Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Darkness #20: The Man in Charge (Opening Scene from D.O.A.)

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Bigelow lurching into the police office to proclaim his death; Blind Alley has never been so visceral or impressively ridiculous. Amidst the pitch black eternity of the night, this avenging angel that started his trip as a small town Joe Schmo has made the trip to hell - but not back. It's probably one of noir's most iconic openers, certainly one that jumps out when thinking of legendary cinematic moments.

 

Laszlo's drowning visual palate is a thing of morbid beauty, and similar to the way KISS ME DEADLY served as a denouement for the P.I.'s of the 40's, D.O.A. marks the last stand of the mistaken man. It's everything this particular archetype could ever hope to be, and that mastery is conveyed flawlessly but the time this opener is over. Bigelow may have been dead on arrival, but boy film noir will never forget his unlikely blaze of glory. Fantastic film.

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There's a sort of choreography to this opening sequence of "D.O.A." Not merely one of Poverty Row's great noir films, but one of the great noir films. Its edginess and directness, its cutting, are remarkable. Edmund O'Brian lunges forward into the LAPD homicide offices as he is plunging towards his bleak future. Great pick!

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Like the other three openings this week, this one starts in full motion. This time we're following a man on a long, determined march through the labyrinth-like passages of LA City Hall. It's one of those bustling, anonymous, big-city caverns of beaurocracy that would fit right into a Kafka story. Though this man is the focus of the scene, we get the sense that he might as well be invisible to the other people doing their business there. The cop of whom he asks directions points the way with a cursory flick of the thumb without paying much attention to who's asking.

 

The man, Frank, is driven with great urgency. There's a sense of fate in those halls, we just don't know if he's fleeing from it or going forward to face it. The music by the great Dimitrie Tiomkin has the propulsive drumbeat of a military march but without its optimistic, heroic quality; instead, it's much darker, like impending doom. The credits are presented in a bold, slanted, 3-dimensional font that screams, "this is how it is, there's nothing much you can do about it".

 

Another similarity - the person in the scene is never fully revealed until the moment of greatest impact. We see the action, grasp the situation first. Then we're allowed to put a face on the person who's involved in it. Not vice versa. This conveys the sense that the situation is fate and the people are just dropped into it.

 

Here we don't see Frank's face till he replies to the question of who was murdered with "I was". Which throws us right into the realm of the patently absurd. Had the detective not already gotten word from San Francisco, he would've surely thought Frank was nuts. As it is, the police seem to be expecting Frank. Which in some odd way is not reassuring.

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D.O.A. compares well to Kiss Me Deadly, The Hitch-hiker, and Caged. All four films drop us right into the action. They all begin from a place of having something serious already happen. We never witness Christina's reason for being committed to a mental institution. We know nothing of why or how the hitch-hiker became a person of villainous behavior. And we don't know why the women of Caged committed their crimes leading to incarnation, or why Frank has been "killed." Each film this week has thrust us into a story already unfolding, and we'll later on discover the how's and why's of each plot.

 

Each of the four films also refuse to reveal their characters' faces until well into their opening scenes. This indicates characters of mystery, characters we should probably suspect, unworthy of our trust. As we all know, suspicions are always aroused within a film noir, and the introductions of the aforementioned characters are highly effective in proving this true.

 

D.O.A. instills a sense of dread. We follow a man for nearly 2 1/2 minutes into and throughout a police station. He then proceeds to say he's been murdered. Clearly this man is in definite trouble. What kind of trouble? We don't know. Maybe he's in some sort of search for himself, or he's possibly mixed up with the wrong kind of people. Whatever his story, we know doom and dread lurk, waiting at his most inopportune moment to strike. And strike they will, as we are in the beginning of his recount of D.O.A.

 

Frank Bigelow has willingly walked into a police station to tell his story. (This is also a reminder of the great Double Indemnity.) It's apparent he's in such a terrible dilemma and sees no way out. After committing wrongdoing, most people would gladly choose to avoid any sort of contact with the police. This is not Frank's case. Hopelessness prevails and has engulfed him to a point of no return. The darkness of this type of material is a great subject for film noir to examine, as it has effectively done so in the past.

D.O.A.- the title says it all.

