Film opens with doomed Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) approaching the arcaded facade of the Los Angeles City Hall.
Seen from behind, Frank Bigelow walks down seemingly endless, shadowy, tunnel-like corridors.
He enters the Homicide Department of the Los Angeles Police, where he reports a murder – his own murder. Bigelow’s story is told in continuous flashback, ending in his collapse and death surrounded by detectives. The Homicide Chief instructs his clerk to note Frank Bigelow as “Dead on Arrival.”
His story opens on a scorching July morning in Banning, California. Bigelow, an accountant, is meeting with one of his clients, a hottie who comes close to draping herself over him. Bigelow’s jealously possessive secretary Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton) is visibly annoyed – a state of mind shared by Bigelow, the object of Paula’s fervid affections, as she threatens to quit her job and leave her boss to his own devices, in protest of his insistence on embarking on a weeklong vacation in San Francisco – without her. However, Bigelow (who, it turns out, is a real horndog) feels that Paula’s secretarial and sexual services out-weigh her irritating passive-aggressive behavior and he employs Irish charm to keep her from quitting.
Succumbing to Bigelow’s over-the-top blandishments, Paula gives him a melting, besotted gaze (the likes of which we don’t see again until the brief reconciliation of John Belushi and the mad Carrie Fisher in the Chicago sewers). Paula agrees to not quit her job. Attempting to further mollify his useful secretary/sex-partner, Bigelow invites Paula to Eddie’s, the local tavern, to cool off while he awaits the train that will take him to San Francisco … and where, like a broken record, Paula again begins haranguing Bigelow to take her along on his get-away. He refuses.
In July, Banning experiences temperatures approaching the high 90s, and Paula exults in the refreshing chill of Eddie’s tavern, expressing the wish that that Bigelow’s office could be refrigerated.
Not “air conditioned” but “refrigerated.” When I was a youngster, “refrigerated” was the term commonly used to describe artificially chilled public spaces. I recall seeing signs on commercial buildings (banks, movie houses, department stores), boasting that their rooms were “refrigerated.” Private spaces (residences) depended on swamp coolers.
In the bar, we get the first glimpse of an important motif: drinking a glass of alcohol. Paula sips her glass of beer and exchanges her nearly-full glass for Bigelow’s empty glass. This inconsequential act foreshadows the fateful switch of liquor glasses in the San Francisco bar, in which Bigelow is given the fatal dose of “luminous toxin” (some un-named radioactive substance).
Not depicted in the film is Bigelow’s journey between Banning and San Francisco, with a brief stop to take on passengers at Los Angeles Union station, here shown from its parking lot, circa 1940s.
Los Angeles Union Station: note the air of peaceful prosperity.
Post-war California enjoyed a booming economy and a generally law-abiding populace. It was common to leave cars unlocked, with vehicle registration documents in the unlocked glove compartment.
Later in the movie, Frank Bigelow leaves his gun in the unlocked glovebox of his rented open-top Buick convertible … parked on a busy street.
Bigelow would have spent the train ride (from Banning to the Bay Area) in a comfortable car, in the company of well-dressed travelers, men and women both wearing suits. They were not “dressed up” for “a special occasion.”
Southern Pacific rail car with bar and business travelers enjoying their journey
During this period in America’s history, ordinary travelers (whether by airplane, by rail car, even by Greyhound bus) un-selfconsciously wore suits. It was normal and expected: to do otherwise would be considered indecorous.
Woman’s 1948 suit and hat, typical high-end street wear. Hair was carefully combed and arranged.
Street scenes in D.O.A. show many woman in suits and woolen coats; remember, the action takes place in July, and San Francisco is chilly in the Summer.
In San Francisco, Bigelow arrives via taxi at the St. Francis, a swank hotel. Money is not a problem for Bigelow: he is a successful and affluent businessman.
Note another mode of available San Francisco City transportation, the streetcar, which shares the city streets with new-model automobiles. Later in the movie, in the Los Angeles City scenes, we see city busses. In 1945, National City Lines, a front group for GM, acquired the Los Angeles City streetcar system and converted many of its lines into bus routes, with the long-term goal of reducing public transportation and getting everybody behind the wheel of their own personal automobile. For various reasons, this plan to increase ownership of private automobiles did not proceed as rapidly in San Francisco.
Again, note the dress of the people on the sidewalk: unless it is a workman in his work uniform, everyone is wearing what used to be called “street clothes” (now called “office wear”). At that time, it would have been extraordinary, a sign of madness, for even a poor person to walk down the street dressed like a scarecrow, with hair like straw blowing in the wind.
