Viewer Guide: D.O.A. and Childless with Richard Peña

March 30, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.

REEL 13 CLASSIC | D.O.A.

Edmond O’Brien, center, in D.O.A.

This week’s classic is the 1950 film noir D.O.A., starring Edmond O’Brien and directed by Rudolph Maté.

A good example of a Hollywood “independent” film—financed outside of the studio system with the hope that it would be acquired and then distributed by one of the majors—D.O.A. takes the widely cited fatalism of film noir a step further: in the opening scene, an otherwise totally unremarkable accountant named Frank Bigelow, played by with a peculiar manic energy by Edmond O’Brien, walks into a police station to report a murder—his own. As so often in noir, we slide into a flashback that will reveal over its course the twisty turn of events that have led Bigelow to make this startling announcement.

A couple days earlier at his office in Banning, California, Frank was wrapping things up before taking off on an impromptu vacation to San Francisco, a development which doesn’t sit well with his secretary Paula, who also happens to be his girlfriend. Paula doesn’t understand why Frank wants to go away by himself, but watching Frank ogle whatever attractive woman enters his line of vision, we understand he’s not quite ready to commit to Paula. Checking in at his San Francisco hotel, Frank discovers the hallways are hopping with partying executives. It’s the last day of a convention, and Frank soon joins in the merrymaking, traveling down to a fisherman’s Wharf hot spot to enjoy an evening of frenetic jazz and who knows what else.

Constantly flirting with various women at the club, Frank doesn’t notice when his drink is switched by a mysterious man at the other end of the bar. The next day, Frank wakes up with what he imagines would be a hangover—but somehow he knows it’s something else. He goes to a nearby doctor to get himself checked out, and just when he’s getting ready to head off on holiday, the doctor’s report arrives. Frank must face the greatest challenge of his life—if he ever hopes to get back home to Banning.

D.O.A. was made at a moment when Hollywood was increasingly incorporating aspects of the neorealist style made world famous by the Italian cinema a few years before. The extensive use of location shooting might have begun as a budgetary decision for this under-capitalized indie, but it also gives the film a far more realistic feel than comparable studio productions of the era, as well a serving as a fascinating time capsule of San Francisco and Los Angeles in the late 1940s. The famous sequence when O’Brien leaves the hospital and runs breakneck through the streets of San Francisco was actually filmed without permits, and you can see the looks of unrehearsed confusion on the faces of pedestrians as the well-known Hollywood star jostles through the crowds. Similarly, the drugstore shootout in LA transforms an actual location into a dynamically expressive stage set.

Director Rudolph Maté was perhaps best known as a cinematographer, having worked with such major talents as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, William Wyler and Fritz Lang, to name just a few. But it’s his astonishingly beautiful work on Carl Theodor Dreyer The Passion of Joan of Arc in 1928 that will guarantee his name will be forever on the list of the greatest artists who ever pointed a camera. In 1969, D.O.A. was remade in Australia as Color Me Dead, and in 1988, Hollywood tried its luck again with D.O.A in a film starring Dennis Quaid that managed keep the basic premise while drastically changing many plot points and characters.

REEL 13 INDIE | CHILDLESS

Childless

This week’s indie is CHILDLESS, a 2008 drama written and directed by Charlie Levi.

Untimely deaths are always tragic events that generate much emotional turmoil for surviving friends and family members. They also can function as strange catalysts for often unwanted reunions, bringing together a disparate collection of people who may no longer be in close contact or even on good terms with each another. Such is the case in Childless when the teenaged Katherine dies under cloudy circumstances that seem to point to an accident or a suicide—or perhaps a bit of both.

As they gather for her funeral, the key adult figures in Katherine’s life reflect back on their relationships with her, as well as their entangled relationships with one another, all relayed to the viewer in a series of interchanging to-camera monologues. There’s Katherine’s father Richard, played by Joe Mantegna, a successful house-builder who’s still trying to get over his break-up with Mary, played by Diane Venora, a free-spirited painter. Barbara Hershey plays Richard’s sister Natalie, a high-end real estate broker who’s tiring of her restless life of privilege and trying to rekindle her marriage to Harvey, a globe-trotting diplomat played by James Naughton. For Katherine’s mother, Edith, the funeral only serves to dredge up years of bitterness and resentment. And in a touch of magic realism, presiding over it all is Katherine herself, played by Natalie Dreyfuss, offering her own confessions on the circumstances of her death, as well as insights on the adults of her life who are now all “childless” for one reason or another.

The “funeral movie” genre can be traced back through many films throughout Hollywood’s history. Sunset Boulevard was an early pioneer in the technique of utilizing the voiceover narration of a dead character, providing an effective means of dramatic foreshadowing while simultaneously offering narrative exposition and character detail that wouldn’t be possible in a straightforward narrative chronology. And of course, The Big Chill set the contemporary standard for funeral reunions stories, which provides filmmakers with a tried and true plot device to bring together a group of characters who might otherwise never want to be in the same room.

Although uniformly praised for the strength of its performances, a few critics asserted that the monologue structure of Childless might in fact be better suited for the stage than for the screen. Indeed, asides to the audience have been a staple of theatrical spectacles since at least the time of the Greeks. Yet writer-director Charlie Levi uses the monologue not merely as a convention, but really as a means to highlight the strangeness of the situation, the sense of people clinging to their own spaces and views despite being together at a gathering. Even the dead Katherine seems more interested in scoring points against others than revealing the truth of her short life.

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