By Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #11/12, 1983
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson
Rudolph Maté’s memorable film noir thriller, D.O.A. (1949), concerned an innocent man who suddenly realizes he’s been murdered with a slow-acting and irreversible poison, and who becomes desperate to learn who committed the crime, and why, before the foul chemical reaches its course. Well-acted by Edmund O’Brien and Pamela Britton, the film was aided immeasurably by Ernest Laszlo’s moody black and white photography, as well as by an effective musical score composed by Dimitri Tiomkin.
By the 1940’s, Tiomkin had established himself as a first-rate film composer. Born in the Ukraine, he was taught the piano by his mother. Tiomkin later studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, emigrating to Berlin in 1919, where he eventually performed as solo pianist with the’ Berlin Philharmonic before moving on to Paris where he performed in a piano duo with another Russian pianist he’d met in Berlin, Michael Kariton. The pair did well enough to get an offer to tour America in 1925, which eventually led to Tiomkin’s composing for films. His career took off impressively when he scored Frank Capra’s lavish LOST HORIZON (1937), and more than a hundred film scores followed until Tiomkin’s death in 1979. His musical career included notable associations with Capra (which also included MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, and others), Howard Hawks (RED RIVER, THE THING, RIO BRAVO, others), and Alfred Hitchcock (STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, I CONFESS, DIAL M FOR MURDER). Tiomkin also created a noteworthy niche in the Western film, particularly in the usage of the theme song, as in HIGH NOON and GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL.
D.O.A. tells of Frank Bigelow (Edmund O’Brien), a notary public, and Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton), his secretary. They also happen to be in love, although Frank is having doubts about his feelings and decides to take a vacation to San Francisco to think things out. While there he visits a nightclub, The Fisherman, where a mysterious man in a striped scarf switches drinks with him. Frank wakes up the following day feeling ill. He goes to a doctor for a checkup, and is told the horrifying news that his body had absorbed an irreversible poison, Luminous Toxin. Given only a few days to live, one doctor adds, ominously, “You’ve been murdered, Mr. Bigelow.”
Tracking down clues to Los Angeles, Frank eventually discovers that he has been poisoned because he notarized a bill of sale for a businessman named Eugene Phillips. Phillips had been sold a shipment of Iridium, a rare metal, and Frank had notorized the sale. Phillips, in turn, sold the Iridium to a man named Majak (Luther Adler), who is revealed as an underworld gang leader whose partner sold the material to Phillips in the first place. The Iridium turned out to be stolen, and Phillips was arrested. His bill of sale was missing, and he could not prove his innocence. Phillips tried to contact Bigelow to corroborate his story, but can not reach him either at his office or his San Francisco hotel room. Meanwhile, Phillips is killed, the crime disguised as a suicide over his arrest. Frank was poisoned so that he would not reveal his copy of the bill of sale, and thereby prove Phillip’s death not suicide and, eventually, Majak’s involvement in the Iridium theft and frame-up of Phillips. “All I did was notarize a bill of sale,” Frank mutters in tragic irony after relating his story to detectives. At last realizing that he loves Paula, he collapses, the poison having run its course. “How shall I make out the report?” one of the detectives asks his captain, who replies: “Better make it Dead On Arrival.” The film ends with the bold D.O.A. stamp emblazoned over Frank Bigelow’s file.
D. O. A. is scored very much in the leitmotif style that was popular in the 30’s and 40’s, and which Tiomkin favored in many of his film scores. The thematic structure of D. O. A. is quite simple, however, constructed around only two major themes, but a great deal of interplay is accomplished between these themes, as well as other minor motifs, all of which provides a powerful and passionate underline to this poignant and suspenseful thriller.
