The 1950s was an important decade for the film industry. Censorship laws were no longer restricting filmmakers from producing the projects they desired. Some independent filmmakers were taking full advantage of this, coming up with projects that exploited violence and sex. However, during the 1940s and 1950s, the genre of film noir was beginning to rise in popularity, particularly in the United States. Films such as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) are prime examples of the genre known as “black film.” They opened up the doors for filmmakers to explore a genre that often dealt with romantic involvement, criminal activity, and almost always ended badly for the main character. Another film noir that was released during that time period was Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. (1950). This article will examine the film from the perspective of auteur theory and film history, as well as observe how the narrative design affects how the film is interpreted. It will also show how the choice of lighting enhances the meaning of the film, and ultimately show why D.O.A. is a significant film from this time period.
The director of the film, Rudolph Maté, worked as a cinematographer before his directorial debut in 1947 as the co-director of It Had to Be You with Don Hartman. His résumé as director of photography includes Chained (1924), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Foreign Correspondent (1940), Sahara (1943), and Down to Earth (1947). Along with D.O.A. and It Had to Be You, Maté also directed When Worlds Collide (1951), The Gauntlet (1952), The Far Horizons (1955), The Deep Six (1958), and The 300 Spartans (1962). Although he was nominated for best cinematographer in the Oscars five years in a row in the early 1940s, Maté never won a prestigious Academy award (IMDB). Nor was he ever nominated for his directorial projects. This, perhaps, is due to his lack of influence put into the movies he directed. Rudolph Maté is one of the few filmmakers that does not appear to qualify as an auteur of his pictures. His films are sporadic in terms of genre and theme, and it seems as if his choices as a director were based on projects that were sent to him through studios. For example, It Had to Be You was a comedy, When Worlds Collide falls into the science-fiction genre, D.O.A. a film noir, and Branded (1950) a western. With such a broad range of genres, it is hard to view Maté as an auteur, as it was likely difficult to implement his own conventions and themes into these varying projects.
In terms of film history, it is important to recognize that D.O.A. is not an original production, but actually a remake of a Robert Siodmak and Billy Wilder film released in Germany: Der Mann, Der Seinen Morder Sucht (1931). While Maté’s production was a loosely based retelling of the 1931 film, it spawned two remakes of its own, which were much more closely related. “In 1969, Australian director Eddie Davis filmed Color Me Dead, an inexpensive and uninspired modernization of the same basic story. Then came Rocky Morton’s expensive and loudly expressionistic retelling for the 1980s” (Naremore, 331). It is interesting to see how one remake can go almost completely unnoticed, but another can garner great publicity and potentially revitalize the historical significance of a film. It seems that in the situation of D.O.A., the remake that attempted to remain true to the 1950s version failed miserably. Meanwhile, the version that took the story, changed certain aspects of it and modernized its setting, is the film that found success even as a remake. Therefore, it seems that a directors vision is a very important element in the filmmaking process, as they must engrave their own mark on the film. While Maté may have not been an ideal director in the sense of an auteur, he certainly made his own mark on his remake of D.O.A., as it became a classic of the film noir genre.
For audiences of the film, it is important to recognize the “voice” and “mood” of the film in terms of narrative design. The “voice” in D.O.A. comes from the main character, Frank Bigelow, who tells his story of being poisoned due to his knowledge of a criminal business transaction gone wrong. Through his perspective, the audience is introduced to the various characters he encounters as he attempts to piece together his murder. While the “mood” of the film often comes from a different perspective, it seems that Bigelow’s situation is what shapes the perspective of “mood” in D.O.A. He is the character that is being victimized, therefore, the audience will relate to his struggle and ultimately sympathize with his situation.
Frank Bigelow remains the chief character throughout the entire length of the film. From the beginning of the film, he is followed through his daily routines up until he leaves for an unannounced vacation for San Francisco. His secretary and love interest is upset and concerned over the situation, and it becomes obvious that the plot is headed in a wrong direction for Bigelow. As the plot thickens, characters such as Philips and Reynolds are talked about, but not introduced to the audience. Philips is a character who shares the same dilemma as Bigelow, and has already met his demise by the time he becomes relevant to Bigelow. Reynolds is the antagonist of the film, and is not seen by the audience until the end of the movie. This keeps the narrative design focused on Frank and shows why he can be considered the “voice” as well as the “mood” of the film.
One of the most prominent elements of mise-en-scene in the genre of film noir is lighting, which relies heavily on low-key lightin, hence its translation to “black film.” A particular scene that stands out in D.O.A. is when Bigelow begins to feel sick after a night of heavy drinking. He gets on a bus and travels to the nearest medical center, where he is told he has been poisoned and is slowly dying. Upon this news, Bigelow is in shock and disbelief. He starts to run through the city. As he does so, the lighting structure cleverly shadows Bigelow as if he is running through a dark corridor. The lights dim and then grow brighter at spots, which enhances the chaos that is likely running through the characters’ head at this point. The only bright spot in the film is in the beginning before Bigelow has left for his vacation. He spends some time with his worried secretary, Paula Gibson, before leaving for the big city. This is the only scene that did not rely on low-key lighting, likely because it was meant to show the last moments of happiness in Frank Bigelow’s life.
So, is it evident that Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. is a significant part of film history? While being a remake itself, it also spawned two of its own retellings. It is also important to recognize where Maté stood as director of the film. While he does not seem to qualify as an auteur, his directorial vision was still enough to drive the film to a standing as a classic in the film noir genre. Therefore, D.O.A. is a film that should be viewed by audiences for its quality as a genre picture and relevance to film history.