August Film: Detour Analysis

Detour Cover 1

The production of Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 film noir classic Detour is as fabled as the picture itself: reportedly shot over anything from two days up to four six-day weeks, on a small budget costing somewhere between $20,000 and $100,000. Ulmer himself, in an interview given in 1972, asserted that the film took six days to shoot. Yet it subsequently spent more than six months in post-production, which continued from late March until the film’s release on 30 November, as the soundtrack was composed and dialogue cut away to make space for its heady, foggy atmospherics.

Detour was made for the Producers Releasing Corporation, which has been described as the ‘skid row’ of Hollywood’s Poverty Row. PRC made B-movies with a limited roster of acting talent – a few character actors, but mostly youthful up-and-comers or tiring has-beens – and apparently never spent more than $100,000 on a picture, with most of its films costing considerably less and taking little time to complete. In return, the studio afforded its directors total artistic freedom.

Established in 1939, PRC produced and distributed horror films, with The Devil Bat in 1940 showcasing the talents of Bela Lugosi; comedies, with the comedy of errors Misbehaving Husbands in the same year featuring the silent actors Harry Langdon, Betty Blythe, and Esther Muir, as well as the debut of Gig Young; and in 1943 Nabonga, a jungle flick starring Buster Crabbe, marked the debut of Julie London, who winds up living with an overly-protective gorilla, while Hitler’s Madman was an early directorial effort from Douglas Sirk. But in tune with the period, the studio’s focus was on Westerns.

Several film noirs were made with PRC. Edgar G. Ulmer began working with the studio in 1942. Born in 1904 in Olomuoc, which is now part of the Czech Republic but was then within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he spent his formative years in the film industry under the auspices of Max Reinhardt, Billy Wilder, and Fred Zinnemann, before embarking for the United States in 1926 as the art director for F. W. Murnau. Ulmer saw major success in 1934 with The Black Cat, the horror film he directed starring Lugosi and Boris Karloff, which became the biggest box office hit of the year for Universal Pictures. However personal differences saw him exiled from the major studios, and he took up a new career on Poverty Row.

In 1944 he directed Bluebeard, a take on Perrault’s French folktale, starring John Carradine as a strangler who evades the police before falling to his death. The following year, released before Detour, Strange Illusion was another work functioning loosely within the emerging noir genre, this time drawing for its theme upon Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Ulmer had already directed for PRC Tomorrow We Live (1942), Girls in Chains (1943), and the South Seas adventure film Isle of Forgotten Sins (1943). Around the same time as Detour, the drama Club Havana appeared; and in 1946, Her Sister’s Secret. For most of these films Ulmer collaborated with the same people, PRC’s in-house team: the producer Leon Fromkess; the cinematographer Benjamin H. Kline, whose prolific career endured from the start of the 1920s through to the early 1970s; and Leo Erdody, the music director of PRC, who crafted sound effects and frequently utilised source music in his soundtracks, as with Detour‘s ‘I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me’.

PRC had a last noir hurrah in 1947 with Railroaded!, an early picture directed by Anthony Mann, who began his career with a string of film noirs before progressing to the Westerns – often headlined by James Stewart – by which he remains best known. The studio had routinely distributed British imports alongside its own productions, and in 1947 it was acquired by Eagle-Lion Films, a British company owned by J. Arthur Rank. From 1939 until 1947, PRC had produced a total of 179 feature films.

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As the opening credits roll over the start of Detour, we are out on the open road, but moving backwards: ours is a rear view, as Erdody’s music alternately swells, slinks and twinkles furtively, and blows its doleful horns. Al Roberts (Tom Neal), hands thrust in trouser pockets beneath his dishevelled jacket and shirt, paces roadside then stares blankly ahead having hitched a ride in an unknown’s car. He has become a cipher; he looks shattered. Getting off at a bar, he tells a fellow patron that he is heading east, having been west, but otherwise he refuses conversation, until he snaps at the bar dwellers upon hearing the first notes of a song from the jukebox.

Al glumly apologises, and as the scene darkens a lone spotlight shines over his eyes. ‘That tune! That tune!’, he bemoans, and then he narrates:

‘Did you ever want to forget anything? Did you ever want to cut away a piece of your memory or blot it out? 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!’

