Thursday, December 9, 2010

Detour (1945)

Film rarely gets more noir than Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, a wide-awake nightmare of unforgiving fate and dead-end fatalism that may be the cruddiest great movie ever made. Filmed in six days on a bare minimum of locations for Producers Releasing Corporation, the most impoverished of the Old Hollywood B-movie outfits known collectively as Poverty Row, it fairly reeks of grungy, sweaty desperation on both sides of the cameras. Indeed, it’s tempting to imagine this 1945 must-see movie actually was written and directed by its own protagonist, a paranoid loser who’s furiously anguished, but not terribly surprised, as his hard-knock life devolves into a worst-case scenario.

We meet Al Roberts (Tom Neal) in a dingy roadside diner that, like most of the movie’s other claustrophobic interiors, does not appear to be a studio set so much as a hasty rough sketch for one. Unshaven and socially maladroit, if not borderline psychotic, Al almost immediately alienates everyone around him. Which means, of course, he must resort to voice-over narration – a classic film noir device, used to underscore the inevitability of an anti-hero’s destiny – when he’s stirred to spill his tale of woe.

Trouble is, it’s not easy to feel sorry, or even remain patient, while Al regales us in a tone pitched somewhere between a pathetic whine and a self-justifying snarl. And, truth to tell, it’s more than a little difficult to believe everything he says as he blames everyone but himself for his dire condition. “Whichever way you turn,” he complains, “fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” Maybe so, but Al appears quite capable of stumbling into damnation without any outside assistance.

The extended flashback begins with Al speaking of happier days, when he was a pianist, and his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) was a singer, at a New York nightclub. Even here, however, Al sounds like a chronic malcontent – and not just because the nightclub looks only slightly more lavish than the aforementioned roadside diner. When someone slips him a ten-dollar tip, he’s underwhelmed: “What was it? A piece of paper, crawling with germs.” And when Sue suggests that – somehow, some way – he’ll be a great classical pianist, he snaps: “Yeah, someday! If I don’t get arthritis first!”

Sue eventually announces her plan to leave town, to try her luck in Hollywood. (At least, that’s her story, and she sticks with it.) Al decides to follow the only way he can afford – as a hitchhiker. He fortuitously finds a soul mate when he climbs into the convertible of Charlie Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), a glad-handing high-roller who seems, if such a thing can be imagined, even more misanthropic than Al. Asked about unsightly scratches on his hand, Haskell boasts: “I was tussling with the most dangerous animal in the world — a woman!” Al sympathizes: “There ought to be a law against dames with claws.”

Unfortunately, the budding friendship between likeminded fellows is cut short during a heavy rainstorm. While Al tries to open the convertible top, a slumbering Haskell falls out of the door – and fatally bumps his head.

Naturally, since Al is a film noir patsy and not a reasonably sentient human being, the poor lug decides that, since nobody would ever believe he didn’t kill Haskell, he should dump the body, plant his own I.D. on the corpse, and drive away with the dead man’s amply-stuffed wallet.

And then, as if to fully demonstrate his limitless capacity for self-destructive behavior, Al stops to pick up a hitchhiker a little further down the road. Yes, that’s right: He’s driving a dead man’s car, on his way to see a girlfriend he simply can’t live without, and he still can’t resist slowing down for a hottie with, as he puts it, “a beauty that’s almost homely because it’s so real.” Unfortunately, Vera (Ann Savage) – perhaps the most hard-bitten femme fatale in the entire pantheon of noir shady ladies -- is the “dame with claws” who scarred Haskell. Even more unfortunately, she doesn’t buy Al’s story about Haskell’s untimely demise. (“What did you do? Kiss him with a wrench?”) And even if he is innocent, she doesn’t give a damn: She’s ready to blow the whistle on him anyway, unless he co-operates in her dubious scheme to fleece big bucks from Haskell’s long-estranged family.

Vera doesn’t appear until midway through this 68-minute movie, and she doesn’t get to stick around until the final scene. (Big surprise, right?) But never mind: Once she sashays into the story, she dominates Detour like slumming royalty, bullying and browbeating the hapless, helpless Al for the sheer fun of it. Having sunk even deeper into the lower depths than her reluctant companion – if you can believe her, she’s dying of consumption – Vera is viciously eager to make a killing so she can finance her final days. But the more time she spends with Al inside the cramped quarters of a low-rent hotel room, the more energy and attention she diverts to a sadomasochistic relationship that, at its nastiest, makes the toxic byplay between George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seem like conjugal bliss. (A typical taunt: “I’d hate to see a fellow as young as you wind up sniffin’ that perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers!”) Vera’s telling response to Al’s whiny pleading -- “Stop making noises like a husband!” – intensifies the impression that, intentionally or otherwise, the second half of Detour plays like a perverse parody of a deeply troubled marriage.

