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D.O.A. (April 30, 1950)

D.O.A.
D.O.A. (1950)
Directed by Rudolph Maté
Cardinal Pictures / United Artists

The curse of high expectations strikes again.

Don’t get me wrong, D.O.A. is an excellent mystery that moves at a nice pace and has a great concept. But it’s been on my “must see” list since 1988, when the remake with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan came out, so maybe it was a foregone conclusion that I’d find it a little disappointing. The fact that it’s regularly cited as one of the all-time great film noirs probably didn’t help either.

D.O.A. stars Edmond O’Brien as a big lug with a wandering eye who never took life or love too seriously until the day he was fatally poisoned. Suddenly, his purpose in life becomes crystal clear. He has to solve his own murder before he dies.

O'Brien

The characters O’Brien plays, Frank Bigelow, is an accountant in the small town of Banning, California. He’s been carrying on an affair with his confidential secretary, Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton), but she seems much more serious about their future than he does. Bigelow tells her he’s pulling away from her because he doesn’t want to see her get hurt. When Bigelow suddenly has to travel up to San Francisco on business, she sees it as an opportunity for him to decide whether he’s serious about her or not. He sees it as a chance to paint the town red.

Bigelow goes out for a wild night on the town with a bunch of soused guys and gals who are in town for Market Week. He winds up at The Fisherman, a jumping jazz club where Bigelow doesn’t fit in with the “jive-crazy” patrons. (Neither does the bartender, who admits to Bigelow that he doesn’t “get it.” He’s a Guy Lombardo fan.) At the bar, a mysterious figure drops something in Bigelow’s bourbon and fades away into the night.

Sick to his stomach the next morning, Bigelow visits a doctor and finds out he has ingested a “luminous toxin,” a poison that attacks the organs. Bigelow only has a day or two to live … a week at the most.

O'Brien and Brand

D.O.A. is a well-made and entertaining B movie, and has lots of great footage of both San Francisco and Los Angeles, but I just can’t rate it as highly as the film noirs I consider masterpieces, like Detour (1945) and Out of the Past (1947). With those movies, there’s a sense of existential dread below the surface. They work on more than one level, I find myself coming back to them over and over, and they haunt my imagination.

I was expecting something similar with D.O.A., but O’Brien galumphs through the proceedings like a man with a hangover, angrily shaking down suspects and browbeating people for leads. After the poisoning, the film moves at a nice clip, but I never got the sense that Frank Bigelow was a man who was truly facing death. I also found the supporting characters mostly uninteresting, and Bigelow’s verbal exchanges with them were too often just information dumps.

I watched D.O.A. twice, but I still can’t really keep any of the supporting characters straight. The only person who really stands out for me is Neville Brand as Chester, a sadistic henchman who refers to himself in the third person.

After I watched D.O.A., I thought back to another B noir that starred Edmond O’Brien, The Web (1947). D.O.A. is considered an all-time classic, and every fan of film noirs has heard of it. The Web, on the other hand, seems mostly forgotten. But The Web has a better villain (Vincent Price), a much more interesting female lead (Ella Raines), and dialogue that is much more clever and entertaining than the dialogue in D.O.A.

So why is D.O.A. so highly regarded, while The Web is a movie no one remembers? I really think it comes down to the fact that D.O.A. has a crackerjack concept. The beginning and end of the film are incredibly strong, but I just didn’t find the film as a whole to be all that it’s cracked up to be.

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Gilda (Feb. 14, 1946)

Charles Vidor’s Gilda premiered on February 14, 1946, and went into wide release on March 15. It’s best remembered as the film that made Rita Hayworth the biggest sex symbol of the ’40s. (Not that she was a shrinking violet before 1946. I saw her in the 1944 film Cover Girl when I was a kid, and I never forgot her.)

