restricted access 4. D.O.A.: Fatality, Sexuality, Radioactivity
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4 D.O.A. Fatality, Sexuality, Radioactivity It’s the drink that you don’t pour Now when you take one sip you won’t need any more You’re small as a beetle or big as a whale—BOOM!— atomic cocktail —“Atomic Cocktail,” Slim Gaillard Quartette (Gaillard, 1946) Pickup on South Street is both an atomic espionage and anti-anticommunist noir, since the top-secret microfilm that Skip McCoy purloins from Candy’s purse, which is related to the production of the A-bomb, has itself been purloined by the Reds. Yet if it’s true that the stolen microfilm in Fuller’s film is something of a MacGuffin, the nuclear subtext of Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. (1950), at least from an atomic perspective, is even more oblique and overdetermined so that from another, generic perspective (say, the classic investigative narrative of film noir) it’svirtuallynonexistent,ananamorphictrickorhallucinatoryfigmentofthefilm’s paranoid imagination. In this, D.O.A. foreshadows Kiss Me Deadly, in which the latter film’s motivating device, the “Great Whatsit,” is a riddle-like rebus. While the stolen iridium in D.O.A. is more immaterial than the microfilm canister in Pickup on South Street and less apocalyptic than the Pandora’s box in Kiss Me Deadly, it nevertheless evokes, as in Fuller’s and Aldrich’s films, a determinate structure of feeling, a postwar world defined not simply by the lingering fear of radioactivity and the lure of unfettered sexuality but by the mushrooming dread of instant annihilation: “Boom!” * * * 96 ’50s Noir in the Atomic Age In American Bomb Cinema Jerome F. Shapiro records that D.O.A. was “completed about two months after Joe 1,” the United States’ code name for the first successful Soviet atomic test, on August 20, 1949.1 Like the first post-Hiroshima “nuclear noir,” The House on 92nd Street, which was released a little over a month after the bombing of Hiroshima and which was “revised at the last minute” to make the “secret ingredient of the atomic bomb” the object of the Nazi secret agents’ quest,2 D.O.A. capitalizes on the conventions of the semidocumentary film—“actual locations” and “natural light”3 —that were ascendant in film noir at the time. The neorealist look produced by Ernest Lazlo’s “hard-edged, documentary photography” is fused in Maté’s film with a Germanic sensibility that echoes the origins of classic noir.4 In fact, D.O.A. was loosely based on Robert Siodmak’s 1931DerMann,derseinenMördersucht(TheManWhoSearchedforHisMurderer), which was co-written by Billy Wilder, the narrators of whose Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. (1950) are, respectively, dying or dead. (Maté himself began his career as a cameraman in Weimar cinema, photographing, among other things, Carl Dryer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc [1928] and Vampyr [1932].) “Nuclear angst made itself felt in films of all genres after Hiroshima,” according to Nicholas Christopher, “with a notable infusion of hysteria after the 1949 Soviet test.”5 However, the difference between, say, sci-fi and film noir is that in thelattergenrethe“samenuclearangstisrepressed,introverted,rechanneled,and not nearly so containable, much less resolvable, in the physical world.”6 In other words, in ’50s noir the discourse of the bomb becomes internalized, subjectivized ; the consequence is a collective “atomic” neurosis in which the symptoms are dread, anxiety, and, in particular, paranoia. One of the causes of this free-floating formation was what Austin M. Brues, a “memberoftheadvisorycommitteeoftheAtomicBombCasualtyCommission, aHiroshimaresearchcentersetupbytheAtomicEnergyCommissionin1946to study bomb survivors,” called the “mystery” of radiation.7 While Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) in D.O.A. does not feel the physical effects of the radioactive toxinthatheaccidentallyimbibesattheFishermannightclub,exceptforamysterious “belly ache,” not only does the toxin kill him sooner rather than later, but the film becomes more expressive the closer it comes to its grim conclusion (“Dead on Arrival”). Hence the surprise of the postscript, which abruptly reverts to the veridical language of the semidocumentary: “The medical facts in this motion picture are authentic. Luminous toxin is a descriptive term for an actual poison. Technical Adviser. Edward F. Dunne, M.D.” Given the picture we have just watched—full of sound and fury, signifying nothing—this postmortem reads like a sick joke or gallows humor. “D.O.A. is funny,” as Jack Shadoian says, “like Kafka.”8 At the same time, if in retrospect the 97 D.O.A. whole notion of a “luminous toxin” seems improbable, not to say fantastic, what appears tobeapurelyexpressionistdevice actuallyhasabasisinreality,sincethe toxin in D.O.A. is...


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