And speaking of perversity: Detour, a squalid Poverty Row quickie that only gradually gained acceptance as a classic, turned out to be the high point in the lives of almost everyone involved.

Edgar G. Ulmer began his career at the heart of German Expressionism, working as a set and production designer for such notables as F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch. After immigrating the United States, however, he toiled mostly as a director of low-budget genre films, often disguising his threadbare production values with artful applications of light, shadow and camera movement. (Peter Bogdanovich once marveled: “Nobody ever made good pictures faster or for less money than Edgar G. Ulmer.”) He maintains a loyal cult following for a few other works – most notably, The Black Cat (1934), a seriously creepy thriller featuring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and striking Bauhaus-inspired sets -- but remains best known for this single, singularly bleak B-movie.

Likewise, Ann Savage had a fleeting career as a minor Hollywood contract player, but never found a better or showier role than the virulent Vera. Even so, she enjoyed more happily-ever-aftering than the seemingly cursed Tom Neal, a quick-tempered ex-boxer who spent most of his final years in prison for the “involuntary manslaughter” of his wife. Although prosecutors originally sought a first-degree murder conviction, Neal always claimed the fatal shooting was accidental. Just like his character in Detour insisted that Haskell died because of a fall -- and that Vera just happened to wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time when Al yanked on a telephone chord.

Knowing what happened to Neal two decades after Detour, you may be even more skeptical of Al’s account, and more inclined to interpret the improbabilities of the plot as unconvincing testimony by a guilty party.

In many ways, however, the movie is more potent, more devastating, if every word Al tells us is -- God help him -- absolutely true. Because if he isn’t lying, it’s all the more difficult to shake the chill evoked by his final line: “Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

Day for Night (1973)

Every so often, a motion picture will stake out a territory and lay eternal claim to it. Such is the case with Day for Night, a warm-hearted yet clear-eyed comedy-drama that persuasively argues, with ample evidence, that a movie set is the most magical place on earth.

The late, great Francois Truffaut’s Oscar-winning masterwork was not, strictly speaking, the first movie ever made about the joy of making movies. But it remains, decades after its Paris premiere, the yardstick by which almost every film on the subject inevitably is measured. Its very title, which refers to a process through which night scenes can be shot in daylight, continues to serves as critic-speak shorthand in reviews of everything from Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion (1995) to Oliver Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996) to Roman Coppola’s CQ (2001).

Truffaut cast himself in the central role of Ferrand, the affable, overworked auteur who’s trying to complete a sudsy romantic melodrama, Meet Pamela, within seven weeks at the Victorine Studios in Nice. The production is beset by mishaps and misadventures, some amusingly minor (a recalcitrant cat refuses to perform in a sight gag), some shatteringly tragic (a star dies in an auto mishap before completing a key scene).

At one point, an egotistically impulsive male lead threatens to abandon the film because his current sweetheart has spurned him. Desperate times call for desperate measures by a selfless team player: The American-born leading lady, still vulnerable after a recent nervous breakdown, nevertheless volunteers to keep her feckless co-star interested in the production by feigning romantic interest in him.

Throughout the barely controlled chaos, Ferrand maintains his calm, though just barely, by keeping himself focused on the end that justifies any means. Making a movie, he says, is like taking a stagecoach ride in the Wild West: “At first, you hope for a nice trip. Then you just hope you reach your destination.”

A nice touch: Ferrand sporadically summons in his dreams a fond childhood memory of the time he swiped Citizen Kane publicity stills from a movie theater lobby. As Truffaut noted in a 1973 interview: “There are directors who boast of never going to the movies, but myself, I go all the time. And I am forever marked by the films I discovered before becoming a filmmaker, when I could take them in more fully. If, for example, in the course of Day for Night I pay special homage to Citizen Kane, it is because that film, released in Paris in July 1946, changed both the cinema and my own life. Through the young actor played [in Day for Night] by Jean-Pierre Leaud, I am always coming back to the question that has tormented me for thirty years now: Is cinema more important than life?”

Unlike Meet Pamela, Day for Night brings out the best in everyone involved. The stellar ensemble cast includes Jacqueline Bisset as the beautiful but emotionally fragile Hollywood star, Valentina Cortese as a fading leading lady who’s too flustered (and, quite often, too drunk) to remember her lines, Nathalie Baye as a frisky production assistant — and the aforementioned Jean-Pierre Leaud (a.k.a. Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s on-screen alter ego in The 400 Blows and subsequent sequels) as the callow, self-absorbed actor who repeatedly poses another question that Truffaut himself often pondered: “Are women magic?”

