Though best known for his roles in A-list, revisionist westerns like Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH (1969) as the rotten toothed old codger Freddie Sykes, and John Ford's classic THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962) as an alcoholic newspaper man, American actor Edmond O' Brien distinguished himself in two superlative films noirs a decade earlier. In these inventive B pictures D.O.A. (i.e. 'Dead on Arrival') and THE HITCH-HIKER, O' Brien is perfect as two of the most abused film noir 'heroes' ever, benefiting from the direction of two atypical helmers: ace cinematographer Rudolph Mate and the British born actress Ida Lupino respectively get their chances in the director's chair and make massive contributions to the category of low budget crime drama.

D.O.A. (1950)

Written by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene, Directed by Rudolph Mate

Brisk, energetic and delirious, D.O.A. has all the qualities one could hope for in a film noir, and then some. This story of small town businessman Frank Bigelow, who gets a fatal dose of poisoning and spends his final days hunting down the culprits, is a high concept one, and the picture begins on a note of grim irony: beginning at the tail end of the story, we see Frank rush into the homicide department of a police station and report a murder - his own. This iconic scene gives way to one of subtle disquiet: flashing back to where the story really started, we see Bigelow's attempts to get away from his clingy, homely girlfriend/secretary as he decides to take some time for himself in the big city of San Francisco and its temptations (women, jazz and booze). We can understand why, and the stolid performance of Pamela Britton in the role of his nagging lady actually helps the film, making Bigelow's abrupt shift from the country to the city more believable. Of course, this sets up a country/city opposition standard to classical American film, equating this with innocence and vice respectively. After being poisoned, Frank learns the error of his way and - yeuch - lets his bird know about how wrong he was. But this pacy film gets that out of the way quite concisely, and it's easy to see the picture's real raison d'etre: Bigelow, the man with nothing to lose, also has nothing to fear, and in taking on the role of detective, this average man gets to go around busting heads, taking names and putting pressure on shady types who know more than they're letting on. O'Brien plays the part with zeal, and seems to relish the role of pursuing his forceful and extremely undiplomatic quest: at one point the dying investigator barges into a widow's home and asks her as to why her husband topped himself; the urgency of his quest justifies making the woman cry, and this conflict between him and the rest of the world is darkly and wickedly amusing.

Naturally, given that he's dying slowly, it's not all plain sailing for Bigelow. As he heads to the doctors for the fateful checkup, the overexposed daylight seems altogether too much. The film's lighting puts across a sickly, harsh atmosphere and Rudolph Mate's magnificent grasp of injecting drama and atmosphere via light and shade (he spent most of his career as a highly regarded cinematographer) allows us to share Bigelow's disquiet as he senses something's not quite right. Upon getting a second opinion on his "uridium poisoning" (nothing to do with the famous Commodore 64 game!), Mate pulls out all the stops: as a panicked Bigelow bolts through the streets, the fluid and mobile camera follows him all the way. A magnificent feeling of delirium is injected into this sequence. Combined with the feat of filming on real locations - as opposed to within the confines of a studio - the film benefits from a stunning level of hyper-realism: the film looks more 'real' than most of its time, and also gives us a great approximation of Bigelow's 'emotional reality', as versatile camera movement and evocative lighting is boldly applied to mirror extreme mental states. Perhaps the movie's greatest, longest lasting achievement is the feat of maintaining the fear level. In line with the proverb that a man without hope is a man without fear, it takes a lot to scare Frank. Though he seems nonplussed by the hitman sent after him, the leering Chester finds the seeker hero's weak spot. In scenes of real sadism, we see Chester (Neville Brand) jab his gun into Bigelow's belly - repeatedly. Frank winces every time and dreads the next peevish little assault. An exceptional nightmare of a film, D.O.A. has too many reasons to recommend it.


Written by Robert L Joseph and Ida Lupino, Directed by Ida Lupino

O' Brien getting put through the ringer and memorable villains are definitely the order of the day, and these traits continue - albeit in a different form - in Ida Lupino's cult gem THE HITCH-HIKER. Unlike D.O.A., this film didn't get the benefit of a glossy modern remake (D.O.A. was remade in the same name, in 1988 with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan) but its restrictive settings, clammy atmosphere and all round bleakness are echoed in Mario Bava's similar RABID DOGS (1977), which ups the stakes by being set in a car for 90% of the film's length. This story of a murderous hitcher called Myers (William Talman) who abducts Ray Collins (O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) in their car and forces them to help him escape from Mexico, cranks up the tension from the beginning and succeeds by substituting macho posturing and heroism with an emphasis on the harrowing situation that average guys Collins and Bowen suffer. Though another Myers would become one of the more iconic and popular screen villains in HALLOWEEN (and then such a repetitive drag in the sequels), the Myers in this film is far better fleshed out. Early glimpses of him in the film are restricted to tight shots of him from the knees down. The cryptic cinematography and stalking nature of the character add a real edge to the proceedings, and Emmett Myers first full appearance is not a disappointment. When we first see him in the full he looks shifty, and viewers might not be able to pin down exactly what is askew about this gun-toting killer in terms of facial features. As will be explained later on, he has a paralysed right eyelid, which will neither open fully nor close properly. Not only does he appear shifty, especially with his sweaty visage and increasing stubble as the film progresses, but this also contributes to some moments of supreme suspense: when the men sleep at night, they cannot tell if Myers is awake and looking at them, or asleep and oblivious. To see them grapple with the idea of legging it at night is extremely nerve racking.

THE HITCH-HIKER might not have the bravura cinematography of its companion piece on this DVD, D.O.A., but it doesn't really need it. As at least half of the film unfolds within the confines of the car, it relies more on evocative close ups - of which there are plenty, especially of the much suffering O'Brien - performances and highly competent writing. He explicit threat posed by Myers builds slowly and peaks at unexpected moments, as when Bowen drives over a bump on the dusty Mexican road, leading to a suspicious Myers to lash out suddenly and surprisingly. Suspicion soon leads to paranoia, as Myers - who cannot speak Spanish - makes his captives speak only in English to locals when they drop off at a bar, in case they alert for help. A truly nasty character, Myers gets increasingly sinister as the film races along, forcing as he does Collins to strip off, so that they can swap clothes (so that should any trigger happy police come across them at night, the coppers might mistake Collins for the villain). This humiliation for the Collins character causes an already petrified character to break down. Indeed, every close shot of O'Brien allows us to see the pain and the fear etched on his sweaty and unglamorous face. The shooting practise sequence, when Myers forces Bowen to shoot a can of beans from Collins' hand, William Tell style, is another nerve shredder. Like the previous film, THE HITCH-HIKER was shot on location; as far away from the manufactured studio look typical of the time as is possible, it is gritty and grimy when the action leaves the car for the desert, making the experience far more authentic and credible. In an entirely untypical manner, we see absolutely zero in the way of heroics and the film is better for it: the focus on the terror of what is happening, and the loss of nerve of its protagonist, are more than worthy substitutes. All of the principles involved should be belatedly commended for pooling their efforts into crafting one of the most unsettling and intense thrillers of the '50s.

Review by Matthew Sanderson

Released by Acme DVD
Region All - NTSC
Not Rated
Extras :
see main review