D.O.A (1988 remake) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

My first reaction to hearing about a movie remake is nearly always: why? However, although the responses ere well-rehearsed by and large, they are not always specious. Films have always been remade and while it speaks to rampant artistic timidity and a callow, risk-averse sense of the commercial, there are plenty of examples where this has also paid off artistically too. Warner Bros shot three versions of The Maltese Falcon between 1931 and 1941 and did it best on the final try. There is no real reason why a movie text can’t be revisited, the same way that a novel can be adapted over and over for TV or a great play given a new production. The 1988 D.O.A. is the third (official) version of the story and to my mind the most dynamic and successful of them all. And given its Christmas setting, this seemed like the right time to bring it up …

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.

“Nobody plots to kill an English Professor – we just don’t inspire that kind of passion” – Dexter Cornell (Dennis Quaid)

The story begins in classic Film Noir fashion with the sound of thunder added to the Touchstone lightning logo, here seen in black and white. We segue, still in monochrome, to shots of a rain-soaked street as a man makes his way to the police station. Our protagonist is very much the worse for wear, knocking over the desk sergeant’s little Christmas tree – but he has a story to tell and on a video camera the flashback begins, taking us back a couple of days as we transition to the heat of Texas in December – and to colour (or rather ‘color’ as it is written on a classroom chalkboard) …

Dennis Quaid in D.O.A. (1988)

In the 1980s and 90s several classic examples Film Noir got the remake treatment – Jacques Tourner’s sublime Out of the Past (1947) became the glossy Against All Odds (1984), with Jane Greer even making a cameo in a new cast that included Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward and James Woods. John Farrow’s The Big Clock was turned into No Way Out (1987) and is a terrific movie even though it changed the story and setting quite considerably. James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice got an (official) remake in 1981 starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange with a script by David Mamet; and before going on to remake Ocean’s 11 (and improving on the original quite considerably), director Steven Soderbergh also made The Underneath (1995), a sadly little-seen update of Robert Siodmak’s 1949 fatalistic mini-masterpiece, Criss Cross. And yet it seems to me that the most interesting, and most undervalued, of these various remakes and re-interpretations of classic 1940s movie texts is the 1988 versionof D.O.A. The  original version was released in 1950 and directed by Rudolph Maté from a script by the team of Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene and had previously been remade, basically using the original script, in 1969 (in Australia) as Colour Me Dead. The third version overhauls the narrative quite comprehensively and in the process ends up, in my view, being the one that makes the most of its basic underlying premise.

The story in fact has a truly memorable high concept hook: a man is fatally poisoned, there is no antidote, so he spends the remaining 24 hours he has left to live to discover who did it and why. It’s a wonderfully fatalistic Noir conceit and it’s what most people remember of the original version starring the iconic Edmond O’Brien (see this blog’s masthead if you don’t believe me). Along with the basic story idea the original film also has a great opening, which the 1988 version adapts pretty faithfully. A man dressed in black walks down a long series of corridors until he enters the Homicide office and then comes a truly classic exchange of dialogue:

“I want to report a murder”
“Who was murdered?”
“I was.”

Charlotte Rampling in D.O.A. (1988)

Novelist and English professor Dexter Cornell (Dennis Quaid, a little young for the role, despite attempts to age him slightly) who is beloved by his starry-eyed students (including an absurdly young-looking Meg Ryan, who was 26 at the time). He spends his day teasing Nick Lang, his precocious but overly serious star pupil and exchanging witty banter with colleagues and best friend Hal (Daniel Stern), but his life is a mess – his wife is divorcing him (a stunning Jane Kaczmarek, pre Malcolm in the Middle), disappointed with how he has turned to drink and let his talent and passion wane. Later that day Lang dies after falling from the roof of a University building. Dex, with Hal and his soon to be ex-wife, go to a University function,m attended by Lang’s sponsor (played by regular neo-noir siren Charlotte Rampling). It is here that Dex’s wife learns of Nick’s death, her shock augmented by a huge, Hitchcockian swooping circular camera move – it turns out she was having an affair with Lang. Dex is in shock and has a night on the town, gets drunk and wakes up in Ryan’s dorm, though it seems he was too drunk to make anything other than a few customary advances – in a great shot he looks out of her window feeling a little queasy and suddenly the camera hurtles downward and then we cut to an ultra fast camera tracking from under the building looking up at him in the distance – he goes to a hospital and discovers that he has been poisoned.

