American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Are we in the middle of something new here? Are thrillers abandoning supermen and embracing everyman? For a decade or more we’ve had the spectacle of the violent man of action, smashing everything that stands in his way. The only question was how long it would take him to kill everyone he didn’t like. But lately, now, there’s been a return of a quieter, more intriguing kind of thriller in which ordinary people get caught up against their will in mysteries they don’t understand.
“D.O.A.” is a movie like that in which a college professor learns he has been poisoned and has 24 hours to live - 24 hours to find his killer. Look at some other recent titles. In “Masquerade,” Meg Tilly plays a la-de-dah rich girl who falls blissfully in love, unaware that she is surrounded by a pack of vipers. “Frantic” stars Harrison Ford as an American doctor whose wife is kidnapped from their Paris hotel because of a baggage mixup at the airport. In “The House on Carroll Street,” Kelly McGillis overhears a conversation and is plunged into the midst of Nazi schemes.
What all of the movies have in common is that the hero is passive and wants only to be left alone. But other people have other plans, and the hero is swept along by the tide. This is, of course, the classic definition of film noir, those 1940s thrillers in which ordinary people discovered the evil that lurked beneath the surface of society, and “D.O.A.” itself is inspired by a 1949 thriller starring Edmund O’Brien.
The plot is irresistible from the first frame onward. A man staggers into a police station to report a murder. A cop asks him who was murdered. “I was,” he says. The man is a college English professor (Dennis Quaid), who has been told his body contains a radioactive substance that will give him only 24 hours to live.