Director: Edgar G. Ulmer / Screenplay: Martin Goldsmith / Editing: George McGuire / DP: Benjamin H. Kline / Music: Leo Erdody
Cast: Tom Neal / Ann Savage / Claudia Drake / Edmund MacDonald / Tim Ryan / Pat Gleason
Hanging on the Telephone...
‘Edgar Ulmer was an enigma. A true original, who never got the career his talent deserved.’ Discuss.
An Austrian émigré, Ulmer began his career in Weimar Germany as a production designer for impresario Max Reinhardt, before following him to Hollywood in 1924. After befriending – and learning from – Expressionist luminaries such as Murnau, Ulmer returned to Germany for a brief spell where, in the company of a young Billy Wilder & Robert Siodmak, he co-directed the hugely influential Menschen am Sonntag (1930). A ‘documentary-realist’ picture quite unlike anything seen before, ‘People on Sunday’ was to prove a creative marker for all the talents involved.
Naturally, on his return to the ‘States, Ulmer rightly expected a high-profile directing career to rival his Austro-German contemporaries. His first job of any note, in 1934, was helming The Black Cat for Universal Studios. Based on a disturbing tale of ritualistic sacrifice from Edgar Allan Poe, ’Cat might’ve starred both Béla Lugosi & Boris Karloff (then the studio’s leading stars) but its themes were far too dark for either Universal’s tastes or a wider audience. While that alone might’ve given the ‘Suits’ cause to slow Ulmer’s rise, the final straw came when he embarked on a compromising romance with the wife of the Chairman’s nephew… It seems this alone was enough to deny Ulmer the plum jobs and, as a result, he embarked on a second-string career directing ‘B-Movies’; the cheaply-made ‘bonus features’ that formed the lower-half of a cinema’s double-bill.
To help him in this lower-browed field, was that renowned maestro of (and later graduate from) the B’s William Wyler. I get the impression that it was Wyler, among others, who advised Ulmer of the B-movie’s singular advantage over mainstream fare: that the bigger the budget, the less a studio lets you use it… A statement as true today as it’s ever been. Give a Director a minuscule budget and tight schedule and they’ll be forced to think – and act – creatively, in-search of solutions to problems that, for bigger pictures, just wouldn’t exist!
Detour certainly fits that description. By 1945, Ulmer had directed a long string of B’s, not all of which survive to the present day; their lowly status deemed unworthy of universal preservation. Many of these, had been for the PRC studio (‘Producers Releasing Corp.’); a shoestring operation at the ‘Poverty Row’ end of Hollywood; the kind of place where new stars were born and old ones came to die. Along the way however, he’d proven himself a reliable director, just as he’d always intended, so when Detour arrived from playwright Martin Goldsmith, Ulmer had no trouble envisaging a modest interpretation.
As the script tightened-up, the modest budget was adjusted to cover a smoke machine; essential to mask the absence of everything else in the production’s few interior sets: little more than a diner, a two-room apartment and a jazz club, with a few exteriors & location shots. Anything cheaper and Ulmer would have had to pass the hat round… The movie’s running time (all of sixty eight minutes) would be dominated by scenes in one car, shot against back-projected scenery; Ulmer donating his own Lincoln convertible, to trim the budget still-further. Legend has the eventual shoot lasting just six days, but studio papers cite twenty-eight. Given that Ulmer liked to embellish his own legend, like his hero Orson Welles, let’s go with six…
We begin with Tom Neal as Roberts; a scuzzy-looking drifter, minding his own business in a ‘mom & pop’ roadside diner. A friendly trucker offers him a lift: an offer Roberts is quick to spurn with a snarl. As if in defiance, the trucker then selects a track from a jukebox: a melody of some importance to Roberts, that Ulmer conveys by pushing-in close to his face and cutting lights, to leave just his eyes gleaming. He does it again, moving the camera from a close-up of a coffee-cup, to a platter in the jukebox then on to the bass drum of the band; a series of circular elements that reinforce both familiarity for Roberts, as much as unavoidable links & causations. It’s an effective technique that isolates this embittered man and introduces the segue into a flashback of the jazz club, where Roberts played piano.
Neal – a pouting, surly actor for whom Roberts represented a modest stretch of his talents – has somehow managed to snag the heart of Sue, the club’s singer played by Claudia Drake. They both yearn for higher, better things, though with Roberts’s downcast air, you get the inescapable feeling he’s doomed from the start, poor sap. She might be crooning I can’t believe that you’re in love with me into his ear, but when she announces her imminent departure for a clean start in L.A., Roberts’ the one left doleful.
He wants to marry; She doesn’t want to tarry…
So, he follows her across-country, cadging lifts and living like a hobo, until he’s picked up by Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald). They get along. Roberts notices a trio of deep scratches on Haskell’s hand; a souvenir from the last hitcher to sit up-front. Haskell explains: ‘I was tussling with the most dangerous animal in the World. A woman!’
