Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Film #28: Detour (1945)

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about a year ago)

20-Words-or-Fewer Summary (no spoilers)

Piano player gets mixed up in two accidental deaths and a vicious harpy of a woman.

Full Blow-by-Blow (A complete summary; spoilers included. Fair warning)

New York night club piano player Al Roberts has a decent life: he plays tunes in a calm night club and is in love with the club's beautiful young songstress, Sue. One night, she expresses her desire to head out to California and try to hit it big. Al doesn't like the idea, wanting to marry Sue and stay in New York, but Sue insists. Al sullenly accepts and watches her leave, promising to get out to the west when he can.

Before long, the separation gets to be too much and Al scrounges what little dough he has and hits the road, hitching his way across the country. In Arizona, he's picked up by Charles Haskell, a fast-talking quick-buck artist with big plans to score some cash in California, then head back to Miami for a bigger score on a horse race. Amidst his endless tales, Haskell tells the tale of his picking up a young girl around Louisiana - a girl who fought off his unwanted advances, leaving him with tell-tale scratches on his hand.

Farther down the road, Al takes the wheel while Haskell seemingly sleeps. Seemingly. In fact, Haskell has quietly died in his sleep. When the drifter Al realizes that he may be suspected of murder, he panics. Instead of waiting for police, he dumps Haskell's body, swaps his clothes, and takes his car, assuming his identity. His plan is to maintain the ruse until he gets to California and can ditch all of the Haskell's belongings, freeing Al to seek out Sue.

Things go even more awry when Al picks up the hitchhiking Vera. Once in the car, not two minutes pass before Vera reveals that she was the girl who fought off Haskell back near Louisiana. Vera knows that Al is not Haskell, and she assumes that he has murdered and robbed him. Despite Al's proclamations of innocence, Vera sees him as a meal ticket who she can blackmail for cash. Al tries to wiggle his way out of it, but is forced to submit to Vera's demands to hand over the cash and stay with her until they can sell the car.

Vera the banshee begins her verbal whippings of Al the schmuck early on.

Just as Al is about to sell the car and be rid of Vera's poisonous suspicion and greed, Vera discovers the dead Haskell's final secret - he was heading to California to milk his rich and terminally ill father for tons of money. Vera tries to force Al to pose as Haskell, in the hopes of squeezing money out of the old man. Al sees this as risky beyond all reason and refuses to do it.

The argument continues back in their motel room, with both Al and Vera threatening to turn one another in to try and get what they want: Vera the money and Al his freedom. The argument heats up, and ends with Al accidentally choking Vera to death with a telephone cord. Al is now connected to two deaths. He sees fleeing as his only choice, so he hits the road.

In the end, we see Al wandering along a dusty road, slowly heading back east. That is, until a police car pulls up and tugs him into it, apparently on suspicion of the two murders. We can presume that Al Roberts' next stop is likely to be death row.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after this most recent viewing, before any research):

Sometimes, going cut-rate ain't so bad.

You know what I mean. It's when you have a hankering for something, but can't be bothered to put forth a full emotional or financial commitment. You go to Taco Bell instead of an actual Mexican restaurant. You read a Dan Brown novel instead of picking up some Alexander Dumas. Sometimes, these lesser substitutes leave you satisfied (Taco Bell), and sometimes they leave you hollow and guilty (Dan Brown). Detour offers that former type of cheap satisfaction.

This movie is like a passable local dive bar. Sure, it's beat up and worn out, the people are a tad shady, and everything could use a refinish or another layer of duct tape. Still, the beer is cheap and there's an indefinable air of comfort. If Double Indemnity is the sleek speakeasy of film noir, Detour is the scuzzy, back-alley joint with dried blood on the floor.

In short, it's a pretty fun watch. I'm not altogether sure why it's proclaimed a classic. Everything about it screams D.I.Y. The acting, while not awful, is far from stellar. The visuals are a touch overdone at times, like when they went a little crazy with a fog machine to give the setting the standard murky quality of noir flicks. The dialogue comes off as a lame imitation of the masters like Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.

And yet, it gets the big things right. The narrative is classic noir flashback, with Al Roberts drifting into a diner, agitation and anger radiating off of him. It's a perfect hook to draw you into his lurid tale of horrible luck. He may not be the brightest or most engaging character, but the story is interesting enough to follow through. How does this weary piano player get into such shape? The noir answer is always the same: a woman. Or, in this case, two women.

