloated and not well. I think he passed away not too long afterward. Years later I got to know his daughter Maria quite well (Her mother, you may or may not know was Olga San Juan, who did all those Paramount musicals in the forties).We talked about her father quite a bit -- I remember telling her that I always thought of him as the'actor's actor' -- and one who like Spencer Tracy, brought inherent dignity to a not- always- too-dignified profession. She certainly agreed with me there! Really glad you chose "DOA", John -- kind of a forgotten film I've always admired. I've always thought Mate was a much better cameraman than a director -- I always found most of his directing-assignments rather run-of -the- mill.(Interestly, the last assignment my grandfather did at Warners was on a Mate-directed picture, called "Miracle In the Rain" --my grandfather and Ned Washington wrote the rather lovely title song. Jane Wyman always listed this film as her personal favorite, and as it still pays a decent ASCAP royalty whenever it's played, who am I to argue?)Keep slugging, John! R.J.

2:33 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Boy, RJ, I can't thank you enough for sharing these wonderful memories with us! My nephew was saying the other day how much he loved the Fields stories you told. I'd heard that O'Brien had a pretty rough time of it in later years. Your account really brought that home. Please come back anytime.

3:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The earlier film Siodmack directed, "The Man Looking for his Murderer" was actually a comedy about a man hiring someone to bump him off, THEN searching for him to call off the deal.It starred Germany's comic idol Heinz Ruhmann (Ship of Fools).

4:55 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Really, Anonymous? I'd read in at least three places that Siodmak's German film was similar in concept to "D.O.A.", but this plot line sounds more like a story that's been done several times both in Euro films and over here. Maybe that title, "The Man Looking for His Murderer", was what got people thinking it was a closer relation to "D.O.A.". Problem is we can't look at the German film today to see how close it might be to the "D.O.A." storyline.

7:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

D.O.A. is the definitive NOIR film of all time!! It will be featured on the giant theatre screen at the first annual Film Noir Festival in Toledo. Ohio on Sept 12-13, 2008. "2 nites: 4 films--no happy endings"

Watch for announcements sometime this summer at

6:11 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

When D.O.A. appeared, it was a great time for movies in the film noir genre.

My all time favorite film, in this genre, is an Argentine film from 1949 called APENAS UN DELINCUENTE.

It is the story of a guy who steals a fortune from the company in which he was working and hides it. Then, he goes to jail to wait until he is released in order to get it...

This film was (and still is) not what people usually expect from Argentine filmmakers.

Its director/producer was Hugo Fregonese, who previously made a film called DONDE MUEREN LAS PALABRAS, a much better film by quite far than THE RED SHOES, which unquestionably inspired.

Then, Fregonese went to Hollywood to make a series of forgotten and forgettable films.

APENAS UN DELINCUENTE is available in a lousy DVD version (lifted from a VHS) that it can be located in internet. I downloaded it and cleaned its sound.

8:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I share your admiration for Screen Archives Entertainment soundtracks, John. You could teach a whole course in movie music using only their CD inserts for textbooks. I especially like their discs showcasing Alfred Newman's work on Alexander's Ragtime Band and Wilson (who would have thought that one had such a lively soundtrack?). The latest one I've picked up from them is a 2-disc set of Korngold's scores for Kings Row and The Sea Wolf -- as always, a great listen and a great read.

1:56 AM  

East Side mentioned that Mate' also photog'd Laurel & Hardy's "Our Relations," and I have to add, in my opinion, it's the best-looking L&H film you'll ever see (that includes all their costume epics, which had great costumes and sets but weren't always artfully shot, as well as the few films that MGM backed). It is a crime that the US rights holder to the classic L&H films has only seen fit to put out two DVD releases using inferior prints (including incomplete and TV prints with commercial fade-outs and added music), and neither of those include "Our Relations." But if you have a multi-region player, the Kinowelt DVD of this title from Germany is a revelation - it looks like it was shot this morning, with details in L&H's faces I've never noticed before. And again, the brilliant Mate' cinematography.

As for D.O.A., I can't help but think that it wasn't only one of several noirs that Christopher Nolan had in mind when he made his 2001 "Memento;" it was probably the primary one at that. When you consider both films have hooks - Mate's having a man about to die track down his own killer; Nolan's being that the main character has short-term memory and the film begins with the ending and ends with the beginning, effectively telling the story backwards - it's hard not to see the influence of the earlier film. Would make a terrific double feature, IMHO.

11:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear John -- I have to second the opinion of 'The Phantom' about Mate's camerawork on L&H'S "Our Relations", and given that the boys are all-out Greenbriar favorites, I was quite surprised no one else mentioned this. The director, Harry Lachman, and Mate had apparently just come off of a relatively minor, but interesting Spencer Tracy film("Dantes Inferno") when they both went to work on this at Hal Roach. I was not aware of the difficulity in finding this film now, but I have a little video, long out of print, I guess, and Mate's delicate, balanced lighting never fails to impress me. No other Laurel-and-Hardy film of the 30's looks like this (particularly, the final scenes in a gangster's den and a dock, which has really dark, atmospheric lighting). And while we're on the subject, I would really like to put in a word about "Dodsworth" (made the same year, '36 for Samuel Goldwyn,directed by William Wyler,magnificently photographed by Mate.) "Dodsworth" is not only of the best movies of it's period, but one of the best-looking -- I urge anyone who's never seen it, to seek it out-- you won't be sorry! Thanks once more John for the kind words about Stu's book (he would have been very pleased), hoping, as I said ,I can get Dad's book back in print. All best, R.J.

1:45 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi R.J. -- I checked Amazon for used copies of your father's book and there are several available. I'd advise every Greenbriar reader to grab this one post-haste. Believe me, you won't put it down until you're done. You'll never think of those Warner stars the same way again, that's for sure! It's the funniest, sauciest, most "inside" Hollywood memoir I've ever read. Here's the link ---

9:52 AM  

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