In the original, the reason for the murder is a rather banal one that no one can ever really remember (a bill of sale is the MacGuffin), but here it is used to create an existential nightmare in the style of Cornell Woolrich, one of screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue’s favourite authors. It would however be a massive spoiler to give it away. As Dex tries to retrace his steps and find out who poisoned him, he discovers that Lang was not only murdered but that Rampling sponsored his studies after the boy’s father was killed while robbing her house. It is here that the film’s main story takes a detour as Dex gets involved in the complicated and messy life of Nick Lang, leading to another half dozen corpses including, most tragically, that of his long-suffering wife. As the various plot strands are drawn together, via a rather Gothic interlude in a tar pit, the film slowly returns to black and white as the murderer is revealed and Dex is left to walk alone for the little time he has left.

There is more than a touch of Hitchcock’s movies here, especially in a long segment in which Quaid and Ryan are literally glued to each other (shades of The 39 Steps) and pursued by the murderer with a nail gun, though the flashiness of the direction of Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, best known as the makers of adverts and music videos, repays repeat viewings as masses of detail are revealed only on a second or third try. Their handling of the character scenes can also be quite sedate when required too, though it is sequences such as when Dex runs out into the open air after discovering he has been poisoned that continue to stick in the mind after the film is over. Equally impressive is the appropriately mournful music score by Chaz Jankel (the co-director’s brother) which combines a hip indie rock sensibility with a melodic sense well in keeping with the genre’s stylistic antecedents. Despite its inevitably morbid premise, this is a film about a person rediscovering their will to live and love just as this is being taken away from them and makes for a superior valentine to the world of Film Noir. It is well worth looking out for.

Charles Edward Pogue’s blog, Pogue’s Pages, has been dormant for close to a year now, but can still be accessed here: http://poguespages.blogspot.com

DVD Availability: Released quite a few years ago in a decent widescreen transfer sadly lacking in anamorphic enhancement, this is a title that deserves to be treated much better, ideally in HD on Blu-ray perhaps accompanied by the original 1950 version which is available in a variety of unsatisfactory home video versions after falling into Public Domain purgatory. [2015 update – the remake is now available on a region free Blu-ray in the US that is very reasonably priced (a double bill with Pakula’s limp Consenting Adults)]

D.O.A. (1988)
Director: Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton
Producer: Laura Ziskin, Ian Sander
Screenplay: Charles Edward Pogue (from a story by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene)
Cinematography: Yuri Neyman
Art Direction: Richard Amend
Music: Chaz Jankel
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, Jane Kaczmarek, Daniel Stern, Charlotte Rampling, Christopher Neame

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Cornell Woolrich, Film Noir, Texas, Tuesday's Overlooked Film. Bookmark the permalink.

49 Responses to D.O.A (1988 remake) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. curtis evans says:

    I saw this film in college when it first came out and thought it was rather good. Never knew about the original or even film noir back then! Oh, how things change. Enjoyed the review.

    • Hello Curtis, thanks very much for the comments. I’m not sure if I’d seen the original when this first came out either actually, but it’s one of those films that really seems to have stuck in the subconcious of many of my friends – maybe it’s the academic background or the fact that the plot all revolves around the grading of a paper …

    • PS By the way Curtis, congrats on your excellent blog – definitely one of the highlights of 2011.

