Categories
Action/Adventure Drama Mystery/Noir

D.O.A.

I have recommended The Turning Point, starring Edmond O’Brien and featuring Neville Brand in a small part as a vicious killer. For a change of pace, let me also recommend a film starring Edmond O’Brien, featuring Neville Brand in a somewhat larger part as a vicious killer: 1950’s D.O.A.

D.O.A. has one of best opening premises in the history of film noir. A man stumbles down an impossibly long, shadowy hallway at the police station, followed by a tracking camera. Upon meeting the officer in charge of homicide investigation, he announces that he wants to report a murder: His own. What follows is partly a mystery/action story and partly an existential meditation.

The central character, Frank Bigelow (O’Brien) has a life that screams conventionality. He’s an accountant in a small town with a small town girlfriend (Pamela Brittan) who is nagging him to do the decent thing by marrying her, settling down, and having a conventional family. This is a noir film, so naturally Bigelow wants nothing more than to flee. He goes for a wild weekend in San Francisco, where he ogles sophisticated urban beauties and swills liquor until for an inexplicable reason, someone covertly poisons him with a lethal, slow-acting toxin. After the terminal diagnosis is confirmed, a justly famous film noir sequence commences as Bigelow races madly through the crowded streets until, exhausted, he looks up to heaven and then down to see a little girl’s ball at his feet. He returns the ball to the girl and then sadly stands up, knowing that he will never be carefree as a child again for he is doomed to die, and very soon at that (Nice touch: Look at the particular magazine arrayed next to him in the shot above).

Although Bigelow cannot save his life, he is driven to understand why he will die, and thus spends his final precious days not enjoying what remains, but ruthlessly pursuing his killer. With his death in no doubt, he transforms from a mild-mannered accountant into a fearless, even brutal, angel of vengeance. He doesn’t fear death from the assorted villains he encounters, just the prospect of dying before he can find out why a nobody accountant from a nothing small town was worthy of cold-blooded, calculated murder.

As you would guess, D.O.A. offers much to chew on thematically. It can be enjoyed at one level as an exciting (if overly complicated) crime mystery, but at another level it’s a philosophically engaging take on venerable film noir themes of isolation, futility and the cruelty of fate.

Director Rudolph Maté earned his place in movie heaven as a cinematographer, including in my recommendations Vampyr and Gilda. He directed much less often, and that’s a good thing because he didn’t attain the same level of excellence in that role. Here, he allows some of the actors to go over the top too often, and there is also an embarrassingly puerile use of a “Va Va Voom” sound effect when O’Brien sees attractive women that is completely inconsistent with the noir mood.

I would say I wish Maté had been director of photography instead, but that wouldn’t be fair to Ernest Laszlo, who gives the film a stunning look, especially in the street scenes in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The crowded street shots must have been particularly challenging from a technical viewpoint.

Neville Brand, in a role that helped make his fairly successful if completely typecast career, is admirably scary here as a psychopath, and Luther Adler makes a smooth, cultured, but ultimately nasty villain. As mentioned, some of the other performances — including O’Brien’s — are uneven, but all the main actors have their moments.

The basic existential conceit of D.O.A. is not about a man trying to prevent his death; he doesn’t have that power. Rather, it’s all about the desire to know why — why me and why this fate? The best noirs never answer this question, but bathe the audience in the agony of being unable not to ask it nonetheless. D.O.A. is a noble example of this tradition.

D.O.A. is in the public domain, so you can watch it for free on Internet Archive. However, that print looks nowhere near as good as the digitally remastered version, which you can probably find on a paid streaming service.

Categories
Foreign Language Horror/Suspense

Vampyr

Some film historians consider Carl Theodor Dreyer cinema’s most visionary director. His talent is on vivid, memorable display in the pioneering 1932 horror classic Vampyr.

The story, which Dreyer and co-writer Christen Jul adapted in part from the writings of Sheridan Le Fanu of Carmilla fame, concerns a student of the occult named Allan Grey. Grey arrives at a French town with a blank expression on his face that suggests he might be dreaming. He checks into a small hotel and is startled when a strange man enters his room and gives him a package “to be opened upon my death”. Grey wanders around the hotel, where he encounters a creepy doctor and his elderly female companion, as well as dancing shadows and a one-legged old soldier. Travelling through the town, Grey witnesses the murder of the strange man, leading him to open the package. It contains a book relating the story of the vampyr, one of which is currently menacing the village. The vampyr’s victims include a lovely young woman who catches Grey’s eye and whom he wants to save. As Grey tries to battle the fiend and its accomplices, he experiences disorienting visions and mysterious events that may daze the viewer as well, but at the same time will compel attention.