So begins Al’s flashback, and the body of the film. We are in New York, where Al has a gig playing piano at a club, accompanying a blonde as she gracefully sings ‘I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me’. Al recounts working long nights on the piano at the club – he is shown playing hectically into the early morning – and his steady relationship with the singer, Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake):

‘I was an ordinary healthy guy and she was an ordinary healthy girl, and when you add those two together you get an ordinary healthy romance. Which is the old story, sure. But somehow, the most wonderful thing in the world.’

In retrospect, Al suggests ‘All in all I was a pretty lucky guy’. But at the time he is shown disgruntled with his lot, deprecating his talent on the piano. Then on one evening walk, Sue announces that she is heading to Hollywood, to see if she can make a career. Al responds bitterly, but Sue departs all the same; and after one last performance at the club, lithely and energetically improvising as he stares thoughtfully off into space, Al resolves to make his way too across the country. Calling Sue to inform her of his plans, for a brief moment Al seems happy.

But Al’s journey west goes all wrong. He winds up hitching a ride with a man named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald). When Al laments his difficulties obtaining transport, the man remarks ‘Not much luck huh?’, and Al responds ‘Sure – all bad’. Al soon notices deep scratches on Haskell’s hand, which Haskell describes as the work of ‘the most dangerous animal in the world’, a woman, one of those ‘dames with claws’. And after they have eaten – with Haskell paying for their food – back in the car, as Al drives overnight, the rain pours and Al can’t rouse Haskell from his slumber. When he stops and opens the vehicle door, Haskell tumbles out head first, dead.

Al considers his predicament. Feeling that nobody will believe his account, he disposes of Haskell’s body and feels obliged, for the sake of appearances, to take his wallet and clothes. Assuming the identity of Charles Haskell Jr, he journeys on and reaches California. Al suffers confused, vaguely self-accusatory dreams. And in a twist of fate, he ends up offering a lift to the same dame who violently rejected Haskell’s gross overtures:

‘I turned my head to look her over. She was facing straight ahead, so I couldn’t see her eyes, but she was young: not more than twenty-four. Man, she looked as if she’d just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world! Yet in spite of this I got the impression of beauty. Not the beauty of a movie actress, mind you, or the beauty you dream about when you’re with your wife, but a natural beauty, a beauty that’s almost homely because it’s so real. Then suddenly she turned to face me.’

The woman’s name is Vera (Ann Savage), and recognising Haskell’s car and clothes, she soon gets her claws into Al. She blackmails him, threatening to turn him in to the police unless he does as she says, and stays close to her at all times. The duo reach Hollywood, but Al reflects, ‘It struck me that far from being at the end of the trip, there was a greater distance between Sue and me than when I started out’.

They hole up in a small apartment. Vera first demands that Al sell the car and give her the entirety of the proceeds. But then she discovers in the newspaper that Charles Haskell Jr’s wealthy father lies close to death, and is attempting to locate his son in order to pass on the inheritance. Back in the claustrophobia of their shared apartment, Al and Vera haggle cruelly, and when Al refuses to make a claim on the money, Vera retreats to the bedroom, threatening to call the police. In a drunken stupor she passes out on the bed, with the telephone cord dangling about her neck; and when Al pulls on the cord from underneath the locked door, Vera is strangled and killed.

Al realises he is now in effect a murderer:

‘I was cooked, done for. I had to get out of there. While once I had remained beside a dead body, planning carefully how to avoid being accused of killing, this time I couldn’t. This time I was guilty. I knew it. Felt it. I was like a guy suffering from shock. Things were whirling around in my head. I couldn’t make myself think right! All I could think of was the guy with the saxophone and what he was playing! It wasn’t a love song anymore: it was a dirge.’

And in a sort of coda to the film, he wanders dismally before being picked up by highway patrol:

‘I was in Bakersfield before I read that Vera’s body was discovered […] I keep trying to forget what happened, and wonder what my life might have been if that car of Haskell’s hadn’t stopped. But one thing I don’t have to wonder about: I know. Some day a car will stop to pick me up that I never thumbed. Yes – fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all’.

Apparently this ending was enforced, as the Hollywood Production Code of the time refused to allow murderers to be seen getting away with their crimes.

The deaths of first Haskell then Vera, and some of the details of Al’s assumption of Haskell’s identity, seem so scarcely plausible that we are left to wonder throughout Detour as to the veracity of Al’s narrative. With its framing device and hints of an unreliable narrator, the film bears a deceptively complex narrative structure.

