Thursday, July 9, 2015

Cult Movie Project #14 (of 200): Wrong Turns and Choosing Your Fate Before Fate Chooses You in Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945).

Is it the best film noir ever? Maybe. The darkest, bleakest, most twisted film noir ever? Definitely. And unrelentingly so. However, Edgar G. Ulmer's lean and mean no-budget miracle probably isn't as great as most would have you believe -- well, depending on your expectation. Expectation can be a harsh mistress seldom satisfied, I always say, and they were a major stumbling block on my first encounter with Detour (1945), where, I fear, they were a bit too over-inflated when what I'd read stacked up against what I saw. Over the years since, expectation and experience have leveled off, however, allowing me to reevaluate the film and truly appreciate it as a defective masterpiece.

How did such a gifted director like Ulmer wind up as the opal in the offal at PRC -- the absolute dead end of Poverty Row as far as Hollywood studios are concerned? Depends on who you believe. According to the director, the choice was self-imposed to give himself more artistic freedom. According to everyone else, he got caught sleeping with the wife of the son of Universal mogul, Carl Laemmle, and found himself unofficially black-listed from the majors. However he wound up there, there he was, doing some amazing things squeezing everything he could out of whatever change PRC found in their couch cushions.

Rumored to have been shot in less than a week, using only four sets, and a cast of five to ten, Detour is an advanced doctorate in low-budget filmmaking. The film itself is fairly simple, quick, and dirty as our hero -- wait, no, sorry, I just can't bring myself to call him our hero. A noir hero must garner likability, sympathy or some inkling of being redeemable even as he/she does awful deeds and flushes everything down the toilet. Here, destitute New York musician Al Roberts (Neal) has none of these qualities as he gets himself in over his head while trying to hitchhike across the country to get to his girl (Drake) in Hollywood. For, just as things are looking up, everything goes to hell on him.

Playing this schlub is an eerily typecast Neal, whose own biography of woe, scandal, felonious assault, poisoned relationships, and murder would make a fine noir all on its own. A glass half-empty (and full of Strychnine and razor blades) kinda guy, Al also serves as our omniscient narrator, making excuses for every rash and bone-headed choice he makes. And it is about choice, not fate or destiny. Al and the viewer can debate not being in control all they want, but it all comes down to bad choices (and self-fulfilling prophecies) when fate and destiny throw a detour in front of you. (See what I did there?) Here, these bad choices begin when Al steals a car and assumes the identity and bankroll of a gambler (MacDonald) who picked him up, only to keel over and die several hundred miles and a dozen witnesses down the road from apparent natural causes. Fearing the police would never believe that and accuse him of malfeasance and murder, the body is hidden in the desert and Al moves on. But instead of keeping a low profile, Al decides to pick himself up a hitchhiker.

Again, Martin Goldsmith's plot of Detour isn't all that special -- perfunctory is a good word, but in the hands of Ulmer and his small cast the total amperage cranked out of it is kinda mind-boggling. And sparking-off the most is Ann Savage as the venomous, spiteful, and completely whackadoodle Vera, the hitchhiker, in a performance for the ages. Each line is spat, each piercing look with maddened eyes and raised eyebrow could vaporize glacial ice. I've also often wondered if Vera had a little more eating away at her insides than consumption, eating away at her brain, but mentioning V.D. in those days was a big no-no.

Apparently due to a backfiring prank between takes (that involved a tongue and an ear), Savage and Neal did not like each other at all and this animosity leeches over onscreen, discharging a few more volts. It's kinda fun to watch the weaselly Al squirm as Vera twists him into several knots around her finger. She has him cold, knows he stole the car and believes he killed the owner, and uses this to blackmail him into a shopping spree and a drinking binge and a mad scheme to get even more money through a fraudulent inheritance grab. Tension rises as we barrel toward the climax like a runaway train, the brakes failed, the engineer dead, the tracks broken and Vera pulling the levers.

Now, I'm still not quite sure of the convoluted physics of the phone cord getting wrapped around the drunken Vera's neck as she spitefully tries to call the cops in a separate room but its another attempt to alleviate Al of any guilt as he inadvertently and unknowingly strangles her to death. Now truly guilty of murder, Al is finally free of Vera's grip. I also find it funny that Goldsmith's script did not include Al getting arrested for Vera's murder but the opening prologue and subsequent flashback and epilogue, where Al is pinched, were added to bring the film up to the Hayes Code, which explicitly stated that no one could get away with murder unpunished.

Through the whole film Ulmer and Goldsmith do their best to paint Al as the unluckiest sonofabitch on the planet but I'm not sure I buy this. With each viewing, I find it harder and harder to muster any sympathy for Al. Again, it's about choices. Did he have to pick up Vera? Who just happened to be the girl the gambler made a pass at and scratched him up. Was it out of kindness? Or was it because she had a nice pair of gams? When he finally gets a ride, it just happens to be with the man about to have a coronary. But did Al have to take the car, steal the clothes, use the money of the gambler? Forensics aren't anything like they are today but I think even the most local yokel would know the difference between murder and a natural causes and the difference between pre- and post-mortem injuries. No. Al is an opportunist, who begs the audience as the narrator for reassurance that his wrong choices were the only choices he had.

Then again, maybe I'm being too hard on Al. Not thinking clearly under stress is what makes most of us human, right? I guess what I'm trying to say is Detour is a great film but far from perfect. If you are aware of its reputation may I offer this advice: cut your expectations in half, at least, and then the rewards of this film are many. If you're walking in blind, you are in for a real treat. 

Sadly, one of the biggest hurdles with watching Detour is due to a copyright lapse and the resulting purgatory of Public Domain Hell has led to an overabundance of crappy, nigh unwatchable copies floating around. Too bad. The film deserves a full Criterion restoration treatment that we will probably never get. 

Other Points of Interest:

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"Detour is truly an unusual film, far more intense and stylish than the run of the mill low-budget film, and featuring the oddest, most repellent symbiotic (leechlike) relationship in cinema history. This, plus the fact that it was made by Ulmer -- regarded as the 'master' of the B-film -- in just six days, using only four characters of any significance, and only six minimally furnished sets, makes it a natural for critics to be impressed by quality in spite of the low budget." 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXxxxxxxxxxXXXXXXX-- Danny Peary   
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The Fine Print: Detour was watched via Amazon Prime Instant Streaming. Watched as a Fatal Fatale Film Noir double-feature with Sunset Boulevard (1950). What's the Cult Movie Project? That's 14 down, with 186 to go.  

Detour (1945) Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) / P: Leon Fromkess / AP: Martin Mooney / D: Edgar G. Ulmer / W: Martin Goldsmith / C: Benjamin H. Kline / E: George McGuire / M: Leo Erdody / S: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald


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