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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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The opening to this film is what I think is a typical noir style. The long hallways that keep going and turning with small over head lights creates a trapped feeling. The detectives dressed in stylish suits. The mystery of not seeing the main characters face until the scene is well underway. The lighting created large shadows. The line " I'd like to report a murder" followed up by him saying its his own murder he is reporting is so intriguing.

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Will this walk ever end?!!  Yes…in homicide.

 

The music definitely captures a ‘disoriented person in a confused world that he can’t accept.’  The music begins by evoking a grand, epic duel.  It then twists into a sense of ridiculous hopefulness, making Bigelow appear as if he’s skipping along.  The music then turns again – an ‘end of duel’ tone that resolves upon entering the Homicide Office.   

 

The Noir motif is set.  An existential, duel-with-life-itself crisis awaits Bigelow.   Get ready for a leap of faith into the absurd.  For when asked “who was murdered” Bigelow holds a long, long, long pause, as if he himself cannot believe the absurd words he is about to utter: “I was”.

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"I want to report a murder."

 

"Whose murder?"

 

"Mine."

 

I mean it can't get much more noir than that. Talk about the absurd. Even if you haven't ever seen this movie before you can almost predict O'Brien is going to same something that ridiculous. I love that the Captain shuffles through some papers and then says "Tell them we found Frank Bigelow," like he knows the story already. Everybody just accepts this crazy premise.

 

The maze of corridors sets up a caged in feeling -- there is no escaping the absurdity of Bigelow's claim. He's gonna die and we all know it.

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The opening of DOA is a long walk through a corridor that shows a bleak place with no way to go. The long shot is just triple dipped in bad **** and influental in the opening scene of Touch of Evil, in my opinion. We didn't know where we were or what we were doing there but we were on a one way path to somewhere unfamiliar.

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Both Kiss Me Deadly and The Hitch-Hiker daily doses took place on the open road, usually a symbol for unlimited possibilities or freedom, although taking place at night, giving that sense of film noir slowly creeping in to highlight that darkness that will soon come crashing into our protagonists. Caged also started on the road, but in a city, and enclosed in a darkened prison van. Freedom is at our fingertips but just out of reach. With D.O.A., Frank is inside, walking along a seemingly endless hallway. There is no sense of freedom here, as he heads further and further into the cavernous, bland building that seems almost bereft of people. He is single minded of purpose, walking steadily, as if marching to the gas chamber. Once we discover his reason for being there, and the fact that he has so little time left, it's curious he does hurry along faster, to be able to tell his tale before it is too late. But the adage of "saying it aloud makes it real" would seem to apply here and Frank is in no hurry to make his situation more real. The long walk symbolizes almost an acceptance of his fate as he keeps pushing forward, past people who barely give him a second glance. To Frank, this is everything, to them it's just another day at the office.

 

Funnily enough I kind of thought of the afterlife in terms of Frank's journey here. He's heading through this dark tunnel towards a white light. Right before he turns into the homicide division, there is a glass window, perhaps even doors, that take up the entire wall and behind that glass was a white light. Before he could go through the pearly gates however, he had to give an account of himself. The detective knows who he is once his name is given, almost expecting him, and asking him to give his last words as it were. If you believe in an afterlife, and that Frank has almost made it to the light, this would contradict the sense of pessimism or hopelessness the scene should be instilling in you. Or perhaps I'm just using a "glass half-full" type of reasoning.

 

D.O.A. is a perfect fit for film noir, as what better dark fate awaits a man than knowing the clock is running out, that he has been murdered and there is nothing that can save him? It's a great story, which has been used countlessly over the years. Just off the top of my head I know episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Person of Interest which used this situation as a plot. The flashback structure found often in film noir, is given an even darker twist as we know that Frank is dying and that nothing he says will change it, but we still need to know how this came to pass. The opening, like Caged and others we have seen, places us in Frank's shoes as we follow behind him on his journey. We don't even see his face until he answers who was murdered: "I was". Once he has spoken those words, the steely façade crumbles a bit as he becomes a bit panicked when the police don't seem interested in hearing the details right away. Once he starts his story however, a look of resignation falls across his face, a final acceptance of his fate. Ending the clip with the water going down the drain gives the impression that even as Frank is finally able to tell his story, the life continues to slip from him and will soon be gone.