The well-heeled Bigelow checks into the St. Francis Hotel suite he has reserved. One hundred dollars in 1949 would purchase what would take two thousand dollars in 2022. Bigelow’s suite at the St. Francis probably set him back about $100 for the week of his planned vacation. (Today, you can reserve a similar suite at the St. Francis for about two thousand dollars a week.) Bigelow made liberal use of room service and long-distance calls through the hotel switchboard, tipped generously, took cabs, and – in the course of this misadventures – flew from San Francisco to Los Angeles, where he rented a new Buick to pursue his killer. Bigelow pays cash for everything.
Q: Why doesn’t he flash his plastic instead of his cash?
A: D.O.A. was released in late December, 1949, and the first credit card (Diner’s Club) was introduced in 1950. The world of D.O.A. was a pay-as-you-go world.
Toward the end of the movie, Bigelow asks Paula how much money the business has in the bank. She answers: twenty-two hundred dollars, today’s equivalent of nearly a half-million dollars. (This might make you wonder why Bigelow’s office is equipped with a fan, not refrigeration – has he decided to not make improvements because he is planning a flit?) Apparently, Paula is a signer on the checkbook or on the safety-deposit box: Bigelow instructs Paula to withdraw all the money. She asks if they are going to just not pay the bills; Bigelow tells to not worry about that, but to buy herself a mink coat. Paula reasonably asks Bigelow if he is drunk!
In 1949, when D.O.A. was filmed, a mink coat such as this 1949 high-fashion Fur by Fredrica would have cost the equivalent of about $100,000 today. Of course, a rabbit-fur jacket from Sears would have cost far less.
Seventy-five years ago (before emerging nations flooded American markets with shoddy clothing made by slave-labor), store-bought clothing was made by union-labor and was relatively expensive. Using commercially-made patterns (manufactured by Vogue, McCall’s, Butterick’s, and Simplicity), many women stitched their own clothing or employed the local dress-maker. Today, it is common for Americans to have dozens of articles of clothing: closets bulge with cheap clothing. But 75 years ago, wardrobes were carefully edited, and clothing was constructed of natural fibers, made to last for years.
Even suits aimed at the working-class/lower-middle-class market (such as these dreary suits featured in the Montgomery Ward’s 1947-1948 mail-order catalog), although uninspired in design, were well-constructed in union sweatshops and offered the purchaser good value for money.
One obvious difference between low-end and high-end design: less expensive outfits used less fabric. Compare these 1947-1948 Montgomery Ward suits to the previously shown 1948 couture ensemble.
Today, the lifespan of a typical woman’s top (shoddily constructed of cheap and flimsy synthetic material) is very short indeed: the second-hand stores and the landfills are full of these sagging rags. But, in 1949, American consumers had not yet entered the Throw-Away Era, and well-made, natural-fiber clothing was the norm.
When Bigelow checks in to the St. Francis, he is told that “Paula Gibson from Banning” has called. Bigelow instructs the concierge to have the switchboard call Paula back and to put the call through to his room phone.
Although in 1949, there were thirty million telephones in America, direct dial long distance was not available: the first direct-dial long distance call took place in late 1951. Bigelow’s long distance phone call (San Francisco to Banning) had to go through a number of long-distance operators stationed in separate buildings at various geographic locations.
The long-distance phone calls between Bigelow and Paula had to go through a number of long-distance operators inn various locations, like this telephone company switchboard, circa 1948
The flurry of phone calls placed between Paula and Bigelow are expensive – but (in the age before cellphones, texting, instant messaging, and emailing) the telephone offers the only way they have to quickly share information.
Paula has no idea that Bigelow is dying of luminous toxin; she is just thrilled to be talking with him, long-distance. Paula and Bigelow could have sent telegrams back and forth somewhat more cheaply than calling long-distance, but without the immediacy and convenience of telephoning: even though, in 1949, long-distance calls had to be patched through switchboards, telephoning offered a quicker means of communication.
Ensconced in his hotel suite, Bigelow takes the first of many long-distance calls from Paula while quaffing a scotch. Throughout the movie, Bigelow is seen frequently drinking … but never eating.
Bigelow finds that his swank hotel is rife with gorgeous, very well-dressed and attractive women. It’s “Market Week,” a San Francisco tradition: the annual week during which representatives (traveling salesmen) from important fashion manufacturers meet with department store buyers (all highly-fashionable women). Bigelow is thrilled. He is invited to join a party in the room across the hall. There, booze is flowing and women are dancing, wiggling their hips suggestively. Bigelow is delighted; he is drawn into a rumba, and then dragooned into accompanying the group of merrymakers to a jazz bar at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Speed-fueled, frenzied jazz-musicians
It is a wild scene: the musicians and the flailing clientele obviously on amphetamines. Montaged close-ups of their faces look demonic. Their speech and their clothing mark them as members of the contemporary counter-culture: “beatniks.”
