From this gripping opening, D.O.A. spins a film noirish flashback which explains how an unassuming tax accountant named Frank Bigelow (Edmund O'Brien) came to be a murder victim. The tale begins with Frank leaving for a week vacation in San Francisco, so he can get away from his possessive girlfriend Paula (Pamela Britton). Frank cares for Paula, but he's unsure about making the commitment she wants from him.
O'Brien gives a believable performance in the lead role, but he gets upstaged by the secondary villains. These memorable heavies include Luther Adler as the polite Hispanic gangster Majak, Neville Brand as his homicidal henchman Chester, and Laurette Luez as a beautiful, but tough-minded, Majak accomplice. When Frank treats her roughly for not answering his questions, she snarls back: "If I were a man, I'd punch your dirty face in."
Chester, on the other hand, prefers to punch Frank in the stomach. When Frank winces from pain caused by the poison, Chester chides him about being "soft in the belly." Majak shows his sensitive side when he orders Chester to leave Frank alone and privately explains about Chester: "That unfortunate boy--he's psychopathic. He's not happy unless he gives pain. He likes to see blood."