  2. Colin says:

    You know Sergio, some of the best movie reviews are the ones that inspire you to go back to a film and view it again. I remember seeing this movie back when it was released, and didn’t especially like it. I was already familiar with the original, which I regarded (and still do) as one of the best examples of noir, and couldn’t quite see the sense in remaking it. That was my biggest problem; I thought the remake itself wasn’t bad but I just didn’t think it needed this revisit. I remember feeling much the same about No Way Out – although, having seen that many times now, I still maintain it’s not a patch on John Farrow’s original.

    Anyway, you’ve given this movie a great write-up, so much so that I very much want to see it again and reassess it. Over time, my attitude to remakes in general has mellowed to some extent. I still wonder why it’s considered necessary, especially if the first effort didn’t display too many obvious faults to begin with, but no longer see them as somehow damaging the reputation of the original pictures. The recent True Grit is a good example of a movie that I feel sits comfortably along Hathaway’s 1969 movie; both films kind of co-exist in a complementary way and neither really overshadows the other. Of course, the flip side of that is something like the Crowe/Bale 3:10 to Yuma, which I consider a travesty of a film compared to the Glenn Ford classic.

    Whatever, enough of my waffling – I need to track down a copy of the 1988 D.O.A.

    • Thanks for the comments Colin. I suspect I have a slightly higher tolerance for remakes than you though certainly if you look at the torrent of remakes that Hollywood has churned out in the last 10 years or so it makes for pretty dismal viewing (even the Coesn, who did pretty well with TRUE GRIT failed with THE LADYKILLERS in my view). Steven Sodernergh is a good example of a major director who has made a lot of remakes either as director (SOLARIS, TRAFFIC, OCEAN’S 11, UNDERNEATH) or producer (INSOMNIA, WELCOME TO COLLINWOOD, CRIMINAL) and who has usually managed to come out ahead. What I like about the 1988 D.O.A. is that it takes the premise and then does somethign very different – screenwriter CE Pogue did the same with his version of THE FLY and the sequel PSYCHO III so I never really felt that they trampled on the original but just took the premise and then made it their own, which is what a remake should do – otherwise, as you say, what’s the point? I certainly can go through life without ever having to rewatch Jonathan demme’s versins of MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and CHARADE and he is absolutely one of Amercia’s finest directors! Of late there has been so much remade dreck that it is difficult not to get a bit fed up though, I quite agree.

      • Colin says:

        Well, the remakes of The Ladykillers and The Manchurian Candidate were total failures and a waste of celluloid in my opinion. However, something that puts a different spin on a story and actually tries to do something original is worthwhile. It could be argued that the Coens’ Millers Crossing is a partial remake of The Glass Key, but it works and stands on its own merits.

        I don’t know if you’ve seen it but one recent remake that I enjoyed was Brighton Rock.

        • I agree completely, Miller’s Crossing is definitely a remake of The Glass Key in my view (or at least an uncredited adaptation of the original novel – hell, if you’ve read it, it even explains the whole business about the hat!). Having said that, I have never seen the original 1935 version of The Glass Key, only the Donleavy-Ladd-Lake remake (sic). I haven’t seen the new version of Brighton Rock but definitely plan to as I thought the basic concept of updating it to the mods and rockers era was a very smart one.

          • Colin says:

            Thanks for the tip off! I’ve never read The Glass Key (just seen the Ladd/Donlevy movie like yourself) but I have it in a very nice hardback omnibus of Hammett’s novels on my shelf – I’ll have to dust it off and give it a go soon.

          • Hope you like Hammett’s book – for me, truly, one of the great classics of the mystery genre.

  3. I have very fond memories of this film as the first “clever” film that I ever saw. Admittedly as the film progressed, the killer became more and more obvious – if memory serves, it’s a bit of a last-man-standing situation – but I really ought to watch this again. The tricks with the colour of the film really stuck in my memory.