Born Margarita Carmen Cansino in Brooklyn in 1918, Hayworth was the daughter of Spanish flamenco dancer Eduardo Cansino, Sr. and Ziegfeld girl Volga Hayworth. With that kind of pedigree, her hundred-megawatt sex appeal should come as no surprise, but it does, even today. Usually the only image I post with a review is the theatrical poster, but for this review I was tempted to plaster up several cheesecake shots of Hayworth. The only problem with photos of her is that they lack something. She looks great in all of her pinup shots, but her blisteringly hot sexiness is something that needs to be seen on film to be believed. It doesn’t hurt that nearly every line in Gilda is an innuendo. When she first appears on screen, throwing back her mountain of wavy hair, and her husband asks her if she’s decent, the long pause after her bright, “Me?” followed by the husky response, “Sure, I’m decent,” clearly has nothing to do with whether or not she’s fully clothed.

Besides the obvious lascivious value Hayworth offers the production, Gilda is a pretty good movie, full of nasty double-crosses and intrigue in an exotic locale. At one hour and 50 minutes, it overstays its welcome by at least 10 or 15 minutes, but it’s still an entertaining film noir about love-hate relationships, high-stakes gambling, and double-dealing.

When we meet Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), he’s just another down-on-his-luck gringo in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a post-war hot spot (and not just for Nazi war criminals on the lam). In noir fashion, Farrell narrates the picture, sounding jaded and world-weary when he’s not twisted up with hatred and lust. Caught cheating at craps, Farrell is saved from a vicious beating at the hands of a bunch of thugs by a dapper gentleman named Ballin Mundson (George Macready) who wields a sword cane. Mundson tells Farrell of a casino where he can go to make some real money; a ritzy, illegal establishment that operates in the open, thanks to bribery. Mundson warns Farrell, however, not to cheat there. The bullheaded Farrell does exactly that, and is caught. A couple of mugs drag him into the second-floor office to face the boss, who turns out to be none other than Mundson. A fast talker, Farrell convinces Mundson to give him a job in the casino, and he quickly rises to the level of right-hand man.

Things go along swimmingly until the day that Mundson ignores his own advice that “Gambling and women don’t mix,” and brings home his new wife, Gilda (Hayworth). From the look on Farrell’s face when he first sees her, he might as well be seeing the atomic bomb being dropped on Nagasaki. Unaware that Farrell and Gilda share a history, Mundson entrusts his right-hand man with Gilda’s care and keeping. Forced to shield Mundson from Gilda’s constant indiscretions with other men, Farrell’s hatred of Gilda increases. Only it isn’t really hatred. It’s that strange brand of love/hate that fueled many a post-war film noir. Or, as Mundson himself puts it at one point, “It warmed me. Hate is the only thing that has ever warmed me.”

Meanwhile, Mundson’s secret plans to form a cartel with a group of Germans to control tungsten production in Argentina slowly comes to light, and Farrell realizes that the Argentine secret police are onto Mundson, and that the whole casino is a powder keg waiting to be ignited.

Argentina had a checkered history during World War II. The nation broke relations with Germany and Japan in 1944 only under heavy pressure from the United States, but continued to maintain its neutrality. On March 27, 1945, Argentina declared war on Germany, when German defeat was a foregone conclusion.

It’s a great setting for a tale of steamy intrigue (with a brief narrative sojourn in Montevideo), but the political and criminal machinations take a back seat to the sexual tension between Farrell and Gilda. Their love/hate relationship takes some nasty turns, both physical and psychological. (In the scene in which Gilda slaps Farrell across both sides of his face, Hayworth reportedly chipped two of Ford’s teeth.) The story also takes a back seat to the sheer physical spectacle of Gilda, in particular the show-stopping number in which she performs “Put the Blame on Mame.” Hayworth lip-synched to Anita Ellis’s singing voice, and did an excellent job. Just from watching the movie I wouldn’t have had any idea she wasn’t singing herself.

“If I’d been a ranch, they would have named me the Bar None,” Gilda says at one point in the film. Truer words have not been spoken.