Excerpted from the new book The Red and the Black: American Film Noir in the 1950s, by Robert Miklitsch
D.O.A. begins at night with a tilt-down shot from the top of Los Angeles City Hall to a man, his back to us, walking into the frame. As the steeply slanted letters of the title flash up onto the screen, the man starts across the street, the camera tracking behind him as he walks down a long corridor, at the end of which a policeman engaged in conversation with another man jerks his finger to the right, pointing down yet another corridor. The camera continues to track behind the man until he comes to a door that reads “Homicide Division.”
Any number of things might be said about this opening sequence, but three will suffice. First, the sequence would not be nearly so dramatic without Dmitri Tiomkin’s music, which is “cleverly synchronized in mickey-mouse fashion with each move [Bigelow] makes.” Even though the underscore introduces what we will later recognize as the film’s ultraromantic motif, the martial air and ascending movement propel the film forward and upward, as if we’re on a musical escalator.
Second, although we do not see the man’s face nor know his name, the forward tracking shots, as in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, facilitate our identification with his character.
Third, since the sign on the door says “Homicide,” we suspect that the man has come to the police station to report a murder, and the ensuing laconic exchange between the police captain and the man appears to confirm our expectations:
Man: I wanna report a murder.
Captain: Sit down. Where was this murder committed?
Man: San Francisco last night.
Captain: Who was murdered?
It’s only after the last question that we finally get a reverse shot, the camera cutting to a close-up of the man’s face before he declares—after a long pause—“I was.” The captain rifles through some papers, then, glancing at a mimeographed sheet, turns back to the man, “Your name Bigelow? Frank Bigelow?” The man replies, “That’s right,” at which point the captain hands the sheet to an officer who’s standing offscreen: “Answer the San Francisco APB. Send it direct to Inspector Bannon in Homicide. Tell him we’ve found Frank Bigelow.”
While we now know the man’s name and that he’s been “murdered,” the opening sequence of D.O.A., as in the noir or crime film more generally, poses as many questions as it answers, producing enigmas that it will be the work of the flashback to answer. To wit, if Bigelow has been murdered, how can he still be alive? He doesn’t look like Walter Neff at the beginning of Double Indemnity, who, even as he’s bleeding to death, has to muster all of his rapidly dwindling resources to light a cigarette. Bigelow’s rumpled, dirt-stained suit aside, he looks surprisingly hale—for a dead man. The other, more obvious questions are, Who murdered him and why?
The captain prompts Bigelow, and almost as soon as he begins to tell his story—“I live in a little town called Banning out on the desert. It’s on the way to Palm Springs. I have a small business . . .”—a whirlpool suddenly appears, signaling the onset of the flashback. The flashback itself effects a change both with respect to time (present to past) and setting (Los Angeles to Banning); it also precipitates a change in lighting (from low- to high-key) and on the sound track (from the absence of music to a lilting underscore). But perhaps the most dramatic contrast between Los Angeles and Banning is that in the LAPD police station Bigelow is literally surrounded by men while in his accountant’s office in Banning he’s compositionally dominated by women.
Thus, in the very first part of the Banning sequence, a flirtatious young brunette named Kitty (Carol Hughes) is perched on Bigelow’s desk to the right while his blonde secretary, Paula (Pamela Britton), stands above and to the left of him. In this particular scenario Bigelow’s trapped between two women: if Paula, in white, is the “good girl,” then Kitty, in a busy print, is the “bad girl.” Kitty, true to type, simultaneously manages to insult Paula and convey her sexual attraction to Bigelow: “Paula, why don’t you come down to the place and let me give you another permanent. It makes your hair so much easier to manage [Kitty glances at Bigelow] in all this heat.” Paula is no doormat, however. She may have to put up with overly familiar clients like Kitty, but when she discovers that Bigelow’s going to San Francisco to “get away from town for a few days” (he “forgot” to tell her), she reads him like an X-ray: “Get away from town or get away from me?”
Although Paula and Bigelow quickly kiss and make up, later at Eddie’s bar, which is completely deserted except for a beat cop reading the newspaper (a scene that speaks to just how uneventful Banning is), she assumes a less direct, more solicitous approach: “I know what’s going on inside of you, Frank. You’re just like any other man only a little more so. You have a feeling of being trapped, hemmed in.” When Bigelow gets up and goes over to the jukebox to play a song, Paula switches their beers (she’s barely touched hers while Bigelow has almost finished his); when he returns, she confesses, “I thought that by now we’d be married.”
Here, D.O.A. broaches one of the definitive topics of ’50s noir (see, par excellence, The Bigamist): marriage. If, as Beverley Carter argues in “The War of the Sexes,” Paula is a “working girl” and her voice is equal to Bigelow’s in the “work environment,” the issue of marriage in Maté’s film is posed, as in The Bigamist, from a male perspective: will Bigelow continue to play the field (say, Kitty) or commit to his present girlfriend (Paula)? This said, Paula’s character does not represent simply romance or marriage but a whole way of life, the sort of stereotypical little town and small business associated in the early 1950s with the American dream. Therefore, the fact that the scene at Eddie’s ends with another kiss between the two suggests that Bigelow will eventually see the light and reconcile himself to marriage, monogamy, and his safe, if unexciting life, in Banning, California.