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- In Context: Rachel CuskMay 5, 2021
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A man walks unsteadily into an impressive art deco building. There are police officers inside, milling about. He asks a question we don’t hear as an anxious score fills our ears. He turns left down a long hallway. Now, he’s outside the Homicide Division—room 44—and enters. There are a half-dozen men sitting around, doing nothing much. Not many homicides in this town, I guess. He asks for the man in charge. He’s shown into an interior office and says he wants to report a murder. He’s invited to sit down and is asked where it occurred.
“San Francisco, last night.”
“Who was murdered?”
The Captain looks less shocked than you’d think given the declaration the disheveled man just made, then asks him if his name is Frank Bigelow. He pulls a file from a much larger stack than you’d think based on the lackadaisical attitude of the waiting men in the homicide division and tells his underling to let another police station know that they’ve found their missing man. Then he invites Frank to tell his story “any way you’d like.”
This is the arresting beginning to 1949’s D.O.A., a film noir classic. I started thinking about this movie, and that beginning, when I started writing my novel, Six Weeks to Live. It’s about a woman who’s been given a fatal cancer diagnosis who discovers that she might have been poisoned a year earlier and sets out to discover who tried to kill her before she dies. While the first seed of the idea came to me a couple of years ago when an extended family member received a sudden, fatal diagnosis (no murder involved), as her tragedy unfolded, I began to question what I might do with my time if given such a verdict. And because I write thrillers this then transformed into whether that premise could be adapted to the domestic noir/psychological suspense format.
Which brought me back to D.O.A. The 1949 original is available on YouTube now, though I’d seen it at least once as a teenager in the 1980s on my family’s small television because my dad is an old, noir, movie buff and we only had one TV in the house.
Shot in black and white and directed by Rudolph Mate and starring Edmond O’Brien and Pamela Britton, the premise is simple—a man is poisoned and tries to discover who killed him before he dies. It also uses a frame story in the form of one long flashback while Frank recounts what’s brought him to the police station, a device that is all too common now, but was less common then. Google tells me that the first movie “in the sound era” to use flashbacks was Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets (1931), but that it was popularized starting in 1939 with William Wyler’s film adaptation of Wuthering Heights, which follows the novel’s structure of having the housekeeper Ellen narrate events.
I’m not usually a fan of frame stories—though I’ve written some, I admit—and even less so in movies (I’m looking at you The Great Gatsby, and you too Saving Private Ryan). I prefer to be dropped immediately into the narrative without the flash forward knowledge that the main character will arrive safely at the moment when the frame begins. I find that it often removes the very tension it’s setting out to build. That being said, it’s used to great effect here. The establishing shots last only a few minutes, before the movie winds back several days to before the poisoning where we meet Frank Bigelow before he was murdered. He’s an ordinary man—an accountant and a notary (are those two professions that go together?) who decides to take a week’s vacation (without his trusty secretary and paramour) and ends up getting poisoned in a nightclub in San Francisco.
Why Frank is murdered is—frankly—a bit confusing. Bodies drop with regular frequency as Frank stumbles from one theory to another involving a bill of sale that he notarized and a shipment of iridium. Multiple people are poisoned, and everyone seems to die just before Frank gets to them. Along the way, we meet a catalogue of classic noir types—gangsters and mistresses and shady characters who talk out of the sides of their mouth. It’s dark and gloomy, and Frank is suitably horrified and sweaty. The movie ticks along quickly until Frank discovers why he’s dying and is back in the police station. It clocks in at less than 90 minutes, which in these days of four-hour Snyder cuts is something to be admired.
Once I’d watched the original, I decided to revisit the 1988 remake, which I was able to do once I purchased it on DVD and located a working DVD player (an old laptop). Starring Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, I watched this version more times that I can remember as a teenager for reasons I can’t quite explain other than that I had a crush on Quaid, and there wasn’t much to do on Friday and Saturday nights in the 80s if your peer group wasn’t into trying to get into bars underage.
In a nod to the original, the 1988 version begins in black and white as well, with a similar scene as Dennis Quaid stumbles into a police station and announces his murder. Then the movie flashes back to full color. Dexter Cornell is a charming English professor with a bestselling book and writer’s block. It’s Christmas. He’s getting divorced. And he has not one, but two, earnest students in his writing class—Nick Lang, a brash know-it-all who wants Dex to read his novel, and Sydney Fuller (Meg Ryan) who wants to get in his pants. Nick soon comes crashing to earth outside Dex’s window and when his almost-ex-wife makes it clear she doesn’t want a Christmas reunion, Dex ends up drinking the night away in a bar with Sydney. Cue the next morning where Dex feels sicker than usual and learns from a doctor friend that he’s been fatally poisoned. The movie follows the same structure as the original: Dex tries to discover who killed him even though he knows it’s irreversible.
Me? I’d take a bottle to the beach, but not Dex. He too seems to arrive a few minutes late to every subsequent murder, and almost gets killed himself several more times before cracking the mystery. In fact, the plot is much more thriller than noir here—there are no gangsters, only academics who need to “publish or perish” and a rich family (the Fitzwaring’s, because, of course) who supported Nick at college after his father killed the Fitzwaring patriarch. The movie is set at Christmas, and the weather is stifling (it was shot in Texas). Everyone is hot and sweaty, and the cinematography reminded me more of Die Hard than a noir film (I mean this as a compliment—why isn’t D.O.A. a classic Christmas movie?).
I found the plot easier to follow in this version, but that’s probably because most of the dialogue was locked into my long-term memory. How many times have I seen this movie, anyway, my husband wanted to know. Quaid is charming and charismatic, Ryan hasn’t quite come into her rom-com full power (though it doesn’t help that she was 27 playing 18), and the pace is suitably frantic.
So many movies from childhood don’t stand up—and I watched a lot of movies, particularly between 1987-1989—but this one does.