    • Hello Doc, thanks for the comments. The villain does become progressively more guessable given the high body count, no question, though the motive is pretty hard to ferret out and remains a fairly original one it seems to me – and it really does look great, even on the barebones DVD that is currently available.

  4. curtis evans says:

    Sergio, thanks for the kind words on the blog.

    I definitely recall the grading papers business. And, sadly, that became my life! Well, without fatal poison, Meg Ryan and staple guns, which does make life more exciting, say what you will about the adverse consequences.

    You definitely made me want to check out this film again. Also the The Underneath. I never heard of that one at all. Criss Cross is one of my top five noirs, probably. The last twenty minutes of that film are some of the most unnerving cinematic moments ever for me.

    Agree that Miller’s Crossing IS The Glass Key.

    • Hi Curtis – I agree completely about CRISS CROSS, a truly nihilistic noir. Soderbergh used an interesting colour scheme for the film and for his screenplay I think went back to the original novel by Don Tracy as well as the screenplays by Daniel Fuchs, but I haven’t read the book so can’t comment. It’s not as good as the Siodmak but exerts its own fascination.

  5. iluvcinema says:

    The original was actually on TCM for NYE … I forgot how good it was. I have not seen this version in YEARS. I must have been an early teen when I first saw this with my dad. We watched it because he liked the original. From what I could remember, I think we both liked it. I might have to revisit this one. Charlotte Rampling is an awesome actress.

    • Thanks for the comments – I find the original so convoluted by the end that I usually find it hard to remember who is doing what to whom! And yet the central idea ia great and the opening and closing sequences are terrific, so it is in otherways a very memorable movie, no question. Deep down I think I prefer the 1988 version though, which is probably a bit heretical of me …

      • iluvcinema says:

        It does take a bit when you think you got it … you’re like “wait, there’s more?”

        • Colin says:

          I think the problem of convoluted plotting is one that applies to a great many classic era noir movies. Even a bona fide classic like Out of the Past is one confusing picture in terms of plotting. As such, some of these films may not really “work” for everyone based on a single viewing. The thing is that when you revisit them, with the plot hopefully a little clearer in your mind, you can spend less time puzzling over all the twists and turns or characters and concentrate instead on the great dialogue, the photography, the mood.

          • Definitely – Siodmak’s The Killers is another example of a film that seems straightforward and then keeps tying itself in knots as the story progresses. It does seem sometimes as if narrative ‘incoherence’ is part and parcel of the whole Noir experience. There is a big dofference between Out of the Past, which is just very complexly plotted, and say The Lady from Shaghai, which got seriously mangled in post-production so at to become basically impossible to follow (still a greta movie though). But I htink you are dead right, Noir is a movement rather and a genre and its the mood that is the most important thing. Having said that, I re-watched The Dark Mirror recently with a view to doing a post on it (probably next week) and was amazed by how much more linear it was than I remembered – but then it is probably fair to call it more of a conventional murder mystery than a fully fledged Noir.

          • Colin says:

            That’s right! Excellent little docu all round.

        • Yes, I agree, that feelinig that the plot is actually going to keep on going after all is defintely easier to absorb on a second viewing!

          • Colin says:

            Yes, the plotting of The Dark Mirror is less complex probably as a result of its being more of a conventional mystery. Also, there aren’t quite so many characters to try and keep track of. Still, the whole twins/duality/psychoanalysis angle means I’d rate it as noir. I look forward to reading what you make of the movie.