New York City and San Francisco were capitals of this sociocultural movement which provided lurid fodder for the movies, as seen in this poster for the 1959 movie The Beat Generation.
Hot jazz was the preferred music of the beatniks who, in poetry and novels, scornfully expressed their contempt for “squares”: law-abiding, work-a-day citizens.
Ironically, albeit respectable and affluent, the hard-drinking horndog Bigelow is essentially akin to the anti-establishment beatniks in that his outlook is nihilistic, as is theirs. This points up the invisible rot in post-war American culture.
Jazz-fan’s hair is worn loose and untidy, signifying her loose and sluttish nature (according to the mores and standard proprieties of the times). The couple’s facial expressions signify their dissolute characters.
The clientele of the jazz bar are obviously under the influence of amphetamines. Stimulants had been routinely given to military men during WWII and, after the war, were marketed as “diet pills” and “mood elevators.”
Abuse of these “pep pills” was very common during this period, especially amongst “the beat generation.”
Benzedrine, Dexedrine, Methadrine, and other pharmaceuticals were easy to obtain both from doctors and from friends and easy to become addicted to.
End result in many cases: pharmaceutical-induced psychosis.
Bigelow is not pleased to find himself in such a loud and dissolute venue, where the regulars literally speak a different lingo: incomprehensible beatnik slang. Bigelow tries to pick up a blonde in a mink, Easy Jeanie, who likewise speaks a language of strange slang. She is enjoying the music and refuses to go with him. While Bigelow is distracted, a mysterious tall figure surreptitiously switches Bigelow’s drink for one which he has poisoned with luminous toxin; he then withdraws.
The mysterious man in the checkered topcoat skulks away after poisoning Bigelow’s drink.
Bigelow takes a drink, grimaces, complains that it’s not his. The bartender insists that it is Bigelow’s drink: “You saw me pour it.” Bigelow takes another swallow and then rejects it, ordering a fresh drink. Two swallows of the luminous toxin is all it takes: Bigelow is a walking dead man.
Even before Bigelow unknowingly drinks the luminous toxin, he is on a suicidal course: a heavy drinker, a womanizer stuck with an annoying mistress whom he does not love and who desperately wants him to marry her and give her children, an affluent man whose life seems to be rudderless and without purpose, Bigelow is an empty husk of a man. Even before his death sentence, he is essentially dead, a traveler trekking through a nihilistic wasteland.
Bigelow returns to his hotel and goes to bed. In the morning, he orders a Corpse-Reviver (hair of the dog that bit him), but cannot bring himself to taste it when it arrives. He leaves and makes his way to a Medical Building.
The doomed man walks into a doctor’s office and is immediately examined. No appointment, no wait for insurance authorizations: simply show up and pay cash up front.
Later in the movie, Bigelow hops on an airplane to go to Los Angeles in search of his killer: no full-body search nor public xray nor public stripping off of belts and shoes and jewelry in public places like airports and court houses such as we have been subjected to since 9/11; no forced masking nor covid passport such as we have seen since the plandemic … none of these assaults on body-autonomy were in place in 1949.
These details point up the fact that mid-century America was an era of personal freedom which is today almost unimaginable: Americans today are little better off than Chinese slaves under constant surveillance. And where is the outrage? We see only simmering discontent in the Right and blind acquiescence in the Left.
At the Medical Building, the doctor takes x-rays and examines him. A specialist enters with the results of his lab-work. Bigelow’s prognosis: he is doomed. He has only a few days to live.
Bigelow hysterically rejects the doctors’ judgement and runs wildly out of the office and down busy Market Street. This scene was not okayed in advance with city authorities, hence the authentically surprised reactions of many of the pedestrians as Bigelow rushes past them.
These pedestrians are not extras: they are actually real denizens of San Francisco out doing their morning shopping. Note their clothing: they are not “dressed up” but are wearing typical “street clothing.”
Note also the total absence of homeless drug-addicts living on the sidewalk. That societal phenomenon is dimly foreshadowed by the pep-pilled fueled beatniks seen the previous night in the wild jazz-club scene presciently hinting at the full social collapse which is to manifest 60 years in the future.
Bigelow frenetically pushes his way into another medical office and wrestles with an orderly. When Bigelow says “luminous toxic,” the doctor takes him seriously and immediately conducts lab-work. The diagnosis of the first doctors is borne out by the glowing fluid in the test-tube: it is Bigelow’s blood, irredeemably contaminated with luminous toxin. Bigelow is a walking dead man.
In case you have not yet seen this movie, I do not want to spoil it for you by revealing further plot. As you watch this movie, I urge you to enjoy it on several levels: as an entertaining thriller (fiction) and as a window into a vanished America (fact).
Thank you, and check back soon for more movies and analyses.