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I didn't know what to expect (having never seen the film and knowing nothing about it) and maybe for this very reason I did not get the same reaction as the other commenters so far. I never had the feeling that this guy was threatened, or find the place menacing, or that the building was surreal somehow, or that he was in the midst of a vast bureaucracy: I felt I was watching a guy (I presumed a cop) striding purposely along the halls of justice. The fact that no-one reacted when he entered Homicide even had me thinking he belonged there! 

 

I'll reserve judgement on the film till I've seen it, but I really didn't get the same feeling of imminent threat as from the three previous clips. I'm certainly intrigued though: how does one murder oneself anyway? 

 

Incidentally, just why are Noir cops so tough that they don't even blink when someone says "I want to report a murder"?

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In this opening sequence of Rudolph Mate's noir film D.O.A. we're a step back from the subjectivity device used in the opening of Caged, that we analysed in yesterday's daily dose: it isn't exactly a POV shot since we don't actually see what the character sees, but only follow his back as he walks through the cold, desert, dimly lit corridors. Since the begining of the film we're in movement, but this movement is not conveyed by a vehicle (as in The Hitch-Hiker and in Caged), but rather by the character who's walking on screen (as the woman running in Kiss Me Deadly) and the way he is filmed, through ongoing, repetitive, long shots (this impression is given by the camera's continuous travellings and the masking of the editing through crossfades). I also find here resonances of the sequence of Dark Passage analysed in the Week #1, where we can barely see Humphrey Bogart's face: although it is more difficult to identify/empathize with a character in a situation like this, we feel somewhat complices , even if we don't know who he is or where he's headed to. 

Troubles of identity and identification are indeed in the core of this sequence, and in the core of the "substance of noir" we're trying to define here. The feelings of pessimism and hopelessness not only are experienced by the audience but they're also made evident in the character's defeated posture and slow way of talking: when we finally get to see Frank Bigelow's face, it's not a self-confident and pretentious face of an hard-boiled detective that is presented to us, but rather a dirty face covered with sweat, and fuzzy, vague eyes. This man seems extremely exhausted and confused, for he has lost something even more important than his life - even if he confusingly says that the reason why he came to the Homicide Division was to report is own murder - his identity. We get the impression that authorities in charge are no longer effective: they make mistakes that may lead to death and doom of innocent people. Following the thoughts of Robert Porfirio's article on Existential motifs, I would say that, in a way, identity is one of the ways one has to face the chaos and absurdity in the universe; if we're no longer certain of who we are, we fall into a nihilistic abyss where nothing makes sense.
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-- Compare the opening of this film with the other three Daily Doses this week? Do you see parallels in the opening scenes of these films?

 

We are in the city. The film starts with a night shot of the iconic Los Angeles City Hall, we see a man walking in this Daily Dose, a man walking with determination as opposed to the desperate running bare feet, or the static standing hitch-hiker, or the view through the mesh window of a moving paddy wagon. The parallels are in the withheld nature of the information we are given we don't see any of our characters immediately, this builds anticipation, and a feeling that something significant is going to happen. 

 

-- What are some of the noir themes and motifs that are being explored in this film's opening scene? This is also a good film through which to discuss Robert Porfirio's article on Existential motifs, since he references the film D.O.A. several times in his essay.

 

The obsessed and alienated character, victim of forces beyond his control. The dark closing in around him, an eternal night, long hallways shrouded in shadows, movement towards the inevitable.  A walking dead man resigned to his fate with his last determination to tell his story (in flashback).

 

-- How does the style and substance of this film's opening reinforce a feeling of pessimism or hopelessness in the character of Frank Bigelow?

 

He's, in a sense, walking in his own funeral procession. Across night streets, through long dark corridors ending at the door to the Homicide Division all to a score that projects determination a triumph of sorts, but ends in a Pyrrich victory .

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We're marching right behind a man we cannot see. The long lines of the hallways and the marching music help us keep pace as the shot draws us into the action.  The block lettering showing the casts' names weighs heavy like concrete stones. There is no lightness to this opening scene.

 

In The Killers, the killers enter from the left side of the frame. In M Peter Lorre's shadow is cast from left to right. In the opening scene of D.O.A. the protagonist enters from the left. In common language, we say, "Do the right thing" meaning the "good" thing. Myths and religious beliefs associate the left side with the devil...with dishonesty...with impurity.  But left side plays prominently in film noir. Is this another cinematic technique to ascribe meaning in the mise en scène?