          • It is interesting how in Noir there are these fiersomely complex plots and yet a visual style that can to my mind be best described as a kind of experssionistic fairy tale atmosphere – I can never remember the detaisl of the plots of The Big Heat or The Big Combo but always remember them in my mind, thematically at least as twisted ‘Beaty and the Beast’ variants (if that doesn’t seem too fanciful …). It is the twisted psychology of the characters and the way that the style mirrors it that lies at the heart of the appeal I think, not so much who is doing what to whom

          • Colin says:

            Oh absolutely. The complex plotting of many a noir picture is really only a means of tying the protagonists up in a nightmare that’s further heightened by the visuals. Anyway, I think James Ellroy best summed up the essence of noir when he eloquently pointed out that it all boils down to the one simple fact: “You’re f*****!” 😀

          • I’d forgotten that hilarious distillation by the ever pithy James Ellroy – it’s in the Warners documentary Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light, isn’t it? Definitely want to watch that again …

  6. Yvette says:

    You will think me hopelessly beyond the pale, but I barely remember the Edmund O’Brian DOA. Probably because I never liked O’Brien. He was just too snarly and often too hysterical. Plus I found him terribly unattractive. Shallow of me, I know. 🙂 Although if I remember correctly, didn’t he have a good part in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA? Well, acceptable, anyway.

    I’ve never seen the Dennis Quaid version. But I did like him very much in THE BIG EASY and FAR FROM HEAVEN, so off to Netflix I go to see if I can line it up.

    And oh, by the way, this was a terrific review. Your enthusiasm for the film has convinced me it’s a must see.

    • Hi Yvette, thanks very much for the kind words. I do know what you mean about some of O’Brien’s performances, there is often a sweaty, hysterical quality about them unless he plays a character with humour, as he does in the likes of The Man Who Shot liberty Valance or Seven Days in May – and he is really good in his Oscar-winning role as the publicist in The Barefoot Contessa. However, O’Brien is definitely not in Lawrence of Arabia – is it possible you’re thinking of Arthur Kennedy? If you get to see the 1988 D.O.A. I hope it lives up to my hype!

  7. curtis evans says:

    Charlotte Rampling is always a good excuse to see a film.

    I agree too that the 39 Steps homage was clever.

    • The first time I remember seeing Rampling in a movie was her Bacall-ispired performance in the 1975 version of Farewell, My Lovely opposite Noir icon Robert Mitchum, projected on my wall in a surprisingly good Super 8mm print I rented (those were the days!) when I was just in my teens – and I was just sold from then on in. An extraordinary actress that can seemingly play any role!

  8. Yvette says:

    You are so right, Sergio. Sorry about the goof. But I can’t help thinking that origiinally Edmund O’Brien was supposed to get the part but was too sick at the time. Something like that. Who knows….

    Anyway, I’ve got DOA lined up on my queue. Can’t promise when I’ll see it, but see it I will. Next I’ve got all the Nero Wolfe shows with Murray Chaykin coming up.

    • Hi Yvette – sounds like I am not going to convince you about O’Brien anytime soon … The Chaykin / Hutton Nero Wolfe show, especially season 1, is a thing of true beauty however. Love, love that show – should have run for much longer.

  9. A fine review, Sergio. There’s so much more to it than just the film itself. I don’t know if I’ve seen this movie though it looks awfully familiar, like so many films suddenly seem to these days. I guess reading about overlooked or forgotten movies on various blogs has something to do with it. Dennis Quaid has a flair for intense roles and an ability to experiment, as he does in FAR FROM HEAVEN, a family drama with a twist. Remakes are fine with me, they take nothing from the original, especially if the original is better and they usually are.

    • Thanks Prashant – and I agree completely about remakes, well said, though inevitably when there is such a preponderance of poor ones it becomes easy to feel (even more) disenchanted with commercial movie-makers. For me the coming-of-age cycling drama Breaking Away, starring Quaid and (again) Daniel Stern, is still probably his finest work, with maybe The Big Easy as a crowd-pleasing second!

  10. Yvette says:

    Okay, found the link to the info about O’Brien being cast in LOA. He had actually filmed a scene before his heart attack forced him off the film and Arthur Kennedy was cast. I knew I wasn’t making it up. Jeez.

    Here’s the link. Sorry it isn’t live.