Vampyr (1932) [9] - The House Of Stuff

As the film was destined for release in France, Germany, and England, Dreyer kept dialogue to a minimum to avoid language challenges. Instead, he tells the story through unforgettable images: A strange metal sculpture against cloudy skies, an inside-the-coffin view of a live burial, a mysterious figure with a scythe, a relentless downpour of deadly flour, the visible carnal hunger of an incipient vampyr, and shadows that move independently of their casters. The novel visual effects are many, including double-exposure, shooting through cheese cloth and other trickery.

No film I have seen quite captures the inner logic of nightmares as well as Vampyr. In our scary dreams, events often seem nonsensical, yet we encounter characters who are completely undisturbed at the maddeningly illogical proceedings. They proceed in their own bizarre course and we proceed along with them because we have no choice but to obey the rules of our nightmare. That is the journey on which this film takes the audience, and it’s completely original and masterfully executed.

It’s a tribute to Dreyer’s directorial skills that he got effective performances out of an almost entirely amateur cast, including colorful bon vivant Nicolas Louis Alexandre, Baron de Gunzburg who bankrolled the project and appears under the name Julian West. The other critical ingredient is the groundbreaking camerawork of the legendary Rudolph Maté. The resulting film is probably too “arty” for some tastes, but most viewers will find it stays with them for a long time.

p.s. The public domain version of this film is available for free on Internet Archive and is watchable, but you will enjoy yourself much more if you view the Criterion Collection restored version, which is leagues better in terms of visual quality.

Categories
Drama Mystery/Noir

Gilda

Rita Hayworth was a big singing and dancing star of musicals in the early 1940s, but the film that made her an international sex bomb (literally) wasn’t released until 1946: Gilda.

The plot, which echoes Casablanca in a number of respects, concerns a love triangle in a faraway land, in this case, Argentina. Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is a cocky grifter who is on his uppers. He is saved from a mugging by a mysterious and rather menacing casino owner named Ballin Mundson (George Macready) whom he subsequently manages to talk into hiring him as an aide-de-camp. All is well for a time, though Johnny suspects that the casino is only a front for Mundson’s other, more shady, business. But before you can say cherchez la femme, their relationship changes for the worse when Mundson marries a sizzling beauty named Gilda (Hayworth), with whom Johnny has an unhappy history. Thus commences a love-hate-love relationship in which Johnny and Gilda torment each other while Ballin begins to suspect the truth about their former relationship. Meanwhile, both the police and Ballin’s criminal associates are closing in on his other lucrative but illegal line of work.

This is a star vehicle for Hayworth from the famous moment she first appears on screen with a sensual toss of her hair. She gets to sing and dance as well as act, most legendarily in her striptease style number “Put the Blame on Mame”. Countless American men (and no doubt some women) were sexually enthralled with her forever after.

I know too much about Hayworth to have such an uncomplicated reaction. I feel sorry for Margarita Cansino, the pudgy Hispanic girl and incest victim whom Hollywood turned — at the cost to her of physical and emotional pain — into Rita Hayworth. She never got to be who she really was and virtually every man in her life, starting with her father, exploited her. It’s a credit to her strength that despite understandable, significant emotional troubles she managed to always pull things together on screen throughout the 1940s and be a terrific movie star. Gilda is generally considered her finest hour, and with good reason.

Even though it’s Hayworth’s film, two other aspects of it are extremely compelling. The first is Glenn Ford. He’s kinetic on screen, a man always appraising every angle in search of some advantage. He also manages, despite not having classically handsome Hollywood-type features, to convey enough sexual attractiveness that Hayworth’s desire for him is entirely believable.

Gilda (1946)

The other thing I adore about this movie is Rudolph Maté’s camerawork, which is completely arresting beginning with the opening, rising shot of those big rolling dice. I have praised him before for his work on Vampyr, but the tools of cinematography came a long way technically since that early film. And boy, does Maté take advantage. Perfect use of light and shadow, deep focus shots, close-ups at critical moments, it’s all here in the hands of a master. And thank you again UCLA Preservation team for this crystal clear, gorgeous restoration of the print.

The performances and the cinematography help make up for an uneven script, which may simply have had too many cooks. There are some lines to die for, and some sharp dialogue, but the plot structure of the last third is unnecessarily clunky in some respects and too pat in others. Still, Gilda is a very fine film noir that completely holds up almost 70 years later.

p.s. The conventional take on Bosley Crowther’s career as a NYT film reviewer is that he lost touch with modern tastes in the late 1960s (His repeated trashing of Bonnie and Clyde being the death-knell) after a long and distinguished career. But if you read his obtuse, inept review of Gilda twenty years earlier, you will see that he never really knew what he was talking about.