D.O.A. (1949. Directed by Rudolph Mat'e. Hal Roach Studios) - This is the original version of the classic film noir story about a man who's been slipped a fatal dose of poison and has a short time to solve the mystery of his own murder. Edmond O'Brien lumbers through the leading role with dogged conviction; he seems as surprised as anyone that a notary public would become an evil killer's target, yet that's what the story asks us to believe. The screenplay isn't very taut, and the plot twists seem perfunctory after a while. But the picture has a dark texture and a sense of inexorability that recall the best thrillers of the '40s, a banner decade for that genre. D.O.A. (1987. Directed by Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel. Touchstone Home Video) - In the '80s remake of this story, the victim belongs to another profession that's normally considered low on risk: He's an English teacher. But someone has poisoned him anyway, and he's determined to find the villain before his time runs out. Dennis Quaid makes a likable hero and Meg Ryan is appealing as his sidekick, a student who never thought college would be so exciting. The sex and violence are more aggressive than in the '40s version of the yarn, and more than one aspect of the film is brazenly borrowed from older and better pictures. A brisk and ironic style keeps the movie watchable, though.
THE OLD MAID (1939. Directed by Edmund Goulding. MGM/UA Home Video) - Call it a weepie, a woman's movie, a three-handerchief melodrama. It's still a knockout of a picture, lavishly acted and handsomely filmed. Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins are both in love with George Brent, who dies in the Civil War after getting the Davis character pregnant. She determines never to marry, and to raise her daughter without revealing who the child's true parents are. Davis is brilliant as the bitter yet ever-decent spinster, and Hopkins is just as vivid as her cousin. Brent is insufferable and indispensable, as always, and Donald Crisp heads a solid supporting cast. Warner Bros. was known in the '30s largely for its working-class dramas and Depression-era musicals, but it did well by this glowing period piece, which builds to a finale that's pure Hollywood gold.
ISADORA (1968. Directed by Karel Reisz. MCA Home Video) - This ambitious ``bio-pic'' about dancer Isadora Duncan was re-edited by its distributor when it first came out. This version is a ``special director's cut'' that presumably restores the picture to its originally intended form. The story jumps around in time, straining to bring out important themes in Duncan's exotic life and influential career. You can't help noticing, though, that the most sensational material is saved for the last portion so the movie can build to a rip-roaring climax: Duncan finding the man of her dreams, dancing topless before a scandalized Boston audience, and dying in a grotesque accident. Vanessa Redgrave is in top form as our heroine: Her dancing is lively and she clearly enjoys playing with an arch American accent. Interest in Duncan's work has been growing in recent years, so the arrival of this cassette is well-timed, even if its uneven structure makes it one of director Reisz's less compelling works.