    Scroll down and check the cast list and you’ll see what I’ve been rambling on about. 🙂

    • Well how about that! Thanks for the info – I’ll retaliate by mentioning that at the British Film Institute (where I used to work) I once got to watch Albert Finney’s 20 minutes of screen tests as Lawrence, which were planned in such detail that Lean, when he shot the scenes with O’Toole months later, in many cases kept the same compositions, camera moves and moves for the actors, It allegedly cost £100,000 (back when that was a huge amount of money). Lots of details to be found on the BFI’s website here: http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/title/69994?view=synopsis – fascinating to imagine what could have been! Thanks Yvette.

  11. Yvette says:

    I see you mentioned one of my all time favorite films, BREAKING AWAY. I’d forgotten that Dennis Quaid was in that. Of course. He was wonderful. Hey, the entire cast was wonderful. They deserved one of those SAG cast awards.

    This is a film that should have won all sorts of awards. But don’t know that it ever did.

    I must remember to write about this movie on one of my Overlooked of Forgotten Film posts. Thanks for the reminder!

  12. Yvette says:

    Oh, and thanks for the British Film Institute link! 🙂

    • Shame there are no links to the footage – I have no idea if clips have ever been made available on video – I literally had to watch a 35mm print on a Steenbeck – it has been screened at special events I think …

  13. Skywatcher says:

    I saw the Quaid version before I got the chance to see the original Edmond O’Brien film. Whilst there is some very good stuff in the remake, I still like the first movie better. There’s a real pared down quality to it, and O’Brien’s non-leading man quality is ideal for the role he plays. He really is an ordinary guy, and the reason for his death has a horrible ‘man struck down by lightning from a clear sky’ quality. In the spare 83 minutes he goes from nobody to Nemesis, overcoming all obstacles to get his revenge, giving the film an almost unique upbeat/downbeat character. Like I said, the remake is not a failure, but it doesn’t have the almost unbearable tension of the original.

    • Hi there, and thanks for that – it’s about time someone stuck up for the original version ( I figured no one would pick the 1969 remake …). The original certainly deserves its place in the Noir pantheon though, barring the bookends and a few scenes like the nightclub poisoning, I always found it a bit flat too, especilly when compared with some of the equally deterministic Noir classics that Robert Siodmak was making around that time. But I do actually agree with your view of the original so I think it only comes down to a question of degree. But I definitely need to re-watch it – thanks again.


  14. Ela says:

    Chaz Jankel of Blockheads fame did the music? His music for the Blockheads was always rather overshadowed by Ian Dury’s lyrics.

    I remember this coming out when I was a teenager but was probably too young to go and see it! Excellent review.

  15. Colin says:

    Ok, I got round to seeing this one again last night. My verdict? Well, I enjoyed it, but with a few reservations. Firstly, I can see how the plot detour or red herring device does add to the nightmare quality of the whole thing, but I still felt it pushed matters just a little too far. Also, I wasn’t crazy about the scoring; there’s something about 1980s soundtracks that I can’t really get into.

    As for the positives, I liked the stylistic bookending of the movie in black and white. It’s an acknowledgment of the story’s noir credentials and fits the tone perfectly. I also thought that Quaid did a job of creating a character who’s pretty human, warts and all.

    So, a good movie, but I think I still prefer the 1950 version. Anyway, thanks for reminding me of this one and inspiring me to seek it out again.

    • Hi Colin, thanks very much for the comments and I’m glad seeing it was basically a positive experience. I do sometimes wonder that my own admiration for it may have been coloured by the fact that I saw this version first and the original version second – and it is a very 80s movie with its rock score and MTV style images. The one thing I do think, being as objective as I can, is that the along with the basic hook the remake has a more memorable basic storyline – but it does in many respects feel very different from the original. I will go back and re-view the original and post my comments on it – fair’s fair after all …


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  19. tom j jones says:

    Apart from anything else, it’s a great example of how much you can pack into the running time!

    Ironically, the Blu-ray version (which is one of those budget double-sided discs with another movie on the other side) is currently half the price of the DVD.

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