“D.O.A.” — A Toxic Reality

by Virginia Craft

An Analysis of Rudolph Maté’s film D.O.A.

Frank Bigelow’s consumption of a fatal toxin presents an encounter with the realization that he is basically a living dead man (as we all are, in a way). Facing the certain fate that Time carries with it, Frank’s character serves as an exaggeration of our state in life—living with the absurdity of an approaching death.

As he stows away alone to San Francisco and leaves his lovestruck secretary behind, he sets out for a sort of selfish freedom through aesthetic, hedonistic means. Intoxicated by women and drinks, he becomes so consumed in his sense of self that the only thing to sober his mind is his face-to-face confrontation with impending death. Going in search of the person who poisoned him and to find out why, Frank becomes flooded with existential uncertainty. Toward the end of the film, he pauses his quest for Truth and spills feelings of love onto Paula, his secretary, saying that something happens to make people realize how much they love someone. To me, Frank’s sudden love-drunken behavior shows a person’s desperation to find meaning in a life of ambiguity when confronted with the certainty of death; Frank’s last resort for meaning seems to be through love.

The director, Rudolph Maté, uses classic film-noir elements to add to the hysterical, anxious nature of the film. The hospital in which Frank frantically goes to in order to further investigate his toxic consumption is massively surreal with what seems like endless steps to the top. The vile in the hospital that revealed toxins in Frank’s body was illuminating brightly; the light of a deadly Truth. Slanted blinds cast chopped black and white lines across Frank’s face while he’s in the office inquiring about Eugene Phillips; a parallel of light and dark forces in the film. Oddly enough, in the home of Mrs. Phillips and the office of Eugene Phillips’ receptionist (as well as her home), flower decorations are laced in pictures, curtains, and fake bouquets. To me, the flowers in these situations could only symbolize death, as flowers can be associated with funerals and mourning. The mob boss, Majack, wears a white suit, radiating in the darkness of the dungeon-like house he resides in. When we are first shown Majack, his facial features and incongruous and his eyes look uneven on his face. Furthermore, Paula, so immersed in love, is shown throughout the entire film in a drunken glow. Though she easily dismisses death when she tells Frank of Eugene Phillips’ death, saying not to worry about him calling and that Frank can “go ahead and have fun”; she seems to use love as an escape from the existential toxicity of a life empty of meaning.

One scene that I found especially intriguing is when Frank first confronts the certain death that the toxin presents him with. He stops by a newspaper and magazine stand: To the left of him are headlines on magazines pertaining to society, while to the right of him is a ladder of numerous copies of a magazine called “Life”. He looks distraught as he is standing in this “life” while surreal-looking events occur before him: A young, care-free girl bounces a ball in front of him; A man and a woman approach one another and smile during a loving embrace. Frank does not look comforted by this “life” around him though—he searches for Truth behind his certain death.