After Roberts is fed & watered by Haskell, he settles back to drive through the night while Haskell sleeps. The car is a luxurious & powerful convertible and Roberts can’t believe his luck: he even visualises Sue singing that song once more; a sure sign, as any storyteller knows, that it’s NEVER going to happen…
In this story, author & screenwriter Goldsmith has Haskell die in his sleep… Roberts only notices, when it starts raining and he has to stop to raise the car’s roof. Haskell falls out when he opens the door; banging his head on a rock, thus confusing the situation: did he die in his sleep or just then? You or I, when faced with that situation, would – probably – flag-down a passing car or drive on to the nearest sign of life and call an ambulance, but not our sad-sack of an anti-hero. Oh, no: he drags the body out to a hidden gully and takes Haskell’s money, suit and driving licence: now we have ourselves a movie!
More than that, we also have ourselves an ‘unreliable narrator’. In watching the film, it became clear to me, that we’re only watching events suggested by Roberts’ after-the-fact voiceover! Therefore, there’s a good chance we’re watching the version of events that Roberts wants us – and everyone else – to believe! Tired of waiting in the hot sun for rides that never came, maybe he really DID kill Haskell…
No matter, for things are about to get a whole lot worse for this loser. Whilst at a desert filling-station topping-up the car’s water, Roberts is feeling generous on account of his sudden ‘good fortune’ and offers a ride to a girl ‘Who looked like she’d just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world!’ This’ll be Vera (Ann Savage), though at this stage, she’s revealing little of the trouble she brings. No, that comes when she wakes after ‘a short doze and comes out with this:
Where did you leave his body? Where did you leave the owner of this car? You’re not foolin’ anyone! This buggy belongs to a guy named Haskell. That’s not you, mister!
No pre-amble. No chit-chat. Vera’s at Roberts’ throat in a blink.
He might be a loser, but Roberts has nous enough with which to join-the-dots: this is the same firebrand who scratched Haskell’s hand: and now she believes Roberts killed him! What other explanation could this tramp believe? When Roberts explains what’s happened, Vera’s disbelief is only confirmed when the cash-roll is revealed to be a fraction of what Haskell himself, had led her to believe. In other words, their original squabble just might have stemmed from promises made and promises broken…
Either way, Vera’s not getting what she feels entitled to, so she announces to a startled, meek Roberts, her intention to keep him around long enough to sell the car and make-off with the proceeds.
Roberts: ‘Of course, your interest wouldn’t be financial, would it? You wouldn’t want a small percentage of the profits?’
Vera: ‘Well, now that you insist, how can I refuse? A hundred per-cent will do!’
Roberts: ‘Fine. I’m relieved. I thought for a moment you were going to take it all!’
Vera: ‘I don’t want to be a hog…’
This being Hollywood, 1945, you couldn’t just ‘sell the car’ without a matching address in the same state, so Vera’s first job (after belittling Roberts’ naiveté) is to rent a small apartment, using a chunk of Haskell’s dwindling cash as a deposit. These two people utterly hate each other, but Fate (well, Vera) has lumped them together, so they’ve got to grin and bear it. That first night together, after Vera’s beaten Roberts to the bathtub, there’s the possibility of sex. It hangs in the air between them like a fog, but Roberts isn’t entirely stoopid and brushes her off, though it got me thinking about Vera’s character. What might she have been through to end-up this embittered & manipulative? There’s a story in there…
Next day, after Vera’s taken an age to get ready, having spent more money on a new hairdo & dress, they visit a used-car dealer, but the Lincoln’s not worth as much as either hoped.
Having no choice, Roberts is about to sign the Bill of Sale, when Vera bursts into the office to call it off. Back in the car, she explains: whilst he’d been with the dealer, she’d bought a newspaper (?) and discovered that Haskell’s wealthy old man was dying… Moreover, a search had begun for his estranged son, last seen fifteen years before: a point confirmed to both Roberts & Vera in their conversations with the late Haskell. Vera’s logic is simple: given the years that’ve passed, she thinks it a ‘snap’ for Roberts to impersonate the long-lost son and inherit. They can then split the proceeds fifty-fifty. Vera’s greed is nothing, if not ambitious.
