Monday, August 22, 2011

The Dark and Sinister Goings-on Inside Edgar G. Ulmer's Radically Cheap B-Movie Cult Classic Film Noir Detour

The following is my humble contribution to Film Classics Film Noir Review Contest.  And as fair warning, there may be spoilers ahead, for those who care about such things - ye have been warned.

Made in 1945, on the most extreme of low budgets by B-master Edgar G. Ulmer and released by the Producers Releasing Company (PRC), a member of what in Hollywood was called the "Poverty Row" group of B-studios (these studios were often only in business for a few years and were mainly known for making cheap westerns, gangster films and serials), Detour may have been a tiny tiny film (and short, as was usually the case with "Poverty Row" films, at just 68 minutes) but to this day, 66 years later, it is still considered one of the greatest film noirs ever made.  Roger Ebert has said of the film, "This movie from Hollywood's Poverty Row, shot in six days, filled with technical errors and ham-handed narrative, starring a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer, should have faded from sight soon after it was released in 1945. And yet it lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir. No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it."  The film has truly become one of the most classic of B-pictures.

The film is the story of Al Roberts, a jaded beer hall piano player (he has unfulfilled dreams of being a concert pianist) played by Tom Neal in his only role worthy of remembrance, who decides to hitchhike cross-country to California to be reunited with his semi-estranged girlfriend.  Along the way Al is picked up by a cocksure and obviously wealthy man by the name of Haskell.  A bit later Haskell dies (we never do find out how or why but we do know it was not foul play) and Al, in an act of desperation and knowing he could never explain such a thing to the police, ditches the body, steals Haskell's clothes, money and I.D. and speeds off in the dead man's car.  Now on the run, this will of course lead to Al's downfall, and this inevitable downfall (it is a film noir after all) is helped along when he picks up a disheveled young woman while posing as Haskell.   This disheveled (and obviously bad news) young woman is Vera, played by the sultry and quite psychotic Ann Savage.  Vera knows Haskell and therefore knows that Al is not Haskell and blackmails him into doing what she wants - and of course that can only spell trouble.

Vera tells Al that is to impersonate Haskell in order to get the inheritance the dead man is about to receive from his soon-to-be dead father.  Despite Vera's blackmail attempt Al refuses to along with her plan and the two fight in the Hollywood apartment they are now renting.  In the most infamous scene in the film, Al accidentally strangles Vera with a telephone cord and once again will go on the run.  Since the production code was still fully in force in Hollywood in 1945, Ulmer was not allowed to let his murderer - even an accidental one like Al - get away with his crime, so the film's not-so-intrepid protagonist is arrested in the final scene.  This ending, with its moody atmospheric sense of doom, is one of the things that make an otherwise cheaply made motion picture a classic of film noir cinema.  In their book, "The Devil Thumbs a Ride & Other Unforgettable Films", authors Edward Gorman and Dow Mossman say of the film, "...Detour remains a masterpiece of its kind. There have been hundreds of better movies, but none with the feel for doom portrayed by ... Ulmer. The random universe Stephen Crane warned us about—the berserk cosmic impulse that causes earthquakes and famine and AIDS—is nowhere better depicted than in the scene where Tom Neal stands by the roadside, soaking in the midnight rain, feeling for the first time the noose drawing tighter and tighter around his neck."  And this is what makes the film last.

Now the film does have a certain reputation that perhaps it does not deserve.  The famous, and quite apocryphal story of the film's production (propagated by Ulmer's own late-life assertions) claims that Detour was made with just $20,000 and in a mere six days (even the above Ebert quote says as much on the latter).  Truth be told it was probably closer to $100,000 with a shooting schedule of 28 days, but that would have been the norm for the day on "Poverty Row", so that isn't a very interesting hard luck tale to tell - and if Ulmer was anything it was an eccentric character who would build up his life and career further than it actually ever went.  Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (in a part that is now the modern day Czech Republic) and making a bit of a splash in 1934 with The Black Cat for Universal (the first of eight films that would team horror icons Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff), Ulmer's career never really took off as many of his fellow European ex-pats careers did when they too fled their warring countries to make it in Hollywood.

Ulmer had previously worked as assistants to many of these same great directors - Murnau, Siodmak, Wilder and Zinnemann among them - before hitting it (temporarily) big in the U.S.  He claims to have worked with Fritz Lang on both Metropolis and M, but this is most likely just more tall-tale telling on an aging Ulmer's behalf.  When the director made The Black Cat for Universal (an actual big-name studio at the time - and that studio's biggest box office hit of the year) and showed the striking visual style he had obviously learned from the German Expressionist cinema of 1920's Germany, he was surely on his way to bigger and better things - much like the aforementioned contemporary ex-pats like Wilder and Siodmak.  Ulmer, however, had begun an affair with the wife of independent producer Max Alexander, nephew of Universal studio head Carl Laemmle. Shirley Alexander's divorce and subsequent marriage to Ulmer led to his being exiled from the major Hollywood studios. Ulmer would spend most of his directorial career making B movies at Poverty Row production houses.  Ulmer's only film of note after this would be of course, Detour

As for the stars of Detour, neither Tom Neal nor Ann Savage would ever become big names in the business.  Savage's Vera in the film would be described as "vicious and predatory" and "very sexually aggressive."  Savage herself would be described, by critic Barry Norman, as "sultry and sexy... a feline film noir star at its finest."  Director Wim Wenders called Savage's performance "30 years ahead of it's time."  Savage would play other roles, many of them femme fatales like in Detour, but she would never reach the stars as they say.  Neal's career would be even less than Savage's.  The most interesting anecdote one can muster up about Neal is that he shot his wife in the back of the head and was in jail for six years before being released less than a year before his eventual death in 1972.  Ulmer also died in 1972 and would never see the revival of his film noir that took place in the late 1970's.  Savage would actually tour with the film, helping both the film's reputation and her own.  Savage would later make a guest appearance on the TV show Saved by the Bell, and her final performance would come in 2007, when she was cast in Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg as the director's mother.

Listed among the first group of films to be historically preserved in the National Film Registry (the only B-picture among these first films) Detour may have been a cheaply made toss-off by a fly-by-night studio, and directed by a persona non grata director (though a director with great visual talent who was unfairly blackballed), and the film may be full of flaws (at least flaws from a strictly technical filmmaking standpoint), but that doesn't mean it isn't a great and tragic film noir indeed.  Documentarian Erol Morris claims it as his favourite film and says of it, "It has an unparalleled quality of despair, totally unrelieved by hope."  A hot, lurid, cheap (and I mean that as an attribute not a hindrance) film noir that rises above its supposed Poverty Row station to be (and I said it before and I will say it again) one of the best damn film noirs in the history of cinema.


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blahblahblah Toby said...

good review for a film we thoroughly enjoyed a few years ago. we're coming at it from a historical noir point of view at number 14 in our noirathon and i'm sure some of the background you've provided will be of great interest when we see it again.

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