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It may be just me, but it seems like Edmund O'Brien appeared in at least 50% of the films noir released in the 1950s.  Great actor of both screen and radio.  To date, the only actor to win an Oscar for portraying a character named Oscar (The Barefoot Contessa).   

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i'm happy D.O.A. is today's daily dose. The opening is what drew me to this film and Edmund O'Brien. D.O.A. is pure noir. We already know this is not a happy story. I want to report a murder... Who do you want to report. I was the one murdered.

Now that caught my attention, so we already know there's gonna be a flashback.

Also the way he is walking down the hall, you know he doesn't have much time.

Cant wait to watch DOA again tommorow

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In this opening scene we see the main character walking into a police station.  We only see him from the back as he walks down the corridors like a man with a purpose.  Tiomkin's music helps to reinforce this and add to the suspense.  We do not see the man's face until he responds "I was".  The set up of this scene is very dramatic and effective with lighting, dialogue, and of course the music.

 

In the Daily Dose today it states that "we are beginning to find ourselves, over and over again. at the end of the line in the 1950's".  It reminded me of that trolley car ride in "Double Indemnity".  Straight down the line where the end is the cemetery.  The big difference is Walter and Phyllis got on the trolley voluntarily but Frank Bigelow was not given a choice.

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One of my favourite devices of film noir is the reveal of a main character. Not showing us his or her face right away, but creating intrigue, interest, and importance by holding off, even for a few seconds. All 4 films this week begin with a reveal. 

 

In addition, all 4 of the revealed characters have a sense of doom and desperation surrounding them. They are all in situations that they did not choose, trapped by circumstances or bad choices. The darkness, the lighting, the audio, and their expressions all contribute to the sense that something very bad has happened. Something that we don't yet understand but is so compelling that we must continue watching to find out. Our morbid curiosity is then complicit in this existential world view.

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We start at the top of the Los Angeles City Hall.  A building that's probably been in more films noir than Elisha Cook Jr.  It's night so we know we're not there for a zoning appeal.

 

Panning down we find ourselves sharing the point of view of a lone man, left of screen, momentarily stopped & staring at the building.  We here purposeful dramatic music as the man moves to center screen and walks forward in a one point perspective shot of a shadowy hallway.  He is the only person in the hallway.  

 

We see a sign for Police Department.  Entering these doors the man stops and asks directions.  Another walk down an empty corridor with our man at the center.  Arriving at the door marked Homicide Division he enters and asks to see the "man in charge."

 

He's ushered into the Captain's office takes a seat and says he wants to report a murder.  The captain asked who's and following a long searing pause the man says "mine."  The Captain, showing no surprise, pulls a sheet from a stack of papers and asks the man if he's Frank Bigelow.  "That's right" answers Bigelow who then asks imploringly if the Captain wants to hear his story.

 

As viewers we're first confronted with confusion.  Why is the man there?  Where is he going?  What is his purpose.  In our more philosophical moments we may find ourselves asking ourselves these same questions.

 

When we finally learn where he is and why he's there the situation becomes absurd.  A living man reporting his own murder?  How is that possible.  To our amazement "the man in charge" shows no surprise.  He already knows who the man is.  The man in charge already knows everything.  Maybe he's more like the "Man" in charge.  Still Frank wants to tell his story.  And so we move on to hear how the end began.

 

Our Daily Doses this week begin in confusion and images of a journey.  There's no immediately understood destination.  We're dropped in and already traveling.  Our protagonists are on their journeys due to circumstances that aren't clear to us.  What is clear is a sense of tension, danger or desperation.

The travelers either lack power immediately or have it taken from them and end up in the grip of impersonal cruel forces.  The fate that awaits them, or the fate that brought them to this point is unknown to us, but will be revealed.  The revelation will likely not bring a comforting resolution.

 

As an aside, and I may be wrong in this, I think Hammett's "Flitcraft" story beat Camus to the existential absurdity punch by about 20 years.