This sets in-motion a riveting climax to Ulmer’s movie, as they return to the apartment to ‘think it through’. Vera’s now blackmailing Roberts; threatening the police if he doesn’t collaborate. From her viewpoint, she’s done nothing wrong and is prepared to do whatever she has to, in order to come out of this ahead. Ulmer’s art is imitating life. The lives of these wretched people are as disposable as the film in which they appear; their own budgets, equally mean…
In previous Noir reviews, I’ve outlined a few of the genre’s key tropes, without really explaining the importance of the ‘Femme Fatale’; the leading woman who weaves a doomy, fateful spell about all whom she encounters. In the case of Detour, I’d go one step further and cite Vera as a prime example of a particular kind of ‘Fatale: that of the ‘Spider Woman’. Typically, male characters in Noir, look to control a woman and channel her sexuality, to avoid being destroyed by it. But when a woman has enough self-knowledge to spin a web around her own sexuality, she becomes all-powerful. She lurks in the shadows (sometimes literally) and waits for her next unwitting victim. Think of Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s unforgettable Sunset Boulevard (1945) for example.
Yet in Detour, Vera needs no shadow: sprung from the traps like a greyhound, she’s latched onto a convincingly pliable rabbit… From the first moment we see her, in a tightly-cinched cardigan (look closely to get hints of the safety pins at her back) Vera knows what she’s got and how to use it. This girl’s a street-fighter. A venomous Harpy, about thirty years ahead of her time. In Savage’s hands – and blessed with Goldsmith’s hard-boiled dialogue – Vera shocks, even today, because she’s so unexpected; so salty. Think of all the other leading-lady roles being written, offered & directed at the time: Vera’s as far from these simpering nonentities as it’s possible to be!
This is all happening under Ulmer’s direction, lest we forget. He’s taken Wyler’s maxim to-heart, directing a B-Movie with no real stars, sets or budget to speak of, yet creating a movie that, somehow, captures lightning-in-a-bottle; something far greater than the sum of its parts.
Can you imagine what a mainstream studio would’ve made of the material, let alone if presented with Ulmer’s interpretation? As it was, PRC’s budgets were so modest to begin with, they could afford to take such outliers in their stride. The one compromise made on the film, is a gratuitous ending in which our ‘hero’ gets picked-up by a passing Highway Patrol, imposing the unspoken message that even a B-Movie couldn’t get away with showing a consequence-free outcome which, until that moment, it showed every sign of doing. This, then, is ‘Pulp Fiction’ before Tarantino gave it currency and it’s not hard to see how Tarantino might’ve drawn on elements of this very picture for his masterpiece.
Not that it’s perfect: how could it be? The back-projection work is wilfully awry, as if Ulmer was shooting too fast to notice – or care – about continuity. Aside from the plot-holes (Vera buying that paper being just one), we should also consider the flaws in Roberts’ train-of-thought: Vera knows nothing of his true identity. All he has to do, is bust-out of the apartment and run faster than this drunken harridan! Once lost in L.A., he can go to Sue and disappear. Besides, when the cops are mentioned, it’s soon realised they’re looking for Haskell: a dead man who’ll tell no tales… That Roberts sticks-around, just raises more questions about his own weak complicity in the situation: a truth exploited by Vera at every turn.
Roger Ebert put it thus: ‘The difference between a Crime movie and a Noir movie, is that the bad guys in a Crime movie know they’re bad and want to be, while a Noir hero thinks he’s a good guy who has been ambushed by life.’ Well, isn’t that Roberts? A whining, self-pitying complainer who, even as he’s ushered into a police-car, gives us this winsome nonsense: ‘Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all!’
You’re kidding, right?
To watch Detour again, Dear Reader, is to understand that, sometimes, characters really do go through life wearing signs pinned to their backs, that read ‘Kick me’ and, in that sense, Roberts deserves everything that comes to him; a fate shared by Tom Neal himself. A Z-list actor, Neal would wind-up in prison for the manslaughter of wife #3; life imitating art, indeed.
And what of Ulmer? He would reign as ‘King of the Bs’ until his last film – The Cavern (1964) – always searching for an elusive career breakout that, somehow, never came; Babes in Bagdad anyone?
This was early in the evening and the conversation, while hectic, was at least pitched low. But as the minutes passed and more obstacles to her plan popped into my mind, the air got blue. Each word coming from our lips cracked like a whip.
Detour Triple Word / Score: VENOMOUS / PULPY / MIRACULOUS / EIGHT
Notes on the Restoration: Detour fell out of copyright years ago, spawning numerous VHS & DVD editions based on 2nd or 3rd generation copies. As a result, the film’s neglect chimed happily with this grimy tale of deadbeat grifters. That is, until the American Film Institute, on the suggestion of Ulmer’s daughter, located a high quality print in Brussels, albeit one with Flemish subtitles ‘burnt-in’ to the frames. Thanks to funding from the George Lucas Foundation, these were digitally removed and the whole film restored to a point where it’d never looked better. Congratulations to all concerned on a job well done and my thanks to Criterion for the chance to re-acquaint myself with a film I’d last seen, on one of those dodgy VHS tapes back in the day.
CarolMay 1, 2019 at 15:24
FANTASTIC analysis of one of my favourite noirs!
Mister GMay 1, 2019 at 15:30
High praise indeed, Carol: thank You!