D.O.A. has a killer concept: a man must find out who murdered him. It's the mind-bending premise in this clever, exciting and firmly unsentimental film noir. Crisp visuals shot on location, a twisty plot and director Rudolph Mate's amped-up pace keep D.O.A. alive and kicking.
With a title named D.O.A., it's no secret what will happen to our hero played by Edmond O'Brien. Heroes sometimes die in film noir like in O'Brien's earlier film, the brilliant The Killers, which opens with co-star Burt Lancaster being gunned down. But where Lancaster dies for his wrongs in The Killers, O'Brien is the innocent victim of a cruel universe in D.O.A.
Even getting away from his small town doesn't prevent him from being fingered. O'Brien plays bored accountant Frank Bigelow, who visits San Francisco to escape his girlfriend/assistant Paula, who's seeking a promotion to fiancee. Frank goes to sleep after a night out drinking and wakes up sick. Bad turns worse when a doctor informs Frank he's the victim of luminous poisoning and has a day or a week to live.
Bummer! But Frank's got no time for such whining, he must find his murderer. After learning from Paula that a Los Angeles man had called his office frequently before dying himself, Frank takes off for L.A. convinced of a connection.
The story gets more convoluted as Frank runs (and runs and runs) into the red herrings thrown out by writers Russell Rouse and Clarence Green. The plot twists and turns are reminiscent of The Big Sleep, minus the wit. D.O.A. has no time for such frills, its dialogue is only there to move the plot along. Still, there's a very smart concordance struck between Frank's fate and the world itself. The opening scenes with Frank are comic and literally light. As the film progresses, Frank becomes dark, even menacing some of the women characters. And so the day turns into night in what ends up being his last.
In the end, there's no escaping fate. Edmond O'Brien gives a strong if sometimes stagey performance as Frank, perhaps meant to amplify the nightmarish, surreal feeling of D.O.A. Perhaps it is just a bad dream, where a man goes to bed drunk and wakes up to find he has one day to live. Or perhaps the universe is really determined to see you Dead On Arrival.(July 17, 2002)