After seeing Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour
(1945) last week, I think I believe even less in the conventional identification of the femme fatale
. On the other hand, remember how after Double Indemnity
(1944) and Criss Cross
(1949) I wanted a third example of the unreliable, irresponsible male narrator? Let's hear from Al Roberts, drifting down the margins of one more nighttime highway like the albatross of Tom Joad: "Yes, fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all." Got him.
In a genre which contains some very weird films indeed, Detour
is quite possibly the weirdest noir I've seen to date. It's almost certainly the pulpiest, a seamy little one-way street of a movie, 68 minutes tops, shot on a broken shoestring of a budget, with a washed-out mise-en-scène of down-and-out American signifiers; it has a curiously opaque, outsider quality, like it was made by someone who knew that a film noir contains dangerous women, loser men, cinematographic style, and angst, but wasn't sure what else, if anything, was supposed to go in the mix. It isn't true—though most of his career was spent in B-movies, Ulmer was a studio insider who started with Murnau and directed the box-office hit The Black Cat
(1934) for Universal—but then I have very little explanation for the movie as it stands. The plot has the thinness of an anecdote and the grip of a nightmare and all but the first and last few minutes take place in flashback, narrated like a radio drama in a pervasive tone of hardboiled pessimism; when he runs out of past, the protagonist tells his own future. Tom Neal's Al Roberts is quite literally the author of his own misfortunes. In the universe of his narration, he's fate's pinball, the victim who never gets the breaks, an ordinary joe who through no fault of his own slipped and stumbled into a skid-row nightmare. "Did you ever want to forget anything?" he asks the audience shortly after his introduction, a bleak-eyed vagrant who almost gets himself thrown out of a roadside diner in Reno for starting a fight over another customer's taste in music. "You can't, you know, no matter how hard you try. You can change the scenery, but sooner or later you'll get a whiff of perfume or somebody will say a certain phrase or maybe hum something; then you're licked again!" Always at the mercy of external forces. Always doing his best and always overmatched. What the viewer can't tell about the film at this point is whether it agrees with Al's determinedly hapless description of the world. Spoiler alert: not in a universe that contains Ann Savage's Vera.
As in Criss Cross
, there are warning signs from the start. Even in his supposedly sunnier days as a working musician in New York City with a torch-singing girlfriend (Claudia Drake) who performs "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me" like she means it, Al as we observe him is downbeat and dissatisfied, a classically trained pianist who practices Chopin after hours at the Break o' Dawn and cynically shuts down his girlfriend's praise with the claim that the only way he'll see Carnegie Hall is from behind a janitor's mop. He calls their relationship "an ordinary healthy romance," but when she scotches his casual assumptions of marriage with the news that she's heading to Hollywood to break into the big time, he takes it with such bad grace that he can't even kiss her a proper goodbye. Nonetheless, some months later when a drunken patron tips him a ten-spot for his fancy playing—a jazzed-up fantasia on Brahms, dubbed like the rest of Al's musicianship by the film's composer Leo Erdody—despite initially and rather hilariously dismissing the bill as "a piece of paper crawling with germs . . . it couldn't buy anything I wanted," he blows it all on a coast-to-coast call and learns that Sue's bid for stardom has left her a disillusioned hash slinger, waiting for the next round of auditions and trying to keep her chin up. Coming to her rescue gives him instant purpose and confidence: he comforts her, tells her to hang on, promises to come straight out to L.A. as fast as he can get there. "Don't try to stop me, just expect me." Unfortunately, his finances are the one place he's not exaggerating his woes, and even after hocking all his worldly goods except a change of clothes he's still left hitching his way across America, efficiently represented by a road map with a pushpin star for NYC and a dustily trudging montage for everything west. There's no glamour in these highways, not even the stark iconography of the Depression. For every empty flatbed or solitary coupe that slows to give sweating, stubbled Al a lift, there's another three or four that blow on by an inhospitable roadside of scrub brush and cacti. But it's not horror until Arizona, where Al gets into an amiable stranger's Lincoln Continental and comes out the other side of the state with another man's clothes on his back and another man's money in his pocket, driving the other man's very nice car. As he muses bitterly in the ubiquitous voiceover, "You know, Emily Post ought to write a book for guys thumbing rides." Call me behind the times, but I don't remember anything about the disposal of bodies in Post's Etiquette
Of course, Al in extremity is as sourly self-justifying as ever. "I know what you're going to hand me even before you open your mouths," he accuses the audience through the fourth wall, the imaginary jury inside his head. "You're going to tell me that you don't believe my story about how Haskell died and give me that don't-make-me-laugh expression on your smug faces." Personally this member of the jury had no difficulty with the death of Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), the pill-popping bookie who talked up his plans for Santa Anita and sported raw new gouges on his hand from "fighting with the most dangerous animal in the world—a woman," an incident which he related to Al with the simultaneous relish of a big game hunter and the indignation of a thwarted predator: "Give a lift to a tomato, you expect her to be nice, don't you? What kind of dames thumb rides, Sunday school teachers?" My potential skepticism, however, is nothing compared to the reaction of the hitchhiker whom Al picks up the next morning in a gesture of magnanimity, furtively enjoying his new persona as a big spender behind the wheel of a big car. In his one stroke of genuine bad luck as opposed to bad decisions, the tousle-haired, flint-faced girl (Savage) in a knee-flashing skirt and an even more tightly pinned sweater who strides coolly over at Al's call is the same "Tarzan's mate" who ripped up Haskell for trying to take liberties. She introduces herself indifferently: "You can call me Vera if you like." And as if he's conjured her from his protestations of innocence, she's as untrusting and accusatory as his most frantic, persecuted fears: "You're not fooling anyone. This buggy belongs to a guy named Haskell. That's not you, mister . . . What makes you so sure I'll shut up about this?" The time they will spend together is quite short, but it feels like an endless sickening fall: the bottom dropping out and out until there's nothing left underfoot but oblivion.
