by Robert Weston
This grade ‘B’ suspenser is one of the darket studies in film noir.
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“I keep trying to forget what happened and wonder what my life might have been like if that car of Haskel’s hadn’t stopped. But one thing I don’t have to wonder about, I know. Someday 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.”
In my final undergraduate year I enrolled in a tiny history course. With only a handful of students Dr. Baker, the professor, developed a close relationship with each student. She was a historian first and a “film freak” second. One Sunday a month, Dr. Baker invited a number of her students to her home for a Sunday Night Film Salon, featuring booze, finger-food and a movie. Baker’s only stipulation was that no one in attendance could have already seen the film she selected. Late in the year, Dr. Baker and I were discussing the finer points of the Golden Age. She mentioned that she hadn’t screened any of the old film noir lately.
“How about Key Largo?” I gushed, “The Big Sleep?”
“You know Bogart isn’t a necessary prerequisite.”
“The Blue Dahlia then.”
“Have you ever seen Detour?” she asked me.
“Never heard of it.”
“Well then, we’ll see you Sunday.”
Detour is one of the blackest film noir ever produced during the classic 1935 to 1955 period. The film’s darkness in both style and content owes much to its fabled director, Edgar G. Ulmer. Ulmer got his start as a set and production designer at the heart of German expressionism. He worked on all the most important contributions to the silent expressionist cannon: Paul Wegener’s The Golem, F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang’s M, to name a few.
Ulmer came to Hollywood in 1923, where he began work at Universal working with the likes of Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmark, and William Wyler. In 1934, he reached the highpoint of his career at Universal with The Black Cat, which boasts a rare screen appearance of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in the same film. During his time at Universal, Ulmer began a love affair with Shirley Kassler Alexander, wife of Max Alexander (who in turn was nephew to Universal top executive Carl Laemmle). Shirley divorced Kassler and remarried Ulmer, a turn of events that led to a severe blackballing; Laemmle used his considerable influence to turn Ulmer into an industry pariah. Ulmer and Shirley moved to New York, where Ulmer began making small films for specialized, ethnic audiences. Included in this group are little-known films such as the Yiddish film The Light Ahead, the Ukrainian Cossacks In Exile and the African-American Moon Over Harlem, all made around 1939.
In the early 1940’s, when some of Laemmle’s heat had subsided, Ulmer was able to return to Hollywood and take advantage of a more established filmmaking infrastructure. Unfortunately, he was relegated to working on “Poverty Row,” an area of Hollywood where impoverished independent studios churned out short-run, super-cheap, B-grade material in the crushing shadow of the “Big Five” studios. It was here that Ulmer shined, producing the films for which he is most remembered including Strange Illusion (1945), an odd adaptation of Hamlet, and Detour. Films such as these have since prompted fellow director Peter Bogdonavitch to praise, “Nobody has ever made good pictures faster or for less money than Edgar Ulmer,” and film critic Michael Wilson to call Ulmer, “the patron saint of all film pirates.”
Detour is no exception. The film is closer to a simple stage play than a movie, with little more than three actors and two principal sets: a wayward convertible and a two-bit hotel room. Detour spins the forbidding tale of Al Roberts (Tom Neal), a piano-player in a smoky New York nightclub. His fiancée Sue (Claudia Drake) also performs at the club but wants to try her luck in Hollywood. Roberts is reluctant to let her go, but has faith his ladylove can make it the land of broken dreams. Later, Roberts quits his job and begins a lonely trip to California to start a new life with Sue. With no money, he hitchhikes cross-country eventually getting a lucky break when Charles Haskell (Edmund McDonald) picks him up—Haskell is headed all the way to Los Angeles.
As he drives, Haskell is popping pills from the glove compartment. Roberts notices some nasty scratches on the back of Haskell’s hand. Haskell tells his passenger he “was tussling with the most dangerous animal in the world—a woman.” When Haskell accidentally conks himself on the head and succumbs to his unnamed illness, Roberts is the obvious man to pin with a murder rap. Although innocent of any crime, Roberts buries the body and takes Haskell’s car in an effort to escape the inevitable suspicion.