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Note, there are some spoilers herein.  But a spoiler should not ruin a good story, if you really like a good story!
     If The Third Man (1949) is my favorite all-time film noir, this one runs a close second.  Really, it’s almost an equal.  I have to take off some points because of some instances of overacting (which I accept in film noir, to a point), and the whoo-hoo kazoo sound when Frank Bigelow was checking into his room at the St. Francis Hotel, a real hotel that is still standing on Union Square in San Francisco.  I understood that this was supposed to represent what Frank Bigelow was thinking as he saw all the single dames in The City (the proper nickname for San Francisco) as he was in town to party with the girls away from his fiancée back in Banning, California, which, to put things in context, is a small town just west of Palm Springs.  Saying he was from Banning was like saying “I am from the smallest, most insignificant town in my state, the one stuck out in the middle of the desert.”  No wonder he wanted to get a way to The City, where it was cool, sophisticated and there were plenty of single women with whom to have fun.
     Of course, a man seeking such pleasures was transgressing the moral (Production) code of that time, especially when such a man had a loyal and undoubtedly virginal fiancée who was waiting for marriage back home in Banning.  This is probably the real reason he had to die, from a film production code standpoint.  Characters who transgressed the moral code had to be killed off or punished according to the Production Code.  He should have stayed in Banning with his fiancée and married her if he wanted to have sex with a woman.  In any case, he was from a miserably hot, small town at the edge of the Mojave Desert, so he had to get away.  This helps us understand why he needed to get out of town for a vacation.  
     But back to some relevant comments: I do love this film for all its little flaws because it really does discuss those kind of things about the human condition–as all good films noirs do–that tended to be swept under the rug as being unpleasant, uncomfortable or distasteful, yet are really what life is all about.  In a film age such as today that glorifies violence, particularly in its forms of revenge, adultery, betrayal, murder, dishonesty and the like, while trying to pass it off as justified, films noirs stand apart from today’s films because they look at these subjects, but never try to justify them as being the right way of doing things, on the contrary.  There is a moral code in film noir, which I will argue comes from the production code, and that from the value system that most Americans held at that time.  Crime and other offenses are wrong, they are never justified, but films noirs also showed us circumstances to help us understand why these things take place.
     The essential shots in D.O.A. that illustrate what I am talking about are those that take place after Frank Bigelow understands that he has been poisoned and will die.  In essence, why should we care?  People die all the time.  The U.S. had just gone through a war in which millions of innocents were murdered.  What of it?  That’s life.  That’s just they way things are.  Who is Frank Bigelow and why should anyone care?  That is all answered when a little girl’s ball comes bouncing into his hands, after his long panicked run, and the little girl appears.  He looks at her with a sorrow–good acting, good that they caught it–in his eyes.  Then a young woman comes into frame, waving at her lover.  He looks at her again with a sad realization that he will never have a life, his is ended.  All that he could be has been done in.  And why?  We find out later.  Because he did his job and notarized a bill of sale.  
     Death is a reality, it’s part of life.  But to murder someone is a transgression, an offense that takes what belongs to a person–his or her life–and destroys it.  A murder victim does not even have the right to his or her death from old age, after living all he or she could.  Someone else decides their life is more important.  In any case, in that moment in the film, one understands why murder is a crime and why we should care about it.  That murdered man, Frank Bigelow, could be us.
     Of course, we could look at the existential elements of this film: why do we live, why do we die.  What purpose does our life have.  This film is an allegory for how we enter the world and have no purpose or meaning because death awaits us, etc., etc., etc.  But this is what makes this a good film, like any good story, it is multifaceted and makes you think of many things, and about our own human condition both on a personal level and on a collective level.  What has always struck me about this film is how it shows evil: it’s suave, beautiful, selfish, and brutal.  It lives only for itself–egotism is the substance of evil.  And it destroys innocents.  Evil is a threat to people like Frank Bigelow.  And if it is a threat to people like him, it is a threat to all who are like him: people who just want to live their lives, enjoy their lives and live it out fully.  Evil is a threat to us all.
     This is a common theme in film noir: decent people who try to be moral in an immoral world.  This is an essential quality of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.  Perhaps a particular film noir does not focus on them, but the character is always there.  For instance, in Double Indemnity, the film focuses on MacMurray’s and Stanwyck’s characters, but there is Edward G. Robinson’s character who cares about the right thing and pursues them in his own way.  Even Holly Martins is a moral character, as weak as he is as a human being.
     So what impresses me about this film is how it shows so clearly why murder is evil and what it is to experience it.  And through it, all humans should still try to maintain their moral center.  We are good people living in a corrupt world.  Films noirs try to tell us how to deal with this corruption without losing ourselves in it.