Tom Neal had a decent B-movie career, but I don't think I've seen anything else from it: he's more famous for beating Franchot Tone into a concussion over the affections of Barbara Payton and shooting his third wife under circumstances that were eventually ruled involuntary manslaughter. Personal life aside, he has a great face for a sad sack with grimier impulses than his plaintive self-presentation would like to admit, alertly boyish in long shot, petulant and truculent up close. He spends most of the film with a five o'clock shadow and a hunted air, a man who looks over his shoulder even when he's staring resolutely straight ahead. (He should know the Furies are following; he rang them himself.) Ann Savage as Vera is simply phenomenal. I would have seen her last year in My Winnipeg
(2007) if I had gotten to the HFA's Guy Maddin retrospective, but since it looks as though Vera is her most famous role, I'm just as happy to have started here. The character is young—the thirtyish Al rates her no more than twenty-four, which matches the actress' age—but she's already harder than nails, her face set in a sullen suspicion, her voice a staccato sneer. While she dozes in his car, Al thinks that she has a "natural beauty, a beauty that's almost homely because it's so real" even when she looks, her hair stiff from lack of washing and her face shiny from days on the road, like she was recently "thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world," but the illusion lasts only until she slews around to face him, spitting out her lines as if the necessity of conversation is itself beneath contempt. She's dying of consumption, but she rejects either sympathy or explanation, crushing with especial scorn Al's typically self-pitying notion that the dying have it easier because "they know they're done for—they don't have to sweat blood wondering." Many of her lines would be flirtatious if delivered with a little more softness, archness, sexual invitation, but she really means the anger and the apathy with which she snarls at Al, "After we sell the car, you can go to blazes for all I care, but not until then!" She has no history before Shreveport, where she says Haskell picked her up; we never even know if Vera is her real name. She's wounded, resentful, rapacious, unapologetic, not even interested in making herself likeable. She makes enough passes at Al to signal a healthy sexual appetite, but it doesn't seem to have much to do with him personally: he's available, that's all, and it miffs her more than a little than she can browbeat him into everything but bed.1
The voiceover indulges a terrific moment of metafiction at the close of their first day together:If this were fiction, I would fall in love with Vera, marry her and make a respectable woman of her. Or else she'd make some supreme class-A sacrifice for me and die; Sue and I would bawl a little over her grave and make some crack about there's good in all of us. But Vera, unfortunately, was just as rotten in the morning as she'd been the night before.
And she really is, and I love it. The audience can find her sympathetic because she's a person who exists and because she's clawing to make the most of her gutter-level life with the time she has left, even when her tools are unethical and her goals small change, but that doesn't make her even faintly nice
. That he behaves increasingly less like a prize himself, though, is something Al Roberts will never understand. Which is where we came in.
I was not surprised to read that the source novel by Martin Goldsmith, who co-wrote the screenplay, was published in 1939. The cars and the clothes and the music belong to the 1940's, but Al himself, in his stone-broke shame-swallowing frustration and especially in his ultimate role as eternal drifter, haunter of truck stops and all-night diners and other transient spaces of America, could pass without challenge for one of FDR's forgotten men. The DIY production values don't hurt the story's mingled sense of claustrophobia and desolation; Ulmer was directing for the echt-Poverty Row studio Producers Releasing Corporation and while it is not apparently the case that he shot Detour
in less than a week for less than $20K, he had little enough film that some shots are flipped to maintain continuity and New York City is played by a sound stage of swirling fog and street signs. Outside of some highway and gas station shots in the Californian desert, all travel scenes are rear projection. Los Angeles is a hotel room with the blinds drawn. Nowhere the characters go, from roadside motels to used car lots, has any substance or safety. Al Roberts takes Horace Greeley's advice as much to heart as any young man before him, but the dream of the American West as a strike-it-rich land of wide-open opportunity and reinvention is even more viciously debunked in Detour
than it is in The Prowler
(1951). His westward trajectory is a hell-spiral; on finally arriving in L.A., he acknowledges in a rare moment of consensus reality that "far from being at the end of the trip," with a hot car, a dead man's ID, and a spiteful blackmailer in tow "there was a greater distance between Sue and me than when I started out."2
The print I saw at the Brattle was almost as road-worn as its hitchhikers; the film crackled and spidered and skipped so many frames that we lost half-sentences out of the dialogue and at points the background noise of the soundtrack went wub wub wub
like an unhappy fan belt. I am sure that if given half a chance the Film Noir Foundation
will produce a 35 mm restoration which this film absolutely deserves, but I feel there is something to be said for seeing a hopeless little fable of self-deluding amorality in an appropriately grindhouse atmosphere. This anti-odyssey brought to you by my well-traveled backers at Patreon
1. At least within the purview of the Production Code. In their every other interaction, as they settle into the perverse domesticity of a shared hotel suite with a deck of cards and a bottle of booze, Vera shows unmistakably who's on top: "In case there's any doubt in your mind, I'll take the bedroom." She says where and when and what next. Her voice drops to its softest and huskiest to inform him, hands on her hips from smoothing down her sweater, "I'm first in the bathtub."
2. There are some sideways fashions in which Detour resembles an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, liminal ending and killer ironies included—or maybe an even more downbeat version of Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), with no last-minute Peter Lorre on tap to free the protagonist from his self-imposed conviction of guilt. I really don't want to make it sound too in keeping with the rest of its genre, though; it's not.