 

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We're marching right behind a man we cannot see. The long lines of the hallways and the marching music help us keep pace as the shot draws us into the action.  The block lettering showing the casts' names weighs heavy like concrete stones. There is no lightness to this opening scene.

 

In The Killers, the killers enter from the left side of the frame. In M Peter Lorre's shadow is cast from left to right. In the opening scene of D.O.A. the protagonist enters from the left. In common language, we say, "Do the right thing" meaning the "good" thing. Myths and religious beliefs associate the left side with the devil...with dishonesty...with impurity.  But left side plays prominently in film noir. Is this another cinematic technique to ascribe meaning in the mise en scène?

Thanks for raising this point.  I think there was an essay by Roger Ebert where he says that action screen left or moving screen left generally indicates something bad going on.

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You want to get my attention? Show a solitary figure walking down a dark hallway at the police station to the Homicide Division. Even the word "homicide" on the door at Room 44 is unnerving. If that weren't enough, the man who made the long walk is rumpled and says he was murdered the night before in San Francisco. I'm along for the ride on this one. With an opening like that, how could I not be?

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Comparing this opening to yesterday's Caged, I find they have many similarities.  We are carried forward through the credits as they are presented over darkness.  We are not sure where we are going but we are following a character into the story.  We are presented with our first clear look of our protagonist with a sudden close-up of their face. 

 

The protagonists seems vulnerable and a victim of some happenstance that we are not yet aware of.  They are filled with despair and dread as mentioned in Pofirio's article on Existential motifs.  In D.O.A., in particular, there is certainly pessimism and a bleak outlook.  The man is dying.  He shows a stubborn perseverance and a grasping for social justice.  He wants the police to catch his killer and persists when he could be spending his last minutes going on a bender or trying to squeeze a bit of enjoyment out of his last minutes as, for instance, in The Bucket List.

 

His story is told in flashback as many of our films noir have been presented.

 

I've seen this movie before, so I wasn't shocked at the big reveal at the beginning.  But I remember that I kept hoping for some reprieve for Edmund O'Brien.  I'll watch it again to see if this class has enriched my outlook of this film.

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Compare the opening of this film with the other three Daily Doses this week? Do you see parallels in the opening scenes of these films?

 

Yes, it would seem there is a film noir trip commencing for each clip. Each clip also has parallels i.e. with an uncertain destination darkly mapped out in our daily doses this week. A point of travel where if proceeding the only certainty is more dread to follow.

 

 

What are some of the noir themes and motifs that are being explored in this film's opening scene? This is also a good film through which to discuss Robert Porfirio's article on Existential motifs, since he references the film D.O.A. several times in his essay.

 

I would have said control or lack there of as a theme but the loss of freedom seems more apparent in our daily doses. The motif for DOA would seem to be Frank Bigelow is a "victim" of murder. Seems odd he speaks in past tense and of murder being that he is reporting it. I saw the remake so I have an idea he is poisoned and expects death to follow. Existential theme indeed. The police headquarters also seem confining, institutional, claustrophobic, and dark. Our perspective makes me feel like we are marching with him to report the crime. The officers learn who he is and gauging by their postures and glum expressions respect the seriousness of the situation. It feels depressing. Possibly the most depressing of the clips this week in my opinion. It's hitting some of the existential notes that are also discussed in Porifrio's article.

 

How does the style and substance of this film's opening reinforce a feeling of pessimism or hopelessness in the character of Frank Bigelow?

 

The style and substance as mentioned above tweaks with the dark, depressing, hopeless, and pessimistic feelings by both placing the character in a dark police station (out of his control) and by making us go with him. He cannot turn back and call it a day. It's a trip he probably doesn't want to make but I got the feeling he knows he has to take it in order for justice to take its course in doing so. He walks with a purpose but I never got satisfaction from any of the actions. Pretty opposite feelings of being overjoyed or thrilled here. Nothing exciting or rewarding about reporting someone has killed you. Confusing maybe... You could justify being disoriented in that set of circumstances.

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I've seen this movie many times, every time I fall on it I can't help but watch it again.  Edmund O'Brien plays this doomed man to perfection and although all the film noir traits are evident and incredible, O'Brien's perfomance is outstanding.