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Each film opens in the night, or in the dark.  They each have someone who is in trouble and needs help quickly.  The open with mystery, a forceful mystery and suspense that keeps the audience guessing and enthralled.  The man reporting his own murder is a shock for an opening sequence.  How could this man have been murdered when he's sitting there now very much alive?  What  no one knows is that he may be dying at that moment and he only has so much time to speak his peace.  He's there at homicide to give his testimony and the man in charge looks at him like he's a suspect of another kind.  The scene begins to go back in time to when everything started and ends there.  Maybe someone else made a report about Frank Bigelow, that labels him a killer.  That could be a possible explanation for the reaction of the homicide squad.  Not only does he have the attention of the man in charge, but he has the attention of the whole squad as he relives the events leading up to this moment.  We don't know how the lead detective knows who Frank is, just that he has something on him. 

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As the credits roll for this film, "DOA", we see the silhouetted back of the figure of a man striding purposefully down a long corridor- a corridor which, as if in a nightmare, seems to have no end. He keeps striding but never appears to get any closer to his objective. This view from the back gives the impression that this story will be told in retrospect, a method often employed in films noir. The music sets a tone of foreboding, and the  lighting and austere  interior create a cold, clinical, impersonal atmosphere. As the figure passes by other men along the way they all appear to be preoccupied and not to notice him, reinforcing the impression that he is an outsider intruding into a place where he doesn't belong. We sense his alienation and pessimism as he finally arrives at an area where men are seated at desks and yet they still pay him no mind until he asks to see, "the man in charge". As he enters into another office and announces that he would like to report a murder, the somewhat apathetic occupant asks him, "Who was murdered?" and he replies, "I was."  Finally at this point we see his face, we see the confusion and disbelief when the detective knows his name. We can hear the resignation in his voice as he begins to relate his story.  In all of the film openings for this weeks "Daily Doses" we are introduced to characters who, for various reasons, must impose themselves into the lives and worlds of others, dramatically setting off shifts in the courses of those lives. They are all demonstrative of the existential theme of randomness in films noir, shattering our concept of order, structure and control of our destiny.

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Like all this week's opening scenes, once more we have the public facing a dark reality of uncertainty. Who is this man walking through long corridors? What does he want? What's his motivation of doing that? We have much more questions than answers.

 

And when the man reports a murder talking about himself, we see probably the highest point in anyone's life of despair. Altough he is alive, inside he feels that because of some terrible thing that happened moments before. Again, here the world is faced by the character in a complete pessimistic way. There is no hope, no blue skies, not a rainbow in the end of the yellow brick road.

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I just listened to the DOA podcast and was reminded of something when viewing the film. Am I the only person who found it really distracting and mildly irritating that Edmond O'Brien says "Paula" so many times. He must have received a cash bonus every time he said it.

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I find "D.O.A." really fascinating for a variety of reasons. I think the premise is very interesting--a man is poisoned and only has a limited time to solve his own murder. I can only imagine how Frank would be feeling, and thinking of myself in that situation filled me with a lot of the dread that Porfirio wrote about in his article. This one and the scene from "The Hitch-Hiker" I could feel the most dread watching. In both scenes these men's lives are in danger, but the men in "The Hitch-Hiker" have a chance of surviving. We know that Frank is going to die no matter what.

