DETOUR, 1945

Image

In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that no one has as much fun in the movie as they’re clearly having on this poster.

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:

detour02But 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.

detour2After 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.

Detour_Jaime_June11Turns 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.

vlcsnap-2010-07-26-15h21m58s3Typically 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.

detour

Yessir, the abyss stares back. So have a Happy Valentine’s day, kid, and stick to the main road.

FALLEN ANGEL, 1945

ImageA wise old sage (Tom Waits) once said, “You don’t meet nice girls in coffee shops.” Which is certainly true in Otto Preminger’s other film noir, 1945’s Fallen Angel. Hoping to capitalize on the surprise success of Laura – which also starred one-time SAG president and all around decent dude Dana Andrews, Fallen Angel was released to lukewarm reviews. While a little saggy around the middle, the film is well acted, well shot by the dependably great Joseph LaShelle (the man responsible for the first of many Twilight Zone dutch angles), and solidly directed by Preminger.

Eric Stanton gets kicked off the bus for insufficient fare in the sleepy town of Walton near San Francisco. (Just kicked off, not fined exorbitantly – What up, Vancouver?) He wanders into the nearest greasy spoon, Pops, and therein finds a whole pack of trouble in the form of waitress Stella (Linda Darnell). Stella thinks showing up for work is optional, seeing as how Pop (Percy Kilbride) has a sweaty-palmed, yet sweet, old-man crush on her.

And, oh yeah, she wanders in wearing this hat, kicks off her shoes, and takes Eric’s hamburger. Like a boss.

ImageEric, like every other fellow in the diner, is smitten. Shortly thereafter he leaves and spots a poster for a psychic act. Sensing a con (him being a conman and all), he inserts himself into marketing for the act by convincing the ex-mayor’s spinster daughter to allow them to perform their heathen spirit show. She agrees, and Eric introduces himself to her nicer, younger, and blonder sister, June – Alice Faye in her first non-musical. As an aside, legend has it that cuts to Faye’s performance caused her break-up from Fox and subsequent 17-year sabbatical from Hollywood.

Meanwhile, Eric courts Stella while at the same time watching her steal from the cash register and date various other men. He vows to give her what she wants, which isn’t so outlandish  – a home and marriage, even though he doesn’t have any money. She stands firm – he must marry her and provide a home if the relationship is to go any further. So, that’s a healthy start to a lifelong reunion, but anyway, Eric comes up with the classy plan to marry June, take her money, and have the marriage annulled.

ImageIt takes approximately one date for Eric to seduce June, as he tries to show her things he likes (alcohol, clubs, and kissing), and she confesses her secret – despite her love of piano, heavy books, and hanging out with her laugh-riot sister, she secretly wants to be just like girls in magazine ads. If you start the below clip at around 2:10, you’ll see this magic beach date for yourself.

It’s after they get their marriage certificate things start to go off the rails. After a shocking murder, Eric is – at the very least – a person of interest. He’d probably be advised not to leave town, but he does, ever loyal June in tow (at this point, she’s already been rejected on her wedding night and is amenable to giving Eric the money he wanted.) Imagine that xoJane article:

“I married this boy and then I found out he only wants to steal all of my money and have the marriage annulled so he can run off with his other girlfriend. Then he became a murder suspect. What should I wear on the train while we hide out?”

ImageAfter a police beating and an arrest, a confrontation at Pops, and a conviction, Eric is eventually won over by June’s kindness and good nature. Order is restored.

Except it isn’t. And Fallen Angel is unsetlling for just that very reason.

Stella’s end is particularly harsh and almost not in line with typical noir rules, after all, she isn’t a scheming, black-hearted, stone cold sociopath. But hey, that’s a noir rule in and of itself – bad shit happens to everyone, no matter where they’re tipping the moral scale. One could interpret Fallen Angel as merely a bad girl cautionary tale; if you go flashing your shit all over town you may – I hesitate to say – get what’s coming to you. But that’s too easy, and I think, an un-earned criticism. Stella isn’t your standard femme fatale, her wants are pretty typical – security and a home. She’s brusque, sullen, and hard-edged, but who wouldn’t be, when you’ve been lied to and yanked around as much as she has?

Her small, one room apartment is particularly affecting. It’s miles away from the home she dreams about, and there is the curious addition of a large stuffed bear, featured prominently in a few shots. We aren’t in a sin-laden boudoir of a girl with easy virtue – we’re in the rooming house of a lonely girl with a dead end job, trying to use what she has to get ahead. Stellas aren’t born, they’re made, and as she’s tossed aside by the men who took her out – most notably, Eric, by the end of the film, there is a profound sense of injustice and loss.

June’s prize for being kind, good, and loyal? Eric, who’s just barely made good on the substantial amount of faith she’s shown in him. Eric’s prize for being a charming yet conniving con man who certainly used Stella as much as she used him? June. Pop’s prize for loving Stella and putting up with her being kind of a shitty employee? Nothing. No one got what they deserved.

Image

ImageBeyond the gorgeous composition of shots like the two above, LaShelle’s cinematography also features a unique focus on faces in the crowd. At the cafe, in the audience, and walking around San Francisco, Fallen Angel wants you to keep your eye on the other lives surrounding yours. It’s an eerie tactic which helps to pay off the ending, and compensates for some of the film’s more arduous scenes.

Anyway, I’m probably due in some coffee shop somewhere, but, hey, in the meantime, play Stella’s song on the jukebox and be thankful you don’t get what you deserve.