D.O.A. (1950)

How's this for an entrance? In the opening minutes of D.O.A., Edmond O'Brien staggers into a police station, asks directions to the homicide division, then plops into a chair. "I'd like to report a murder," he rasps. The attentive investigator asks: "Who was murdered?" O'Brien replies: "I was."

No kidding. O'Brien plays Frank Bigelow, a small-town accountant who gets into big-time trouble when he takes an impulsive trip to San Francisco. He makes the journey primarily to avoid the marriage demands of his lovestruck secretary (Pamela Britton). Unfortunately, while he's having a drink with new friends in a jazz club, someone gives him a toxic cocktail. The next morning, Bigelow wakes up with a killer hangover, so he visits a local hospital. That's where he gets the bad news: He's been given a slow-acting poison, and has just a day or two left to live.

D.O.A. is a textbook example of film noir, a type of thriller -- vaguely defined but instantly recognizable -- that reached its peak of popularity in the decade following World War II, when hundreds of Hollywood features combined crime melodrama, aberrant psychology, sexual insecurity, Cold War paranoia and bizarrely lit, nightmarish camera work to varying degrees. Heavily influenced by German Expressionism, and frequently directed or photographed by German emigres, films noir are notorious for tell-tale visual hallmarks – trenchcoated tough guys, rainwashed streets, lazily spinning overhead fans, slats of light spilling through Venetian blinds into smoke-filled rooms – that continue to be evoked in everything from made-for-video B-movies to ultra-stylish TV spots for expensive toiletries. But the darkness in a true film noir isn’t so much a visual scheme as a state of mind, one best summed up by the hapless of protagonist of another noir classic, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945): “Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on your or me for no good reason at all.”

The funny thing about film noir is, people who made undisputed classics of the genre during the 1940s and ‘50s didn’t think of their moody movies as anything other than conventional (albeit stylish) thrillers. If you'd been hanging around a studio commissary back then, you certainly wouldn't have heard one director tell another: “Yeah, I'm wrapping up that western, then I'm doing that film noir with Bogart . . .”

It wasn't until French critics much later coined the term film noir -- literally, dark or black film -- that film buffs became fully aware of the qualities that distinguish a film as truly noir. As Ephraim Katz notes in The Film Encyclopedia, film noir “characteristically abounds with night scenes, both interior and exterior, with sets that suggest dingy realism, and with lighting that emphasizes deep shadows and accents the mood of fatalism.” Heroes as well as villains in film noir are “cynical, disillusioned and often insecure loners, inextricably bound to the past and unsure and apathetic about the future.”

In D.O.A., O'Brien's Bigelow is a prototypical noir protagonist, a not-entirely-innocent bystander who's unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. At first, he suspects his death sentence was handed down by an elegant smuggler (Luther Adler) with whom he's had indirect business dealings. But the answer to the mystery really lies in a bill of sale that Bigelow notarized back home. The document is potentially incriminating evidence, and two co-conspirators want to destroy all trace of it.

Throughout a long flashback bracketed by Bigelow's fateful visit to the police station, D.O.A. shows how knowing you're about to die can be empowering, if not liberating. The movie refrains from stating the obvious, but there's little doubt that Bigelow behaves with uncharacteristic bravery while hunting for his killer only because he knows he has nothing left to lose, no one left to fear. He even keeps his cool during confrontations with the smuggler's chief henchman (Neville Brand), a grinning psychopath who does his best to make Bigelow's short life miserable.

O'Brien, always a dependable character actor, gives one of his finest performances here as a man who wants to make every minute count while he's running out of time. He's at his best in a surprisingly affecting scene that has Bigelow phoning his secretary, and trying very hard not to tell her what's wrong. From the look on his face and the pauses in his conversation, you can tell he's thinking about how different things might have been had he not been so quick to avoid a long-term commitment to this woman who loves him.

Polish-born Rudolph Mate (1899-1964) started out as a cameraman for the great Carl Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc) before moving to the United States to work with such notables as Alfred Hitchcock (Foreign Correspondent) and Ernst Lubitsch (To Be or Not to Be). As a director, his resume includes everything from sci-fi spectacle (When Worlds Collide) to Tony Curtis star vehicles (The Black Shield of Falworth). But he remains best known to film buffs for D.O.A., an engrossing 1950 drama that sustains an unsettling atmosphere of noirish dread even during scenes shot in broad daylight.