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I just listened to the DOA podcast and was reminded of something when viewing the film. Am I the only person who found it really distracting and mildly irritating that Edmond O'Brien says "Paula" so many times. He must have received a cash bonus every time he said it.

 

As much as I like the film DOA (mainly because the story is so good),  the scenes between O'Brien's character and Paula were weak and poorly acted.

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Edmund O’Brien stars in both The Hitchhiker and DOA. The audience doesn’t get a glimpse of the faces of Frank or the hitcher until both decide to reveal who they are- the hitcher by way of gunpoint and commands to “keep driving” and Frank by way of revealing himself as the murder victim. I don’t know about Kiss Me Deadly, but I definitely notice a similarity between DOA’s opening and Laura. Both movies establish the central protagonist as “dead” at the very beginning of the movie with powerful lines of dialogue.

 

Like the beginning of caged, pointillism is central in the composition- the entrance and hallways of the police dept. which Edmund O’Brien’s Frank Bigelow enters through. The audience doesn’t get a glimpse of either protagonist until after the credits and both protagonists are doomed from the very beginning of the movie- Marie by prison and Frank by death. His state of mind and alienation are perfectly represented by the mise-en-scene. There are only dark, bare hallways with no other people or open doors in sight. There is only a singular path that leads to one destination straight ahead- no detour, no escape.

 

 

Frank Bigelow is a prototype of the Hemingway hero, (as well as the noir hero) “to whom something is done” (being poisoned), “[a] loss and an awareness of it” (knowing that death is inevitable and there is only enough time to tell his story). Any other man would probably be panicking, frantically demanding a cure, or might commit suicide. But, because of the noir code (as well as the production code), none of these are viable options. Instead, Frank continues, free of the fear of death, dignity intact.

 

 

Just as described in enters Robert Porfirio's article, No Way Out, Frank Bigelow serves as the existential noir hero maintains “a stubborn perseverance despite the absurdity of existence”- in this case, being a man who is slowly dying from poison, “a recognition of the community of men; an obsession with social justice”- in this case, making a determined march into the police dept. in order to tell his story before his time is up.

 

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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?

 

Every opening is surprising and attracts our attention. Viewers are dropped into a middle of a strange situation, we are trying to catch up and find out what is really going on.

Blind faith affects us all, everyday we can easily face death. The protagonist are on the road and their future is not bright and clear. It's a road to nowhere and death might be or actually is behind every corner.

 

What are some of the noir themes and motifs that are being explored in this film's opening scene?

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

 

There is a very long sequence presenting a silhouette of a man walking through many dark hallways – we don't see his face, we don't know why he's walking and where is he going. It takes some time and then a bombshell – he enters a homicide department and says simply he was murdered. Surprise, you're dead. And the detective is not as surprised as we are.

Frank Bigelow is a living corpse right now and we can only imagine how he felt. It's not the kind of resignation Swede presents. Frank is still fighting, if not for his life, then for justice – he wants to nail those who did it. The man is doomed, terrified, but not resigned completely. Maybe he just seeks for absolution before he dies? Or just people – he doesn't want to die alone. If he tells his story, his death won't be that unimportant and his side of the story will be heard. And written. Non omnis moriar?

Frank Bigelow is a typical existential non-heroic hero, a Hemingway type – the man „to whom something has been done”. He faces the imminent death and that forces him to sum up his life, to examine his conscience, explain himself. Just like Walter Neff in „Double Indemnity”. That allows him to keep dignity being in a hopeless position.

 

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A typical Dragnet type opening.  Long hallway, cold feeling, unidentified man walking into the homicide department for unknown reasons.  The scene has a documentary feeling as the movie begins.  Of course, when we meet our main character we are surprised by the fact that he is declaring his own murder.  Certainly a new twist to the noir film.  The flashback will not be anything new but rather a familiar technique for noir films.  The opening sequence definitely sets a tone and increases the audience's curiosity about the rest of the film.

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