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.”

31 comments:

  1. great story!!...thanks for sharing with us!!
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  2. such a interesting film with great story, I love to watch it myself.
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  3. seen this movie long time back...you have awakened my memories...thanks

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