Further down the road, Roberts takes pity on Vera, a fellow hitchhiker (Ann Savage). Unfortunately, Vera is same woman Haskell “tussled” with earlier. She recognizes Haskell’s car and doesn’t believe of word of Roberts’ outlandish but true story. Vera is one of the nastiest femme fatales in all of film noir and the monumentally luckless Roberts is in for a world of vindictive, claustrophobic blackmail.
Principal photography for Detour lasted only three days on a budget that set the low point on the measuring rod for shoestring. Nevertheless, Ulmer wrung as much atmosphere from this Poverty Row picture as seen in some of the best examples of the genre. In fact, the film is often so formally “noir” that it is in danger of coming off as satirical. In the opening sequence in New York, the city streets are so dark and foggy that the actors are little more than anomalous blurs. In the café where Roberts recounts his story in a cynical monologue, close-ups abound on his world-weary eyes and steamy cup of Joe. You can practically taste the grim dregs of coffee grounds at the bottom of the mug.
When we had finished watching Detour in Dr. Baker’s living room, everyone was impressed. Then, to discover the severely limited resources Ulmer had at his disposal made the film all the more remarkable. Baker’s husband mentioned that he thought the film was the most existential film he’d ever seen. Baker’s husband suggested the Roberts character was similar to Mersault, the detached protagonist of Albert Camus’ existential novel The Stranger. Mersault is an average, perhaps even boring man who murders an Algerian Arab in a twist of fate. He is found guilty and sentenced to death in a trial that employs absurd and irrelevant evidence against him. All the while Mersault does little to defend himself, impassively accepting his fate until the very end of the novel.
Certainly, there are similarities between Roberts and Mersault. They are both involved with an ambiguous death. They are both victims of a cruel and inexplicable fate, against which they are altogether impotent. They both come to an unfortunate and inescapable end, which they accept with eerie detachment. Yet there is nothing existential about Detour. To claim that the film is an existential document is to negate the most important part of the philosophy and to be caught in the common misconception that existentialism is identical to fatalism.
While they are related, the idea that fate is predetermined is only one possible facet of existentialism. Depending on whom you talk to, it isn’t even necessary to an existential way of seeing the world. There are two important things in the existential view: 1) the universe is objectively meaningless and 2) it remains meaningless until an individual develops his/her own personal set of beliefs. By comparison, fatalism is a gloomier view of the world in which everything—values, society, the universe itself—is predetermined. Existentialism, on the other hand, places high value on free will, especially in the face of insurmountable odds. There is even a surprisingly optimistic group of existential theists who believe the universe has significant meaning but human beings are incapable of understanding it, so we are forced to produce up our own value systems.
Al Roberts is trapped smack-dab in the middle of a fatalistic world. He is a hapless pawn of fate and all his decisions are made in reaction to his haphazard state of affairs. Unlike the (anti) heroes of other film noir movies, Roberts does not make objective decisions of how to run his life. There is never a clear system of beliefs by which he lives.
Yet this pessimism does not take anything away for the viewer. In fact, the combination of hard-core fatalism and the claustrophobia created by Ulmer’s severe budgetary constraints is what makes Detour such an undeniable cult favourite. Nowhere else is the hapless film noir hero so unrelentingly pushed and pulled and torn apart by chance. Certainly, a lot of the classic film noir movies draw their themes from existential ideas, but a good noir doesn’t need existentialism to be great. After all, it is fatalism, not existentialism that makes Detour the delightfully blackest of the noir.
Notes: Detour was faithfully remade (also on a zero budget) in 1992 with Tom Neal Jr. playing the lead role originally portrayed by his father. The remake was directed by Wade Williams, an eccentric collector and distributor of science fiction films.
Robert Weston is a freelance writer living in Toronto.
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