 

I find the parallels of our opening scenes this week all have one thing in common ,"we have no certainty of our destinations." Whether, escaping from an asylum, picking up a murdering hitch-hiker, sentenced to a woman's prison or as in today's scene knowing you are about to die.  How do you escape what is about to happen? Do you?

 

The noir themes and motifs that I see in this clip, with reference to Porfirio's article, are our protagonist trying to make sense out of his world. "I want to report a murder."..."Who was murdered?"..."I was."  Why is he at a police station? The hopelessness of his situation, is he living despite life's absurdity?

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I talked about this earlier in regards to Notorious, but I really like it when movies are willing to go a while just showing us a character's back. We take so much meaning from looking at someone's face--denying us that build suspense.

 

I really like that he enters the building with this purposeful stride, yet once he's made it to his goal (the office of the man in charge), he needs to steady himself on the desk to sit down. When we finally see the front of him, his suit is dirty and he's sweaty and upset. You get the sense that his power walk into the station burned off a lot of what energy remains.

 

Ironically, I think that the fatalism of the scene comes from the part that seems to be the kindest. When the detective asks him to tell his story and he doesn't know where to start, the detective kindly says something like "Tell it however you like". It's kindness, but it also has the feeling of indulgence. They aren't going to be brusque with this man--he's dying. They'll indulge him in telling his story however he likes.

 

It's a bold thing, (done brilliantly later in Sunset Bulevard) to begin a movie with a protagonist you know will die. It asks for a different level of emotional investment because as an audience we can't even hold onto a sliver of hope that this person will survive.

 


In common language, we say, "Do the right thing" meaning the "good" thing. Myths and religious beliefs associate the left side with the devil...with dishonesty...with impurity.  But left side plays prominently in film noir. Is this another cinematic technique to ascribe meaning in the mise en scène?

 

Here is an excerpt from an Ebert essay on "reading" movies:

 

"In simplistic terms: Right is more positive, left more negative. Movement to the right seems more favorable; to the left, less so. The future seems to live on the right, the past on the left. The top is dominant over the bottom. The foreground is stronger than the background. Symmetrical compositions seem at rest. Diagonals in a composition seem to "move" in the direction of the sharpest angle they form, even though of course they may not move at all."

 

I was taught that the left/right thing had to do with the way that we read, but Ebert seems to refute that in his essay. I do think it's true that when I look at an image, I naturally let my eyes play from left to right, lingering longer on the right side of the frame.

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The similarities with the three other noir clips are night camera shots and shadows. Rapid movement of main characters in three of the clips in the early seconds of the clips, giving a sense of urgency on the part of the characters that  is recognized by the viewers. This creates tension and mystery and uncertainity that the viewer wants to see resolved. The long walk by the character Bigelo heightens this tension and raises questions. Who is the character, good guy or bad guy? This is unclear in three of the four films at this early point of the clip. What story line will unfold? What has happened to put the character in the position he/she is in? Has he/she "done something" or had something done to them-- i.e. are they a victum or have they commited a crime.? The long walk in the halls is like a walk into eternity or impending doom. No good will result when the man gets to his destination--impending doom is the theme. The change in the names on the doors--- police department  ( just a traffic matter ?) to homicide department ( clearly murder) suggests progressively deeping evil in this film. The dialogue as well as staging and camera work assists in creating a great opening scene keeping the viewer on the edge of his/her seat. The answer to the question, who was murdered?,   is chilling and totally unsuspected. The answer, " Me" , pulls into the twisted psychological world of noir at this (later)  stage of noir development.

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We start at the top of the Los Angeles City Hall.  A building that's probably been in more films noir than Elisha Cook Jr.  It's night so we know we're not there for a zoning appeal.

 

Panning down we find ourselves sharing the point of view of a lone man, left of screen, momentarily stopped & staring at the building.  We here purposeful dramatic music as the man moves to center screen and walks forward in a one point perspective shot of a shadowy hallway.  He is the only person in the hallway.  

 

We see a sign for Police Department.  Entering these doors the man stops and asks directions.  Another walk down an empty corridor with our man at the center.  Arriving at the door marked Homicide Division he enters and asks to see the "man in charge."

 

He's ushered into the Captain's office takes a seat and says he wants to report a murder.  The captain asked who's and following a long searing pause the man says "mine."  The Captain, showing no surprise, pulls a sheet from a stack of papers and asks the man if he's Frank Bigelow.  "That's right" answers Bigelow who then asks imploringly if the Captain wants to hear his story.

