Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Detour - Edgar G. Ulmer - 1945

When we think of the locations in which the classics of film noir were set, usually a combination of stygian back alleys and pernicious drinking dens come to mind as our gumshoe protagonist finds himself way out of his depth in a city of hard knocks. The genre did though create a small niche in its appropriation of the road movie, changing the highways of the United States from a never ending vista of self discovery to a place of fateful self-destruction. The roots of this sub-genre can be seen in the likes of Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937), a tale of an ex-convict on the run for a murder he did not commit, and Raoul Walsh’s Bogie starring trucker flick They Drive by Night (1940). Today though, the most renowned cult classic of this period is a $30,000 poverty row quickie that goes by the name of Detour.

Despite its impoverished birth, the film is not without the previous form to suggest that it may be worthwhile, namely émigré director Edgar G. Ulmer. Though by this point he had been reduced to knocking out ‘made in a week’ b-movie fodder, Ulmer had wandered the hallowed hallways of UFA during the 1920’s, adding his production design talents to such classics as Der Golem (1920), The Last Laugh (1924) and Metropolis (1927) before joining the Diaspora of German talent that headed for Hollywood following the election of the National Socialists. In Hollywood he most famously brought his expressionist talents to the direction of the Lugosi/Karloff picture The Black Cat (1934) before gradually falling out of favour with the major studios.

His talent for the hallucinatory atmospheres of expressionism are still in evidence even here in the story of downtrodden New York dive bar pianist Al Roberts (A permanently perspiring Tom Neal looking not unlike Michael Rooker’s Henry). Roberts becomes disconsolate when the singer in his bar (and his ‘gal’) Sue (a barely used Claudia Drake) decides to leave New York and take the much clichéd stab at fame in Hollywood. Roberts soon decides to follow her, but must make his way across the country by thumbing rides. Once he reaches Arizona, Roberts, whose existence has become increasingly transient, thinks that he has finally found some luck when Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) a shady pill popping bookie in a sleek convertible offers him food and a ride all the way to Los Angeles. His luck is soon out again though when Haskell appears to have a heart attack and upon trying to help him, Roberts becomes convinced that he may have inadvertently caused his death. Fearing police reprisals Roberts decides to hide the body and assume Haskell’s identity until he arrives in LA.

This plan appears to work out until he foolishly picks up a hitchhiker named Vera (Ann Savage, an apt name for a hellcat performance). Vera acts standoffish with Roberts and soon drops the killer line “What did you do with the body?” Vera it transpires had earlier ridden with Haskell and is well aware she is now in the car of a dead man, and so becomes Roberts bête noire, as she makes increasingly ludicrous demands of him in order to secure her silence. The film soon decamps in a Los Angeles of cheap motel rooms and car lots, with Vera thundering around the screen like a fireball hurtling towards the sun, as the film heads towards its bleak denouement.

The film clearly provides an intriguing premise, but the most interesting aspect is Roberts, who as our first person narrator comes across as untrustworthy. His story comes across as the increasingly subjective ravings of a possible madman. This is a guy who despite playing in dive bars, has a David Helfgott like talent for the piano. A man whose girlfriend leaves him to find fame, but then agrees to his on a whim decision of marriage. As his bad luck story continues, Roberts is almost pleading with the audience to believe his increasingly farfetched tale.

Set with knocking out 68 minutes of main feature seat warming fodder, Ulmer somehow created an embittered slice of classic noir, a world where everyone is on the make. Where the only person we are meant to trust may just be the loosest nut of the lot of them.

It seems that this film is now public domain and can be watched or downloaded for your viewing pleasure here, completely gratis! You now have no excuses not to check this king amongst b-movies out.

1 comment:

  1. This is a haunting movie. It stays with you forever. I can remember seeing it on black and white TV back around 1953. It left such a mark on my memory that I rate it as one of the best movies I have ever watched.