The movie's opening scene is a noir classic. The camera follows a man from behind as he enters a large police building and walks down seemingly endless hallways, with the dramatic music's tempo almost in sync with his footsteps. He finally reaches his destination, room 44: homicide division. There he has a classic conversation with the chief:
'I want to report a murder.'It is only until right before the last line is said that the camera shows the man's face. It is Edmond O'Brien. His name is Frank Bigelow, and he recounts to the policemen the story of how he was murdered and his investigation into the murderer's identity and reasons.
'Sit down... When was this murder committed?'
'San Francisco, last night.'
'Who was murdered?'
Bigelow is an accountant in a small town, who has a girlfriend, Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton), but isn't too committed and he enjoys looking at other women (shown/heard in a rather awkward way by the sound of a wolfwhistle whenever he spots a nice-looking dame early on in the movie). He is going on a week-long vacation to San Francisco, without Paula. There he joins a group of people who are staying in the same hotel as he is, and they end up in a small bar. When he's trying to talk to a woman at the bar, somebody switches his drink. He remarks how the drink tastes funny, but thinks nothing of it. The next morning he doesn't feel too well, and decides to get checked up by a doctor. There he gets the rather unexpected news that he's dieing, he's got a week to live at most. Bigelow has 'luminous toxic matter' inside his body, a poison that affects his organs and for which there is no antidote. Understandably upset he runs off to a hospital, only to have the diagnosis confirmed. The doctor there even shows him a testtube filled with the luminous poison, apparently extracted from his body, and indeed, it lights up in the dark! The doctor wants to inform the homicide department because Bigelow does not know where he ingested it, and as the doctor explains: 'I don't think you understand, Bigelow. You've been murdered'. Since the poison's been in his system for 12 hours and there's a lot of alcohol in his system, somebody must've spiked a drink the night before. This doctor gives him a week at most. But Bigelow wants to find his killer before he dies, and why he needed to die, so he goes off in search of the truth on his own. His first stop, the bar from last night... And then there's also this mysterious man that kept calling his office profusely during his absence, who committed suicide soon after...
The movie hints at the nuclear/radioactive paranoia of the time by using a 'luminous poison' (it even lights up in the dark) and later on in the movie a bill of sale for a shipment of iridium shows up which turns out to be critical to the plot and Bigelow's fate. It's not a far stretch to think of radioactive iridium isotopes, but this angle is not as obvious though as in for instance 1955's 'Kiss Me Deadly'. Still, it seemed pretty deliberate to me.
The aforementioned wolf-whistles are a strange and awkward sound that appears in the first quarter of the movie. But they were possibly added to make a quite melodramatic scene near the end of the movie even more melodramatic, when Bigelow finally declares his love for Paula to her. Through his predicament, he discovers that Paula is indeed the woman he truly loves. It is by far the least interesting part of the movie to me. There is also a hoodlum later on in the movie played by Neville Brand, who comes off as a second-rate copy of a more memorable hoodlum like Tommy Udo from 'Kiss Of Death', Brands' character is more laughable than crazy and menacing really.
The rest of the movie is extremely entertaining however. O'Brien gives a great and intense performance here, as usual. Bigelow is a doomed man with nothing left to lose, so he doesn't care that he has to ask direct and painful questions to a woman about her husband who just committed suicide, which of course isn't a suicide at all. There is also the, fairly stereotypical, suave villain with the foreign accent, played here in competent manner by Luther Adler. His part isn't big enough to leave much of an impression however, the movie focuses squarely on Bigelow.
There are plenty of memorable scenes here. There is a beautifully shot scene where Bigelow faces his killer inside the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles. Also, after Bigelow hears about his inevitable death, he runs from the hospital, and the camera follows him as he runs across San Francisco, seemingly for miles. He finally collapses against a newpaper stand, which ironically just happens to sell a lot of Life magazines. There is also a cool and suspenseful stand-off between him and the killer, who is never seen in this scene, in an abandoned industrial complex (which oddly enough has a lively photo studio next to it).
All in all, 'D.O.A.' is indeed a noir classic, it starts off with a bang, then briefly turns into a weird slapstick-like piece but quickly changes back again to a tense noir once Bigelow gets the bad news. Highly recommended!