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Friday Noir: Detour

Written by Martin Goldsmith Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer U.S.A., 1945

Written by Martin Goldsmith
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
U.S.A., 1945

What are we to make of individuals that, in the eyes of others, appear to be especially lucky or unlucky? Are these people ordained by the heavens to either benefit from glorious providence or suffer the bane of Murphy’s Law, or are their fates the product of their own volitions, even though they may not be aware of it? What of fate itself? Does it truly exist or are humans fully capable of determining their own futures, aligned stars be damned? The answers to those questions rest just as much on whatever facts of the case can be ascertained as what people choose to believe in.

Consider the sorry case of pianist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) in Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 drama Detour.  As the film opens, a sweaty Al, who will continue to transpire profusely throughout the picture for reasons that delightfully go unexplained, wears a gloomy look on his face whilst resting at a diner. A song roars from the jukebox that recalls his Los Angeles-bound singer girlfriend Sue Harvery (Claudia Drake). Al is hitchhiking to the city of angels in order to reconvene with his once main squeeze, the latter having fled to Hollywood from New York with fame and fortune on her mind. Following suit, Al gets a ride from one Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), a jovial bookie also heading to California to earn serious bounty by betting on a horse. Just when it things begin to run smoothly, Charles dies one night while Al is at the control of the wheel. The peculiar circumstances of Charles’ demise could make law enforcement believe Al killed the chap. Lady luck doesn’t seem to care much for Al, for she sends him a fellow hitchhiker, Vera (Ann Savage), who, upon discovering that Al has foolishly taken over Charles’ identity, mercilessly bribes him, every single of her decisions and challenges twisting the proverbial knife deeper into Al’s wound…

Detour is a defining example of several brilliant film staples, some directly related to the sub-genre of noir, others pertaining more generally to principles of good old fashioned storytelling. Chief among its plentiful positives is the fact that so much drama and devilish tension is extracted out of the simplest of premises. As far as plotting is concerned, the film purely deals with how one person struggles to arrive at a desired destination. The fun, so to speak, is in witnessing the hurdles tossed his way that make the aforementioned goal all the more difficult to achieve than originally foreseen. Director Ulmer and editor George McGuire keep the movie reasonably brisk, the final product clocking in at a ‘blink and you miss it’ 67 minutes. Regardless of how brief a film’s running time, creative, intelligent filmmakers will never fail to land all necessary dramatic beats with aplomb. Cursory research on the film’s production reveals that the original shooting script was longer, but several dialogue sequences were cut from the final print. Talk about doing away with any fat whatsoever for the benefit of the final film.

DETOUR, Ann Savage, Tom Neal, 1945

Out of this structural simplicity the filmmakers play with famous tropes of similarly themed dramas of the era. For starters, there is Al Roberts, a truly down on his luck shmuck who self-pities his own existence just as much as he longs to reunite with his sweetheart in the City of Angels. Al is, for all intents and purposes, the archetypical noir protagonist. In fact, lending him the title of protagonist is practically a misnomer for he isn’t very proactive at all. Much more happens to him rather than him making things happen, but is such not the unavoidable lot of saps of his ilk? For that matter, a pertinent query would be: just how unlucky is he? The film’s opening minutes, which showcase both Al’s current flustered temperament at the diner and a flashback to the last time he was with Sue in New York, paint the portrait of a man that is admittedly wrestling with taxing circumstances, but also gives in to a degree of self-pity and whining. Few would describe him as a fellow unworthy of empathy, but nor is he helping himself with his pessimistic, self-defeatist attitude.

What a striking theme for a noir to tread its path: the hapless, befallen anti-hero, consistently receiving the short end of the stick, yet simultaneously worsening his case with a spineless persona and occasionally ill-guided decision making. Does he deserve better? Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. That’s the beauty of Ulmer’s picture, the refusal to answer that very question, preferring to pound Al (and the viewer) with more examples of bizarre predicaments born out of circumstances both within and beyond the character’s control. Kudos to actor Tom Neal, who effortlessly makes Al Roberts the saddest looking man in the world, someone the viewer wants to see earn good fortune and give a shiner to.

The endeavour’s laudable thespian qualities certainly do not begin and end with Neal, however convincing he is as a loveable loser. Nay, a soul of Al’s lowly stature requires an antithesis to beat him down. That force takes the shape of Ann Savage as Vera. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Who knows why Vera is scorned, but that’s almost beside the point. She is the Ying to Al’s Yang in the most masochistic way possible. She sees in him an opportunity to make serious money via a scheme so morally risible the devil himself would blush. She argues that Charles’s father, reported in the newspaper as nearing death and extraordinarily wealthy, would not even recognize Al, and so the latter should pose as the dying man’s son to collect the fortune. In contrast, Al is too inept to get out the grisly fix that fate has concocted, and as such could benefit from Vera’s street smarts, even though she is the personification of moral bankruptcy. Nasty business, that Vera, but if it means not being wrongfully convicted of Charles’ death, then perhaps shaking hands with the devil has its benefits. Ann Savage lets loose in her role as Vera, vociferously ploughing her way through her scenes with Neal. Being bad never looked so attractive, or as much fun. Ironically, director Ulmer inserts a couple of deliberate scenes, particularly when Vera is drunk, briefly hinting that she herself might be a sad, lonely figure much like the victim of her torment.  

Detour is as b-movie as they come. Short, a bit rough around the edges, fired up by an entertaining script that embraces cynicism, the film demonstrates the power of how simple plotting is fervent territory for complex storytelling. Unfortunately, this is a long lost art in mainstream filmmaking, with modern scripts feeling the urge to cram as much plot as possible into their movies, symptomatic of ill conceived aspirations of complexity. More often than not, the results feel more laborious than provocative. Cinephiles as well as filmmakers with a penchant for b-movies, would do well to spend some time with Ulmer’s picture. It’s well worth the detour.

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