In the spirit of the day of love, I thought I’d share one of my personal favorites – DETOUR. And, guess what? It’s in the public domain, so if you have an hour and seven minutes and would like to feel worse, why don’t you pour yourself a drink (best make it a double) and spend some quality time:
Yep, Detour was certainly the premiere feel-bad movie of 1945 (unless you were a drinker on a downward spiral into melodrama and disappointment– in that case, The Lost Weekend probably hit you where you live… incidentally, beyond my girl Doris Dowling as Ray Miland’s doormat and noir veteran Miklos Rozsa’s theremin-laden score, I could take or leave it. I prefer my Billy Wilder a little more subtle or at least with a sense of humour.) (Or unless you’re a social-climbing, working woman bent on protecting the reputation of your murderous daughter who was unsuccessfully (the movie) or successfully (the book) knowing your husband in a biblical sense… then Mildred Pierce probably floated your sadness boat.) But, I digress (sorry – ’45 was a good year), and you’d be hard pressed to find a more sordid, grim, or utterly doom-laden story than Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour. Rife with technical errors and made for a song ($100,000 – cheap like borscht) Detour was nevertheless the first noir, and the first b-picture to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. Oh yeah – it’s that good.
There were the big five and the little three, and then there were the Poverty Row studios. Poverty Row films were quick and dirty – made on shoestring budgets with minor stars, or possibly folks famous for other reasons (the 40’s equivalent of when you suddenly see one of the lesser known girls from The Hills pop up in a low-budget horror movie). Poverty Row films were typically the b-picture to the major releases, or sometimes the lead pictures in the second run theatres. Which basically means there was a lot of – but not exclusively – garbage. PRC, or Producers Releasing Corp. certainly lucked out with Austrian director Edgar G. Ulmer, who made three solid noirs for them, the most well-known being Detour.
Al Roberts (Tom Neal, before fighting with Franchot Tone and also pre – manslaughtering his wife) is having a bad night. He’s drinking coffee in a diner and being kind of a dick to everyone. See, they’re playing his song, the one that reminds him of his old life.
Al was a nightclub piano player with the love of a decent woman; Sue, the singer in his nightclub band. Sue heads to Hollywood to make it big, and Al thinks about their bright and happy Bon Jovi song future in this kind of terrifying daydream:
But she ends up working as a waitress. Penniless Al decides to hitch to Hollywood to meet her. Between a life spent watching horror films and Detour, I know what’s up with hitch-hiking. It’s either backwoods cannibal families or a slow descent into your own personal hell, and in this case, it ends up being the latter.
Al catches a ride with a Mr. Charles Haskell, a fairly well-to-do fellow with a nice car and scratches on his hands. The scratches are from a girl he picked up. “There oughta be a law against dames with claws.” Well said, Chuck. Only Haskell’s time for one liners is almost up, and as soon as you know it, he’s dead. Accidentally. In his sleep. Or so Al says.
Al does the sensible thing, and I mean sensible if morals weren’t really a big deal for you. He reasons that no one would believe he didn’t kill Haskell, therefore, he should hide the body and take the car. Naturally, he should take his money too, as Haskell certainly can’t take it with him. And then Al decides to take Haskell’s clothes, too; after all, no one would believe someone dressed as he is would have such a nice car. Turns out once you’ve entered the moral sludge pit, it’s hard to climb out of.
After successfully crossing the state line as Haskell, Al picks up fellow hitchhiker Vera – the incredible Ann Savage, who eats the role for breakfast with a performance that’s an easy 30 years ahead of her time. Vera will get her own post, but suffice to say, Ann Savage is the femme fatale of your worst nightmares. At 24, she’s a total powerhouse – Vera is a snarling, vitriolic hellcat, but Savage’s performance is nuanced enough that Vera’s few moments of vulnerability are enormously affecting.
Turns out, Vera recognizes the car and the clothes, but not Al. She’s the dame with claws, and now she’s got them in Al, as she orders him to fence the car and give the proceeds to her for her silence. They spend hours in a motel room, tolerating each other, while Vera gets drunk. She even propositions him in a rather (1940s) overt manner, which he rejects. Vera’s a bit of a wistful drunk, and she’s equally revolting and alluring. Shame boner.
They’re about to sell the car, when Vera realizes she has more to gain by forcing Al to impersonate Haskell long enough to collect an impending inheritance. For a moment, this looks like it might be the main plot of the film, a rather familiar identity theft ruse that genre fans can cozy up to. But, not so fast – an absurd twist of fate sees to it that spineless Al is freed from his situation, but only until he’s carted off to the big house. No mercy for wrong-doers.
Detour doesn’t work despite its technical limitations – it works because of them. With a narrative that’s clumsy more often than sharp, reversed driving shots and amateurish rear projection, we can’t even retreat into the glamour and technical accuracy of the big studio noirs. Detour is story about irredeemable bottom feeders, and the movie is a distilled version of that. It’s seedy and unsafe in a way that few other, if any, studio films can equal.
Typically noir is about the real locations, the real grit of the city in stark contrast to the theatrical sets of the studio backlot lovingly evoked in wonderous Technicolor in musicals or comedies. Detour’s ratty sets are used to great effect. The rear projection is strictly second-rate, which lends a bizarre, otherworldly quality. Al didn’t just take a detour to on the way to Hollywood, he set on another road entirely which leads to the great cosmic joke that his life becomes. The makeshift sets – the walk he takes with Sue on a ‘street’ which is only fog and a street sign, the police car which emerges from the darkness only adds a sense of impenetrable isolation to the already impossibly dire circumstances.
Otherworldly low budget-ness aside, also of note is Al as a narrator. He’s a slimy, simp of a man, and his version of events is questionable. He isn’t narrating the story we’re watching, only offering up pitiful excuse after pitiful excuse for his own behavior before lamenting what a victim of fate he is. And Vera? Well, Vera will get her own post, but until then, she’s a marvel – an absolutely vicious, castrating harpie. There hasn’t been another hard-boiled girl quite like her.
Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.
Yessir, the abyss stares back. So have a Happy Valentine’s day, kid, and stick to the main road.