The main theme is also the film’s love theme, introduced over the main titles. Not identified initially as a love theme, the music opens thunderously, with booming timpani matching Frank Bigelow’s footsteps as he strides purposefully through the myriad corridors of the Los Angeles Police building. After a repeated, three-note brassy fanfare, the main theme is introduced as a dramatic, yet melancholy descending theme for strings. Four notes, echoed by the same four and a lower fifth note. The music slows as Bigelow pauses to inquire directions from one of the building’s inhabitants, then resumes its previous strength as Frank marches down more hallways while credits continue to flash by. The music slows again, and then ends resolutely as Bigelow arrives at the Homicide Division office and walks in. He comes to report a murder. “Who was murdered?” the detective inquires. “I was,” Bigelow responds. His subsequent recollection of events for the detectives forms the story portrayed by the film. It’s a dramatic means of introducing the story, and it makes the events even more passionate and tragic, for we know the outcome. Even though he’s still walking around, Frank Bigelow has, in fact, been murdered, and his fate is secure. Tiomkin’s music mirrors this tragedy, especially in the poignancy of the love theme as it emphasizes the hopeless romance between Paula and the doomed Frank.
After its initial introduction as a strident, dramatic Main Title motif, the love theme, arranged for lilting strings, underscores an early scene as Frank and Paula discuss their relationship. A jazzy, moody Big-Band arrangement of the same theme is heard from a jukebox as Frank and Paula continue their conversation in a nearby coffee shop.
Frank arrives in San Francisco in the midst of Market Week, a major business convention, and checks into the St. Francis Hotel. Gorgeous women abound everywhere, and Frank notices them with keen interest. Tiomkin accompanies his appreciative stares with an amusing, sliding woodwind “wolf-whistle,” growing in urgency as Frank eyes more and more of the plentiful vixens. Obviously he’s come to San Francisco for entertainment.
Frank phones Paula from his hotel room, distracted occasionally by the raucous tango music emanating from the room across the hall. Tiomkin accomplished an effective contrast between the loud party music (heard whenever the camera shows Frank talking on his phone) and the string love theme (heard whenever the camera cuts to Paula talking in her bedroom). The interplay nicely counterpoints Frank’s party mood against Paula’s more serious, romantic mood. A similar type of thematic interplay is accomplished in later scenes, especially after Tiomkin introduces what I will term the ‘Poison Theme’.
This is an eerie, shimmering motif from reverberated vibraphone under furtive, distant, up-and-down string notes. It is first heard when Bigelow wakes up in his hotel room after partying with his hotel neighbors at The Fisherman, where he is secretly poisoned. He wakes up feeling badly, and calls room service for something to drink. When the waiter brings it to him, Frank stares at the glass as the poison theme is introduced. He recalls the odd taste of his drink the night before, and suspects that his discomfort may be more than simple indigestion. The poison theme continues as Frank journeys across town to have a doctor check him. After the examination, the motif returns to emphasize Frank’s shock as the doctor informs him he’s been poisoned. Bigelow, refuting, storms out of the office as frantic string tremolos follow him as he forces his way to see a second doctor. Again the poison theme shimmers in as the second doctor gives Bigelow the same diagnosis, adding to answer Frank’s misunderstanding: “You’ve been murdered!” Discordant strings accentuate Bigelow’s horror. The discord segues into a loud passage for strings, brass and glissando harp as the panicked Bigelow races through the streets, finally emerging into a dramatic, concerto-like piano arrangement of the main theme.
The love theme and the poison theme are constantly playing off each other throughout the score. A good example is another telephone conversation, this time when Paula calls Frank shortly after he returns from his fateful doctor visit. Paula misunderstands Frank’s distracted attitude as disinterest in her, and the music accentuates this contrast as in the earlier phone scene, with the love theme heard whenever the camera cuts to Paula’s end of the conversation, illustrating her romantic thoughts, while the poison theme is intoned when Frank is shown, dramatically representing his preoccupation with life and death, underlining the unspoken tragedy that has come between them.
