Approved. It's about a man knowing he's going to die in the next few days, so death is a common theme here. There's a sniper at one point. I don't know if we ever really feel the horror of what it would be like to be under sniper fire or the moral ambiguity that would accompany that with a movie like D.O.A., but I can't deny that it is in this movie. Also, the movie treats adultery pretty casually. The sin that the main character commits is that he has a weekend where he wants to cheat on his girlfriend and she kinda/sorta gives him a free pass. Regardless, the movie is pretty tame. Unless you have a mental trigger when it comes to the sound a slide whistle makes, you'll probably be fine.
DIRECTOR: Rudolph Maté
I've finally finished all the Academy Awards stuff and even caught up on the Sonic the Hedgehog thing. I'm soon going to have to start watching movies again. You know...just after I got CBS All Access for Star Trek stuff. I was planning on having All Access for a month and then cancelling it, so we'll see how that plays out. Just know, from this Wednesday to possibly next Wednesday, I'm exclusively writing about film noir. Let's pretend that I'm writing about film noir because I want to have some kid of celebratory event on the page. In reality, I've just been watching a lot of stuff for class.
The big question I want to ask with this analysis is, "Can a movie be good despite having one major element so blatantly botched?" To a lot of film nerds, D.O.A. is something genius. I hadn't watched it before this class, but I wasn't surprised to see it on the syllabus for my film noir class. I knew very little going into it except that I've heard people talking about it as one of the big time film noir movies. I think, because it exists in the public domain, all of the prints of this movie are a little rough. Like Night of the Living Dead, even the best print could still stand to be a little bit better. But it doesn't really matter what the print looks like if the movie is good, right?
The thing that fundamentally fails in D.O.A. is a near incoherent plot. The conceit is fairly simple: Someone has poisoned philanderer Frank Bigelow, played by Edmond O'Brien, and he's going to die in anywhere behind a day and a week. That's a really cool concept and really does a lot of the heavy lifting to tell a pretty rad story. Frank wants to figure out who killed him before he collapses and we're off to the races. What the conceit does is provide a really cool character element that a lot of stories don't offer. If a dynamic character is forced to change over the course of a story slowly, the knowledge of one's own death kind of strips all of the excess nonsense and allows us to understand what makes someone tick. The film is allowed to go to insane levels. Rather than making changes that seem organic, the conceit of a ticking clock for the character allows insane emotional and logical leaps to see what will happen with the character by the end of the movie. Who the character is at the beginning of the movie is allowed to be drastically different from the character at the end of the movie. That's a really cool element that most movies don't really offer.
But that's where the movie succeeds. I told you, one element has to be bad. Besides the fact that the science in this movie is absolutely goofy and the movie actually tries convincing me that "luminous toxin" is a thing, the movie has a plot that just makes absolutely no sense. I thought it was just me. This is one of the few movies we watched in class and I felt horribly dumb about the film's plot. Sometimes this happens. As much as I want to understand a film's plot, I get lost. Sometimes someone needs to explain it to me. I know, I'm just identifying my shortcomings. But I'm also cool with my vulnerability, so you probably need to examine yourself if you are judging me. So when the movie was over, I confessed that I didn't understand the plot, hoping that someone could possibly give me a tutorial on that as well. To my absolute surprise, no one else understood the plot. The professor of the class, who has watched and loved this movie multiple times, confessed that she never understood the plot.
I'm going to repeat that phrase: the professor, who has watched the movie multiple times, has never understood the plot.
I remember getting into an argument with my friend Derek, who is possibly the smartest person that I can claim as a friend. This was when I was a theatre major and I would debate the merits of plot versus character. I was a plot heavy guy back then. I would scream up and down that a film should be centered around the plot. Character is important, but it needed to be the byproduct of the plot. Derek, now a college law professor (my dumb brain almost called him "lawyerteacher") swore that character was always paramount. If there's a good story, according to Derek, that was kind of a bonus to character development. Since those halcyon days of basement arguing, I've probably come around to Derek's point. I also believe that I would never like hanging out with old me and that I would roll my eyes pretty heavily at that person. (Although, that kid also wrote a film blog full of foul language that exists out there somewhere. See if you can find it!)
D.O.A. might be the stress test for that argument, though. Frank goes through a lot of changes through this story. Okay, he really goes through one major change, but that major change is pretty chaotic and I don't know really where he lands morally in the whole tale. But that character stuff is there. That's the stuff I like in the movie. But I can't even swear that Frank's change is all that important to me by the end of the film because Maté and his team really do put a lot of emphasis on the plot. The movie is kinetic. Like what I imagine Jason Statham's Crank is for 1949, the movie doesn't allow itself to slow down because it puts the plot first. We never really get that introspective moment where the character comes to grips with his own mortality. There's despair and sadness. There are people reaching out to him. But the movie is fundamentally about the character trying to figure out who killed him.
It technically delivers on his problem. Frank goes deeper and deeper into what I understand as organized crime. He meets people, most of whom I have no idea who they are. He gets into these scrapes that threaten to end his life even earlier. There's even some parts where I can at least identify why I should be nervous. There's this absolutely phenomenal scene where Neville Brand, who plays Chester, just goes absolutely insane on Frank and it seems like he's going to torture Frank to death. The movie gave me a promise of a deep mystery and it delivered. It's just that the mystery, frankly, makes not a lick of sense.
There's probably someone out there that owns D.O.A. (and a pristine print, just to prove me wrong about my earlier statement). This person probably claims that D.O.A. is his or her favorite movie, or at least in the top five. And, do you know what? He or she is probably completely able to explain the plot and prove that there are no holes or confusing moments, leaving me to be a complete idiot. But I know that I was in a room with a lot of smart people watching a movie that made absolutely no sense, and speaking for myself, I found it completely baffling and frustrating. There's something almost burdensome about having to power through a movie that you don't understand. There are lots of other movies that I don't necessarily understand, but these are movies that want me to apply my subjective experience to them. They yearn for interpretation.
D.O.A. doesn't really ask for my interpretation of the plot. This isn't Mulholland Drive. This is a plot that has a beginning, middle, and an end (although it also is a movie that is told through the historical present, so that challenges the film even more). I think that Maté wanted me to understand the plot when he made the movie. Part of me thinks that Maté himself didn't understand the script he was working with. Either that, or he knew that people just wanted action and drama, so he didn't bother to brush up on the finer points of the story. And this kind of leads me to the final conclusion.
I think Derek in our basement was right: it is about character. But, to a certain extent, I too was right. While a film needs character and may not need a plot, the separate elements of storytelling need to work in harmony to really be successful. With D.O.A. and its absolutely rad conceit, the other elements of the movie needed to be working in tandem to be successful. It's kind of why Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula doesn't work for me. The visuals are great. The story is gorgeous. But some of the performances, namely National Treasure Keanu Reeves, absolutely detract from the greater film. It's what storytellers have to do. Just because one element is super cool, it is the job of the artist to critique the self and remove things that may not work, despite the fact that the artist wants it to work so bad.
I, frankly, never want to watch D.O.A. again. It's a little bit silly. It has a cool idea and some fun stuff in it, but the plot is an absolute garbage fire. I can respect the things it did well, but I actually consider this to be a bad movie because so much of the film is detracting from the things that should be flying.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.