A primer on how to begin a movie: A man with a story to tell staggers into a police station. He says, “I want to report a murder.”
“Who was murdered?”
The hook is in. It worked in 1949, in a taut little film noir called D.0.A. It still works in 1988, although those opening lines of dialogue and the film’s basic premise are nearly all that are left from the original.
That basic premise has a man discovering that he’s been fatally poisoned, then spending his last 48 hours trying to solve his own murder. There’s no antidote, no hope of survival, just the the grim satisfaction of learning the reason for his own death.
In the 1949 film, Edmond O’Brien played the doomed hero, a small-town businessman overwhelmed by the terrors of the big city; a victim of circumstance. In the new D.0.A. screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue (who also penned the excellent remake of The Fly) has completely changed the milieu, and invented a new set of explanations for the poisoning.
Here the central figure is an English professor (Dennis Quaid, doing solid work) at a Texas college, who ingests the “toxic luminous solution” at some point during a drunken evening. When he learns he’s been mortally wounded, he enlists the aid of a sympathetic student (Meg Ryan, Quaid’s co-star in Innerspace) in finding out whodunit.
He can’t imagine why anyone would kill him – “My Mark Twain lecture drove somebody into a homicidal rage?” – yet there are possibilities everywhere: his estranged wife (Jane Kaczmarek), two colleagues (Daniel Stern, Jay Patterson), the school’s strange benefactor (Charlotte Rampling) and her unstable daughter (Robin Johnson).
As it turns out, the fun comes less from trying to guess the guilty party than from watching the flashy storytelling of directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel. They’re the British team who invented that ultimate computer creature, Max Headroom, and their first feature film shows an admirable measure of energy and audaciousness.
Some of it, inevitably, is busy visual noise, but a lot of it is just plain exciting moviemaking. As the film moves toward its resolution, you may notice the color slowly fading away to black-and-white, like the blood draining from the dying man’s face.
And they add a layer of redemption to Quaid’s investigation; he’s a once-promising author who’s been dead to the world and dead to his talent for a few years. The prospect of real death, ironically, has him feeling alive again.
Actually, Pogue’s script is a bit too obvious on this point, and some of the film is overwritten. But he also gives the characters some nicely twisted ’80s-noir dialogue, and he gets to indulge in some whiplike irony, as when Quaid is menacingly threatened, and can only smile: “What’re you gonna do – kill me?”
First published in the Herald, March 1988
I liked this movie, and was surprised when nobody else did. Will it look too 80s-flashy and mechanical now? Not sure, but one thing is certain: Almost nobody ever talks about this movie.