Frank Bigelow, told he's been poisoned and has only a few days to live, tries to find out who killed him and why.
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Following the end of the second World War, a time period rife with cynicism and paranoia, American society was confronted with the emergence of advances in nuclear weaponry and the possibilities of rampant destruction or even total annihilation. As a result, tensions of the general population were elevated and people began examining their own personal life values and the influence of these exterior forces.
In the film D.O.A., there are many references to this through allusions which serve to represent this early type of preoccupation with nuclear fear and panic. Through the main character’s quest for freedom, we can observe his views and false ideas of what freedom truly means. In conjunction with these observations, the audience can relate to specific social symbols, which serve to represent the idea of what constitutes true freedom.
In the beginning of the film, we observe a common characteristic of film noir since the film starts in medias res (in the middle of things) and we learn that Frank, the main character, has been murdered. When the flashback occurs, we see Frank’s anxiety as he explores his pursuit of meaning and freedom. After Frank helps a woman (who appears to be attracted to him) with her paperwork, his girlfriend Paula begins to argue with Frank about his intentions for leaving for San Francisco. Frank mentions, “I just want to get away from town for a few days,” while Paula replies, “I thought by now we’d be married.” Clearly, Frank has the ability to get married, have a wife and family, but would rather be alone. This indicates how he has a fear for marriage because he believes it will restrict his freedom. While Frank is in San Francisco, he gets involved with various women. At times, Frank can be confused but at other times he is able to act rationally as when he realizes that one of these women is married and he shows restraint and becomes disinterested during a party at his hotel. In the scene when Frank learns that he has luminous poison and will die within days, he is shown running in the streets in an attempt to find the killer. This suggests his desperate state of mind and his attempt to avoid his anticipated death.
Ultimately, the film is about a way of looking at what freedom means. Frank is presented with many choices, such as instead of choosing to stay home and marry Paula, he decides to escape (run away). This represents a negative type of freedom as we recognize Frank’s plight which results in an empty, meaningful life. Through these types of constraints, we see the idea of freedom becoming a major responsibility and the burden it places on Frank’s endeavors.
As we see the representations of negative freedom, the symbolic examples of positive freedom provides a stark contrast. While Frank leaves town and begins his quest, he encounters many women such as Marla, Jeanie, and the wife of the salesman. These women depict a world full of pitfalls and dangers and are shown in bleak, manlike qualities and also as exotic figures. These instances are juxtaposed with the repeated scenes when Paula constantly calls Frank. She is shot in high-key lighting, and displays motherly characteristics. For Frank, it is only after his death when he begins to understand the positive results of freedom. We see this when the two thugs force Frank to talk on the phone with Paula to tell her he loves her. Also, when Paula comes to see him and tells her again, how much he loves her, it suggests that Frank is beginning to grasp and understand life’s meaning. While he is talking anxiously about how he has to go, he stops and tells Paula that he likes the dress she is wearing, which seems to be an arbitrary and random observation. This implies that Frank begins to learn about the things which make life meaningful and impact his existence.
As we see Frank struggle through his difficult quest of finding meaning in his death, we become absorbed in this complicated plot. This involvement references the world being centered on personal life, where people stop trying to understand and unravel life’s mysteries. The film aspires to high tragedy because Frank discovers true freedom only minutes before his death. Finally, we see him grasp and understand the necessity of time during the last scene with Paula as he recognizes his error in judgment by tying to escape the meaningful elements of his life. In the end, he recognizes the things he should have embraced and utilized to have achieved a more positive life and final outcome.