Wednesday, September 9, 2015
CANON OF FILM: "DETOUR"
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Screenplay: Martin Goldsmith based on his novel
“Detour,” is one of those movies you watch and then spend the rest of your life trying to forget about it completely, which surprises a lot of people because it looks like the kind of movie which looks as though it’s completely easy to forget. It was shot in six days at basically two locations, one of them being the inside of a car, and was made on such a low-budget that it makes “Clerks,” looks like “Jurassic Park,” (and that’s not an understatement), and at maybe 65 minutes in length, it barely constitutes a feature length film, and even then scenes were added later and much of the film involves stock footage. I first saw the film on the big screen during a film noir class and thought it was the worst film I saw in that class, and immediately wrote it down as one of the worst films I’d ever seen. After viewing it a couple more times however, I slowly realized it's a must-see for film noir aficionados, but also as an absolute must-see not only as a movie, but as a guide to young filmmakers on how to make a film on a budget. It becomes better on multiple watches as well, as you can appreciate how well the story is told, despite the very limited abilities of the stars, the directing, and all other aspects really. (It also works better when you take up Andrew Britton's theory about point of view, as we only get the story of the main narrator, who on second or third viewings, seems more untrustworthy the more you watch)
The movie involves a lounge pianoplayer, Al (Tom Neal) in a New York City which consists almost entirely of fog, who has supposedly fallen in love with a dame named Sue, who’s moving to Los Angeles, and after not finding any enjoyment out of a $10 tip, he decides to hitchhike to L.A. to find Sue, who is apparently so dense that she can’t even talk on the other end of a telephone. Then, he gets a ride in Arizona with a guy named Haskell (Edmund McDonald) . Haskell tells a tale of going to L.A. to inherit from his dying rich father. First of all, half of the time, the car seems to be British, and the other half of the time, it’s going east when it should be going west. These logic mistakes, and there are dozens of them, are what the movie is really about, it’s about having to manipulate a camera and a situation to tell a story. Anyway, back to the actual story, Haskell also mentions that he dropped off a dame earlier who was driving him, not crazy, suicidal. He refers to her as a girl with claws. Soon after this, he dies of a heart attack and Al thinking that the cops would figure that he killed him anyway, decides to bury the guy and take his clothes and ID and starts taking the car to L.A., and stopping where at a motel for the night after one close call with the cops, and then to a motel to have a dream about all of the actions of the night before. This is a clue to the movie, as the film is actually about what the guy is telling us happened, and not necessarily what actually happened. Then, he sees a poor girl at a gas station that looks like hell, and he offers her a ride, but than it becomes apparent that the girl, Vera (Ann Savage) is the girl with claws, who can only speak in bitch, and not nice bitch either. Never has there been a femme fatale less attractive to the eye or the ear. He sticks with her because she basically bribes/forces him to, and so that she can get some of the money by Al acting as Haskell.
Honestly, there isn’t too much else to say, the movie gets fairly predictable from here, with Vera spewing off everything but actual four-letter words, before eventually getting what she deserves. The last scene in the movie was added after the Hollywood Production Code said that all characters must pay for any sins in some way, and it’s one of few times you get an early example of protest of the standards and practices that weren’t abolished until about a decade later. It's a dark movie that story-wise is probably more influential than it seems, but more than that, this is one of the earliest films that really show how you can make a good, cohesive movie without having, a budget, much less a big budget. It was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, who was talented; he was as assistant for many of the great German Expressionist filmmakers before moving to Hollywood and becoming a consistent go-to director who could make anything. This is oddly his most famous film, this low-budget barely a movie that was a B-movie on a long-forgotten double feature, but it holds up.