But as much as we may question Al’s version of events, through the consuming and disorientating fog – the film was shot using just one outdoor desert location and only six minimal indoor sets, with fog effects masking cardboard backdrops and providing a dreamlike sense of place; while in several instances Ulmer simply flipped the film negative in order to show different hitchhiking scenes – Detour also has the quality of myth. It is not meant to reveal itself fully to us, not meant to follow any strict daytime logic. It is a myth upon the end of myths, depicting both the absence and the utter futility of the American Dream, westward expansion, and the open road.

Tom Neal – whose own life would follow a similarly convoluted course, as he spent six years in jail for the manslaughter of his wife – endows Al with a profound and desperate pain, shot through the eyes; while Ann Savage brings Vera’s vindictiveness, borne towards the whole world, to a sharp and twisted point against Al’s person. The fatalism at the heart of Detour echoes the literature of Kafka, particularly in his short story ‘A Country Doctor’; and calls forth to the devastating loop which closes Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.

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‘In Detour “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me’ prompts the flashback that frames the narrative. A sign of both a utopian past and a lost future, the song embodies Al’s mistake in believing he could escape his club gig and start a life with Sue in Hollywood. Its lyrics don’t promise love or success but rather profess incredulity that someone so wonderful could love the song’s speaker; even so, Al balks at serving as Sue’s accompanist and playing for little money (a ten buck tip is a “jackpot”) and less respect at the Break o’ Dawn Club. He should complain, for he is clearly possessed of great talent, displayed when he ingeniously transmutes Brahms’s “Waltz in A Major” into an improvised boogie-woogie. Flinn writes that this scene indicates that jazz signifies failure for Al. But it also shows Al using improvisation the same way that the black inventors of jazz did: to turn confinement into liberation. Al’s hitchhiking (geographic improvisation) further indicates that he enjoys playing things by ear. Perhaps sensing that life with Sue would be as insipid as the song, he doesn’t really want to join her.’ – Mark Osteen, Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream (JHU Press, 2012)

‘The difference between a crime film and a noir film is that the bad guys in crime movies know they’re bad and want to be, while a noir hero thinks he’s a good guy who has been ambushed by life. Al Roberts complains to us: “Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” Most noir heroes are defeated through their weaknesses. Few have been weaker than Roberts. He narrates the movie by speaking directly to the audience, mostly in a self-pitying whine. He’s pleading his case, complaining that life hasn’t given him a fair break.’ – ‘Great Movies’ review by Roger Ebert

‘Using unknown actors and filming with no more than three minimal sets, a sole exterior (a used-car lot) to represent Los Angeles, a few stock shots, and some shaky back-projection, Ulmer conjures up a black, paranoid vision, totally untainted by glamour, of shabby characters trapped in a spiral of irrational guilt.’ – Phillip Kemp, World Film Directors, Volume 1: 1890-1945 (H. W. Wilson, 1987)

‘Tom Neal ended up badly: he was involved in violence and did six years in prison. Ann Savage is alive still and sometimes appears at special showings of Detour, an old witch who hardly seems to grasp what she has done. Detour is preserved now, famous and taught, but it only shows that there may be plenty of films as good, as ugly, and as disreputable waiting to be found in the gutter’. – David Thomson, ‘Have You Seen…?’: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (Penguin, 2010)

‘It is no accident that the hitchhiker’s intended destination should be Hollywood where he will find success and happiness. (There is even one shot in which two characters are framed in a window that looks for all the world exactly like a movie screen.) After a decade of Jive Junctions and Women in Chains, of limited options and illusory freedom, of entrapment within the economic imperatives of Hollywood, Ulmer was exceedingly well-equipped to handle Detour‘s desperate fatalism. The film’s grim acceptance of a malignant fate, its deliberate mockery of some of the more facile American myths, its singular admixture of the banal and the bizarre surely reflect the director’s belief in the existence of the illusion of free choice, not the substance of free will. It is hardly surprising that he made of this project perhaps the finest of his ten-day wonders, a forceful and compelling articulation of a distinctive world-view.’ – David Coursen, ‘Detour: Closing Down the Open Road’, Movietone News 48 (February 1946)

Watch Detour at Culturedarm.