Sunday, April 7, 2013

Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)

  Al is a piano player in a New York nightclub where he is involved with the singer Sue. He dreams of leaving the nightclub scene behind and making it in Carnegie Hall. One night, Sue informs him of her intent to travel to Hollywood and try her luck there. He opposes the idea, but Sue has made up her mind. After she's left, he finds himself in a slump. Soon, he calls up Sue and asks her about her fortune. When she admits that things aren't going as well as she'd hoped, he tells her he has decided to come live with her in Hollywood. He begins to travel across the states to reach California, hitch-hiking on the way there. He is offered a ride by a man named Charles Haskell who promises to take him all the way to Los Angeles. Haskell, who is constantly popping pills, seems to take Al under his wing, buying his food and even allowing him to drive the car. During heavy rain, Al pulls the car over and tries to prop up the top. He realizes that Charles is not moving. He opens the car door and Charles falls out, hitting his head on the ground. The man is dead, possibly from a heart attack that would explain all those pills. Fearing that the police will pin the death on him, Al hides the body, takes the dead man's money and flees with the car. He has effectively assumed the identity of a deceased. However, on his journey to LA, he comes across a woman, Vera, who has connections with the real Charles Haskell and tries to blackmail him for her own, seedy purposes. His dream to reunite with Sue seems to evade him at every turn.
    Boy was I happy to discover that this film, which has now been on my watch list for quite some time, was only 67 minutes long. I decided to give it a go at 2  in the morning. Also, the film is now in the public domain and is available for free on YouTube here. The perfect kind of movie for a frugal, financially insecure college student short on cash and time. Seriously, go see the film right now! It's so good, technical flaws and all. I absolutely loved the plot. It may not have that many twists and turns, but its atmosphere is what makes it so special. It engulfs everything in its path; a path of destruction similar to the one that Al is forced to go down. Tom Neal, the actor behind Al, is barely noticeable in his role. He is not a character that one can easily root for. Matter fact, I barely felt any pity for him at the end of the movie.
Not in a million years would I give this woman a ride, neither kind

  That, in my opinion, is because Detour is a film that is focused mostly on its story and the aura it creates rather than the people that populate said aura. Those people are engulfed by the film's haunting aura, eaten alive and are never spitted out. They are forever consumed by the noir, never to see the light. Ann Savage as Vera manages to deliver a brilliant performance. In fact, she is perhaps the only person in the film who fights to claw out of the film's throat, her neediness to be heard and obeyed almost a match for the film. Savage's Vera is vile, scrupulous, loud, and aggressive. Her increasing demands belie her original appearance as a lost soul on the side of the road. Her motives shift gear. She is always trying to find a way out. Her struggle is admirable and makes her the most identifiable character in the film.
   That being said, Detour does have its flaws. For one, there is the fact that some of the shots are flipped. I was confused at times by the fact that, when hitchhiking, Al would get into the driver side of the car, with the driver now sitting behind the wheel on the passenger side. For a second, I thought that maybe Detour was a British production. But then, the next shots would show the driver on the correct side and Al now in the correct passenger side. After seeing the film, I immediately googled information about this continuity error and found that the film's low budget prevented the director Edgar G. Ulmer from filming new scenes that would have fixed this problem. In a way, those technical goofs add to the film's success. The world that these characters inhabit is a world void of rules and grotesquely different from our own. It's as if all of the darkness and seediness in our world has made its way into that specific world created by Ulmer. We are able to recognize our surrundings in Ulmer's world, but only through a tainted shard of looking glass.
    Detour is a film that I will continuously revisit. It is film noir at its best. Highly recommended. My faith that there are more amazing Old Hollywood films out there has been restored with my recent screening of Ball Of Fire and Detour.

Ludovico Rating

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