 

As viewers we're first confronted with confusion.  Why is the man there?  Where is he going?  What is his purpose.  In our more philosophical moments we may find ourselves asking ourselves these same questions.

 

When we finally learn where he is and why he's there the situation becomes absurd.  A living man reporting his own murder?  How is that possible.  To our amazement "the man in charge" shows no surprise.  He already knows who the man is.  The man in charge already knows everything.  Maybe he's more like the "Man" in charge.  Still Frank wants to tell his story.  And so we move on to hear how the end began.

 

Our Daily Doses this week begin in confusion and images of a journey.  There's no immediately understood destination.  We're dropped in and already traveling.  Our protagonists are on their journeys due to circumstances that aren't clear to us.  What is clear is a sense of tension, danger or desperation.

The travelers either lack power immediately or have it taken from them and end up in the grip of impersonal cruel forces.  The fate that awaits them, or the fate that brought them to this point is unknown to us, but will be revealed.  The revelation will likely not bring a comforting resolution.

 

As an aside, and I may be wrong in this, I think Hammett's "Flitcraft" story beat Camus to the existential absurdity punch by about 20 years.

Perceptive analysis! And I love your comment "A building that's probably been in more films noir than Elisha Cook Jr." ha ha.

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All of the Daily Doses this week have taken us for a ride, and they're all rides we would not want to take in real life.

 

The previous three had us in a type of automobile, while here the journey is on foot as we follow Frank into L.A. City Hall at night.

 

Frank walks down the halls, hoping to make his destination in time. The halls are dimly lit, adding to the feeling of hopelessness and dread Frank must be feeling.

 

We, of course, don't know this until he reaches the Homicide Division and asks to speak to the man in charge.

 

I am sure 1950's minds were blown when Frank says he wants to report a murder and says "I was" when asked whose murder it was. Or they thought he was a nutcase at first.

 

We think the same until the chief pulls out a file and asks if he is Frank Bigelow. Then everything gets moving.

 

The swirling cyclone is perfect to kick off Frank's story in flashback as it does seem his fate has been upset by the events that he is about to describe.

 

As Robert Porfirio said in his essay on existential motifs: "Perhaps this is why the heroes of existential fiction are so perennially faced with the threat of imminent death, certainly such a threat forces the individual to re-examine his life."

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I agree with others on this post all the daily doses this week dropped us right into the action. There is an immediate sense of danger that draws us in.

 

I have seen this movie many times, in fact it is one of my favorites. However the first time I saw it I only had a general idea what it was about from a blurb in a viewing guide ( who remembers those?). I remember thinking how strange it was for a man to walk into a police station to report his own murder. This very first act in the very first scene pulls us into the meaningless and absurd world of noir Porfirio mentioned in his article No Way Out.

 

I also noticed that Bigelow is always "going towards the light" until finally he arrives at a man bathed in light. I'm not sure if that was a death experience concept back then, but it certainly seems to fit our concept of death now. And of course as Porfirio referenced in his article we know in the first few minutes that Bigelow has found himself in the bleak noir universe of " Man Under Sentence of Death".

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-- Compare the opening of this film with the other three Daily Doses this week? Do you see parallels in the opening scenes of these films?

 

In all four of this week’s Daily Dose clips, darkness and trouble seems the prevailing theme.

 

Christina, in a sense of panic, is running away from an asylum in the dead of night. She’s either a troubled woman and/or running away from it.

 

Roy and Gilbert are not aware that trouble lingers in the darkness just behind them in the back seat.

 

Marie Allen sits in darkness inside a prison van. An anti-social slur greets her when the doors open. She’s about to enter the troubled cages of women prison.

 

Frank Bigelow marches through the dark halls of an office building with blaring music which abruptly stops when he sees the sign on a door: Homicide Division. He tells the detectives that a homicide has occurred- HIS! Frank is troubled, or in trouble.

 

All four films in these clips reveal their storyline within the first 3 minutes or so.

 

All four share a common theme: destiny- none no longer controls their own.

Their freedoms are compromised by either institutions (asylum or prison), kidnapping or murder.

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