Frank confronts Marla Rakubian (Laurette Luez) who he believes is shielding the man responsible for poisoning him. Another phone conversation between Frank and Paula utilizes a similar interplay. After Frank has traveled to Los Angeles in an attempt to discover the reason for his poisoning, he receives a call from the concerned Paula. He feels a sudden pain in his stomach, and the poison theme shimmers in. Recovering from the discomfort, Frank tells Paula that he misses her. As the camera cuts to Paula’s happy reaction, we hear the love theme, accompanying her feelings. The love theme then remains, even when the camera cuts back to Frank, until the music turns more urgent, as Paula informs him what she’s found out about Eugene Phillips and the bill of sale.
Later, when Bigelow is held by Majak and his hoods, a cockey young crook named Chester (Neville Brand) derives pleasure out of slugging Frank in the stomach. The poison motif resounds ominously as Frank recoils in pain, Chester’s blows increasing the ache from the slowly brooding Luminous Toxin. After escaping from Majak’s gang, Frank returns to his hotel to find Paula waiting there for him. A lilting arrangement of the love theme accentuates their meeting, until a brief snatch of the poison theme intrudes as Frank is torn between his now-assured love for Paula and his desperate desire to solve the mystery of his own murder. The poison theme is also heard later when Stanley Phillips, Eugene’s brother (Henry Hart), is found to have been poisoned by the same Luminous Toxin.
A third leitmotif is associated with the killer, Halliday (William Ching), and is drawn from the jazzy night-club music first heard in The Fisherman when Bigelow is poisoned. The music is reprised in dreamy, distantly echoed wisps as Frank returns to his hotel room after meeting a sexy, willing blonde at The Fisherman (it had been she who unwittingly distracted him when Halliday switched his drink). She’s given Frank her phone number and as he prepares to dial it and fix up a cozy evening for himself, he notices a vase of flowers sent by Paula as an affectionate surprise. The dreamy jazz music then mingles with their love theme (heard in soft string tremolos) as Frank decides to forego the cheap thrill. He tears up the phone number and goes to bed, thinking of Paula. This sequence does not specifically refer to the killer or the act of being poisoned, but inasmuch as the blonde was an indirect contributor to Frank’s poisoning (having distracted him with her good looks), the use of the killer’s motif is appropriate.
The second occurrence of the motif is heard the following morning, when Frank wakes up feeling miserable. The dreamy, echoed jazz music sways seductively as he gets out of bed, until it is supplanted by the poison motif – the killer’s phrase being overcome by the results of his action, the eerie theme which is associated with Frank’s imminent death from Luminous Toxin.Later, when Frank pursues the killer to Los Angeles and finds himself the target of a hidden gunman, he chases the sniper with a pistol he’d taken from Majak’s moll. The sniper evades him in a large warehouse, but Frank finds a matchbook lying on the ground where the gunman had been. Picking it up, he reads the nightclub name on the matchbook cover: The Fisherman. Again the dreamy echoes of nightclub jazz sway over the soundtrack, reinforcing the identity of the gunman, and underscoring Bigelow’s awareness of this and his desperation to apprehend the man and solve the mystery before his time runs out.
Finally, the killer’s motif is reprised as Frank confronts Halliday in Phillips’ office building (L.A.’s Bradbury Building, noted subsequently for its appearance in BLADE RUNNER), now aware he is the killer. As Halliday emerges from the office and sees Frank waiting for him, realizing the game’s up, the nightclub jazz echoes distantly, confirming for us that Halliday is, indeed, the poisoner.
In addition to these three deftly-used recurring themes, Tiomkin has provided a number of compositions for other sequences which are equally as effective in capturing the right mood, if remaining isolated from the conceptual themes of love, death and murder as embodied by the trio of leitmotifs.