Al initially sets out from New York to L.A. to marry the girl he loves, a vapid lounge singer. Once he's on his way and he gets the fateful ride from Haskell, it's as if he's already standing on the gallows and just doesn't know it yet. Once Haskell has his heart attack and Al makes the fatal mistake of swapping identities with him, the wheel are set in motion and can't take him anywhere but the end.

Which brings up Vera. The woman is obviously the femme fatale, but not like any other that I've seen. Rather than the coy, subtle panthers like Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, or even Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past, Vera is a spitting viper. There's nothing subtle about her in the least. She's a 24-going-on-50 road gal. A tattered, leaky bottle of cyanide. She's not in the film for two minutes before I came to hate her. Ann Savage plays her like she was seriously ready to rip out Tom Neal's eyes at any moment. It borders on overacting, but stays just on the right side of it to keep it from laughable.

Here's the scene when Al first picks up Vera. Start at 3:00 in and watch the rest to get the immediate "Do not touch" vibes that crush Al from the get-go:

Yeesh. Maybe he should have just plowed her over at that gas station when he had the chance.

Oddly, I lost my sympathy for Al early on. Once he makes the boneheaded mistake of ditching Haskell's body, I figured he was too stupid to make it through the whole thing. Still, he's such a sad sack that it's painful to watch Vera tear into him and use him as so much cannon fodder.

The story, while not nearly as complex, polished, or thought-provoking as noir classics, is also a case study in restraint. It never tries to do too much. The film is a mere 67 minutes and hustles along. Al's situation goes from sad to shocking, to desperate, to even more desperate, to fatal at breakneck speed. Once again, the film toes the line of moving too quickly, but manages to rein it in just when necessary by having relatively slower moments of argument/discourse between Al and Vera.

The final reminder of how fictional the world of noir is comes with the death of Vera. Yet again, it's almost humorous when Al accidentally strangles her with a telephone wire. I didn't really laugh, but if I had, it would have been laughter in self-defense rather than humor. By this point, the tragedy has reached its highest pitch, and I couldn't help but empathize with Al's desperation and fatalism. The man's goose was thoroughly cooked, and it was visible in every down-turned line of his haggard face. All that remained was the handcuffs.

Detour is a good little film that any fan of old-school noir, either film or literature, would like to some degree. Once more, I'll have to research just why it's held in high regard by critics these days, as I don't see anything particularly special about it. Then again, that's why I'm doing this little project of mine, eh?

Take 2: Why Film Geeks Love this Movie (done after some further research):

Interesting to note that I couldn't find any original reviews, which speaks to the fact that back in '45, Detour didn't make much of a splash. It has only been after decades of people returning to it that it has emerged as a standard.

Roger Ebert has an interesting analysis of Detour, in which he readily points out that the technical shoddiness is a moot point. It all comes down to Al and Vera, particularly Al. Ebert points to the notion of Andrew Britton that the film's narration may actually represent the desperate attempt of a born loser to gain some kind of sympathy from the audience. This means we can see Al as an unreliable narrator who tries to paint himself as far less pathetic, masochistic and culpable than he may truly be. Interesting.

Richard Schickel's quick capsule take at TIME is rather sparse. He does, however, compare Vera and Al locked in a room to Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit Hell. In thinking back on the film, I can see his point.

A final notable discovery about the ending. In those days, films were not allowed to show criminals "getting away with it." This is why, rather than the film ending with Al simply drifting along the road into a fade-out, the cops come along in the last seconds and stuff him into their paddy wagon. Notable because, as I watched the movie, it struck me that a better ending may have been the mystery of Al's true fate. Here's the end of it all. Go to 5:00 to see just how censorship changed it, ever-so (?) slightly:

BONUS!! For anyone interested in taking a gander at the film, go no further than this link. The thing is public domain, so you can watch the whole thing. As mentioned, it's a short one, and you may find yourself intrigued enough to stay with it. I did. Twice. I won't be surprised if I get hooked into it again.

That's a wrap. 28 shows down, 77 to go.

Coming Soon: Notorious (1946):

Nice! Hitchcock makes his first appearance on the list. To boot, I get to see Cary Grant in something other than a screwball comedy, and the ever-stunning Ingrid Bergman.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.