Thursday, March 18, 2004

A few friends and I started a film discussion group, and we're starting off with a series of film noir. This time we watched D.O.A., a low-budget noir with a hell of a hook: "I want to report a murder...mine." A man is poisoned, incurably, and then sets out to find out who did it and why. I have to be honest. I was disappointed. (That's a load off. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to admit you don't like a discussion group's choice? Someone picked that book or film or whatever, so it almost seems rude to be honest, which can defeat the whole purpose of valuable discussion, right? Right!) The film has real problems establishing the proper tone of mysterious suspense. For a noir, I didn't find it to be as artful in terms of cinematography as others I've seen, and the cast is absolutely lackluster. Edmund O'Brien is not leading man material. And the "fast pacing" that a few reviews promised? Well, let's just say, having a character run and run AND run AND run does not equal fast pacing.

However, problems aside for a moment, the film is actually entertaining and interesting in many ways, some of which are unintentional. After a great opening sequence of a man walking down a long police corridor, the first half hour (almost completely unnecessary) is a strange depiction of a relationship: Frank is planning a solo vacation to San Francisco, leaving his girlfriend (Pamela Who? Britton) behind. She whines and pouts (and incessantly speaks of a perm that she never actually gets) but then lays a guilt trip on him by basically saying...she understands if he wants to fool around on his vacation. Clearly, this is his intention, and when he arrives in SanFran, the soundtrack is full of musical wolf whistles as he cruises the ladies! OK, so credit the film with a sense of humor, at least. Later, after he hooks up with a real wild group of businessmen and their wives/girlfriends, they go out to a little jazz club. There's a nifty little sequence where the film breathes with life and artistic energy as we're treated to close-ups of the jazz musicians, and we get a glimpse of pre- or early Beat culture. One scenester who Frank tries to pick up a girl name Jeanie, for whom everything is "Easy!" They make a date for later, action implied. Then the poison kicks in, and he passes out, and we're supposed to be excited about the plot, but I found myself disappointed that it meant we wouldn't get back to the most fun character. Oh, well. The medical examination scene is an unintentional hoot, as the doctors deliver devastating news mercilessly, tactlessly, but, in a line one member of our group picked up on right away, Frank still demands: "Doc, give it to me straight!" To prove that he's been poisoned, in by far the punchiest visual moment of the film, one of the doctors turns out the lights and you see a test tube glow. (What's that, his urine sample?) After he gets the initial news, he has an interesting moment in the street where he sees a little girl, and then a happy couple. It's an economical way of showing what must be going through his mind, what he'll be missing in life. (Is this film a would-be lesson for wayward bachelors?) The rest of the film, overstuffed with uninteresting characters, has the man searching out the killer, and when he finally finds him, it's anticlimactic. There's no kick of meaning at the end, no real reward for having paid attention. The characterization is dull, with the sole exception of Neville Brand as Chester, one of those crazy musclemen who's always begging the boss to let him let the guy have it. He rants repetitiously about Frank being soft in the belly, and wanting to poke him in the belly. It's not menacing; it's funny, but I'll take it.

Compare this to the memorable characterization and violence and overall aura of oppression of The Big Heat (which we watched last month). There you end with a memorable and visually meaningful death of a major character, but here, the hero dies as promised. His body just drops out of sight, with no lingering concern or affection from the camera. If the whole point of the film is to dramatize some existential truth about modern life (and, boy, what potential the story has along those lines), then his actual death should be emphasized memorably with meaning (even if the meaning is meaninglessness), not like some loose end. In the course of events, having spared his girlfriend the awful truth (by lying), Frank declares his love for Paula, saying he never appreciated her until now. Is this supposed to be convincing as repentance? As epiphany? It's a nice thing to say, but it hardly makes him a hero. Deathbed conversions are famously easy. A true hero would have found the guts to have an honest moment with someone, just once before he dies.

Next month: The Lady in the Lake.



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