After Frank has received the horrifying news of his poisoning from the doctors, he runs through the streets, confused, frightened, uncertain what to do. He pauses at a street corner, looking about with a sudden appreciation for life cruelly awakened by the awareness of his impending demise. A ball bounces toward him, pursued by a small girl, who smilingly retrieves it and goes her way, joining her happy mother; a light scherzo accompanies her entrance and exit as Frank stares, acutely aware of her gaiety. A romantic Viennese phrase escorts an embracing couple who meet on the street corner for some engagement, lovers reunited as Frank watches helplessly, aware of the tragedy that will keep him and Paula apart, forever. Snatches of lives going by, carefree, unaware of Frank’s despair. This brief scene does much to illustrate Frank’s sorrow and regret towards his imminent doom before being overcome by the passion of finding his killer (and O’Brien performs in poignantly), and Tiomkin scores it with light, airy fragments of music, embellishing the carefree life Frank has already lost. It’s a subtle irony.
Deciding on a course of action, Frank strides away from the street corner, moving faster as he goes. Staccato string notes match his footsteps in traditional “mickey-mouse” fashion, speeding up into a full classical symphony sound as Frank walks rapidly through the streets, halting abruptly in front of The Fisherman, distressed to find it closed until late evening. The music, now silent, reinforces, by its absence, his dismay.
A walking motif, comprised of two-note footsteps similar to those in the opening title scene as well as in the scene just described, is provided when Frank arrives at Phillips’ office building in Los Angeles and strides through the halls. An incidental cue for low strings and piano is heard as, Frank questions Halliday and then Phillips’ widow. An effective swirling woodwind motif, retaining a slight Egyptian or Hungarian flavor, underscores the wealthy connoisseur and art collector, Majak, when Frank is taken to his elegantly-decorated home. Turned over to the cocky Chester with a sentence of death, Frank is driven out towards a secluded spot by the eager gunman. A suspenseful cue for strings and brass, under higher woodwind, builds in tempo and register as Chester drives through the crowded streets on the way out of town; panic-stricken string notes erupt in a flurry as Frank escapes and runs into a drugstore. Chester follows, firing his gun blindly, accompanied by a loud action cue for strings and harp glissandos, until being resolved in an abrupt conclusion as Chester is shot by a passing cop.
When Frank confronts Phillips’ secretary and brother, demanding further details, Tiomkin maintains a string vibrato until Stanley Phillips walks in, ill from the effects of Luminous Toxin. A long, low horn tone emphasizes this sudden shock, until the poison theme overwhelms it. From there Frank visits Mrs. Phillips again and finally threatens the truth from her (she and Halliday are accomplices in framing her husband); an urgent cue for strings and woodwinds bristles as Frank sees Majak and his hoods heading for the Phillips apartment. A snatch of the poison theme segues in and out, and an effective three note, repetitive motif for piano and strings accompanies Frank’s escape from Majak. The music rises in tempo and pitch as the gangsters take chase, concluding as Frank finds safety on a public bus.
Arriving back at the Phillips’ office building to find Halliday, frenzied, triumphant yet full of urgent anxiety. Frank’s approach is heralded by string flurries. As he confronts Halliday in the hallway, another “mickey-mouse” walking cue is heard, pounding piano in sync with Frank’s determined cadence and perhaps suggestive of his pounding heartbeat at the climactic moment of justice and retribution, exploding into a frenzy of piano, strings and harp as Frank chases and shoots Halliday down in the shadowy office building.
The scene dissolves back to the detective office as Bigelow finishes his story. When he falls to the ground, dead, a climactic swirl of brass and percussion follow his collapse, supplemented by a two-note fragment (the first two notes) of the love theme from the strings, dissolving into silence as the detectives ponder the tragedy and close the case-file. The music returns in a moment with a soft, solo violin version of the love theme, overcome by louder, low string tones as the D.O.A. stamp throbs against Bigelow’s file. Then the love theme reappears in a full orchestral version for the end titles.
D.O.A. remains an outstanding example of film noir filmmaking, that evocative and moody 1940’s style of cinema emphasizing stark, shadowy black and white photography and hard-hitting, cynical characterizations, and is particularly moving due to its unusual concept of an innocent man investigating his own senseless murder, racing to do so before the poison runs its course. The musical score by Timitri Tiomkin is equally effective in building a proper underscoring mood, as well as embellishing in a dramatic way the film’s conceptual themes of ill-timed love and tragic irony.