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Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., 1924

December 18, 2012

FILM REVIEW

Detour (1945)

A classic noir film by Edgar G. Ulmer is my contribution this week for Overlooked Films and Television over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.


Ever since TCM went off the air in India in September this year, I have been like a fish out of water or, more precisely, like a vintage film buff starved of old black-and-white classic movies. In spite of sitting at my computer and laptop nearly 10 hours a day, it never occurred to me that I could watch films on the internet, if not at work then at least at home.

Finally, last week I saw a few online beginning with Laurel & Hardy, with the entire family, a couple of musicals, and a noir film called Detour, a lucky draw.

While I had no problem watching the comedies and musicals, Detour, true to its name, took me round the bend, the streaming and buffering stretching the 67-minute long film to nearly two hours. But it was worth every minute of the film.

I usually watch movies through a narrow prism: my impressions restricted to the storyline, the acting, and the direction, which rarely goes beyond the tame, “Oh, it’s a Steven Spielberg film! You must see it!!” Or “It’s James Cameron at his best, terrific stuff!”

And then you watch a film like Detour and you realise why some films are better than the best, why some directors are more supremely gifted than others, and why filmmakers like Edgar G. Ulmer leave you hungering for more.

Method is what you are thinking, method in everything that you see and hear and feel, from the time Al Roberts (Tom Neal), a down-on-his-luck nightclub pianist from New York, walks into a roadside inn, orders a drink, smokes a cigarette, gets into an argument with a fellow drinker, chafes at the loud music, and settles down to a quiet sulk, brooding over the cruel blow fate has dealt him. 


“That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” 

Ulmer, a native of Austria, keeps us in the present for about ten minutes or so and then takes us back in time to tell us how fate tripped our grim-faced hero with the day-old stubble and a hat.

Al Roberts, the narrator of this film, plays the piano at a New York nightclub where his girlfriend Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake) sings. One day she decides to move to Los Angeles and make it big in Hollywood. Al is distraught: he wants the two of them to continue performing in the “dump” of a nightclub and eventually get married. But Sue, much as she loves Al, leaves for the west coast.

Unable to live without his girl, Al decides to follow her. He sets out on a rainy night. With barely any money in his pocket, Al hitches a ride all the way to Hollywood, in the car of a rather sleazy but generous gambler, Charles Haskell, Jr (Edmund MacDonald), who pays for their food but then dies mysteriously on a barren stretch of the road. 


"The one way I could cross the country was thumb rides but even after hawking everything I only had enough money to eat...money. You know what that is, the stuff you never have enough of. Little green things with George Washington's picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for. It's the stuff that has caused more trouble in the world than anything else we ever invented, simply because there's too little of it." 

In frantic desperation, Al assumes Haskell’s identity and after dumping his body behind some bushes makes off in his car, with his driving licence and nearly a thousand grand. However, his luck runs out when he stops at a gas station. Our hero, a well-meaning fellow, spots Vera (Ann Savage) thumbing a ride and offers to take her to Los Angeles. What Al doesn't know is that Vera has been with Haskell in his car before. She accepts his offer and life is never the same again for Al Roberts.

Austrian-American director Edgar G. Ulmer
For the next one hour or so of flashback, Edgar G. Ulmer shows us the vamp-ish and venomous side of Vera as she threatens and blackmails Al into passive submission to her demands, till she forces Al’s hand in an unexpected climax.

Cut back to the present, to the highway restaurant where Al is still sitting morosely, nursing his drink…

“Yes. Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

The moment you see Detour, superbly directly by Ulmer, you’ll know at once that it’s a cult film. The ‘B’ movie was made with a shoestring budget and a watertight script in just over a few days. The entire cast numbers fewer than a dozen assorted characters like props in a studio. The characters of Sue and Haskell flitter in and out in their guest roles. That leaves us with the lead pair of Al and Vera, one quiet and subdued, the other fierce and shrill—their wretched lives entwined in a bizarre situation that neither sees coming at first—essayed well by both Tom Neal and Ann Savage. The on-screen chemistry between the two erupts no sooner Vera gets into the car and glowers at Al, who, sitting behind the wheel, suspects nothing initially.

As narrator of the film, Al mouths some fine lines both aloud and to himself. Ann has been given her share of good dialogues too, most of them aimed threateningly at Al. Like the time she tells him, "I'd hate to see a fellow as young as you wind up sniffin' that perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers!" You can actually feel Al's utter sense of helplessness.

My first impression of Detour was this: one morning Edgar G. Ulmer picked up his camera, grabbed hold of Neal and Savage, and said, “Come on, kids, we got a film to make before sundown.” He goes out and makes one of the finest straitjacketed noir films I have seen. There are no detours in the making of this film.


Detour was written by renowned ‘B’ movie screenwriter Martin Goldsmith while the film’s appealing background score was rendered by Leo Erdody.


Next on my viewing list is Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934) starring Boris Karloff

5 comments:

  1. I haven't seen that one. I like the sound of it though.

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  2. Very nice review. A colleague once wrote a book just about road movies. This sounds like one for that book. Watching a movie like this, I'm always thinking of the writer, sitting there banging out a script on an old typewriter, chain smoking cigarettes. And I wonder how much of the noir sourness is really his experience of Hollywood itself.

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  3. Terrific review Prashant - I came across this movie late at night on Italian TV in the early 80s and I can still remember the impact it had. The knowledge that it was made for just a few thousand dollars in about a week just makes its achievement the greater - and you are in for an equally unexpected treat with the marvellously perverse THE BLACK CAT - Really look forward to your thoughts on that on.

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  4. Great review, Prashant. I've never heard of this film, but I sure have heard of Tom Neal who had one of the great 'noir film' faces. I'm adding this title to my list of films to look for in 2013. Lately though I haven't been in a noir mood, been needing things that make me laugh. :)

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  5. Don't know anything about the movie, but I enjoyed your review and I will look around and see if I can find a copy on DVD. I do like vintage films.

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