Sunday, 8 December 2019
Noir Diary # 7:
(Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)
“I was just a lad, nearly twenty two
Neither good nor bad, just a kid like you
And now I'm lost, too late to pray…”
- Hank Williams, ‘Lost Highway’ (1949)
If the canonical ‘A List’ of ‘40s Film Noir is largely made up of relatively lavish studio pictures which were recognised as commercial and critical successes right from the out-set (‘Double Indemnity’, ‘The Big Sleep’, ‘Mildred Pierce’, and so on), the ubiquity of these “big hitters” only serves to make the corresponding ‘B-list’ - comprising lower status studio programmers, independent productions and poverty row quickies which have had to fight tooth and nail for their cult status (and indeed their very survival) across the decades – all the more alluring to the genre’s fans.
Broadly speaking, these B-Noirs were a few years behind their Hollywood counterparts, hitting their creative peak around the dawn of the ‘50s, as crime films and mysteries slid further down the movie industry food chain and the fractured disillusionment of post-war masculinity began to make its presence felt on the cultural margins, but the film which many would consider the very best of the B-Noirs – perhaps the definitive exemplar of the style, even – actually hit far earlier, having been shot whilst the war overseas still raged.
Right off the bat, it’s easy to see why 1945’s ‘Detour’ has acted as pure cat-nip for critics and cineastes over the years. The work of an enigmatic, cult director frequently name-checked in Cahiers du Cinéma, this sub-70 minute item from ‘poverty row’ mainstays PRC boasts bold, expressionistic visuals, brutally minimal plotting and a script ripped to the gills with frazzled pulp-poetic artistry - much of it spat out with psychotic fervour by hate-choked harridan Ann Savage, truly an anti-heroine for the ages. (“Who do you think you’re talking to - a hick? Listen Mister, I been around, I know a wrong guy when I see one. Whatcha do, kiss him with a wrench?”) (1)
Beyond any of those considerable pleasures however, ‘Detour’ is chiefly notable I think for the way it pushes the comfortingly moralistic metaphysics of Hollywood noir way off the deep end into pure, unmoored existential fatalism.
To not put too fine a point on it, the classic ‘man’s-decent-into-hell’ narrative of noirs in the ‘Double Indemnity’ tradition tend toward a Judeo-Christian, or even specifically Catholic, view of things. The protagonist’s journey to perdition begins from the moment his moral judgement lapses, when greed or lust temporality take control of his actions. Thereafter, he finds himself rocketing straight toward a fate which, though it may seem puritanically harsh, is not unfair within the film’s moral schema. At the end of the day, it is the characters’ own weakness which leads them to damnation; the old ‘original sin’ jive writ large.
In ‘Detour’ however, poor old Al Roberts (Tom Neal) sets out to hitchhike coast-to-coast from New York to L.A. with nothing but love in his heart, and a healthy disinterest in monetary gain. (“What was it anyway,” he asks himself as he contemplates a ten dollar tip. “A piece of paper crawling with germs. Couldn't buy anything I wanted.”)
Al’s only aim in life is to re-join his beloved fiancée in California, and the extraordinary set of circumstances which instead find him heading back east with two potential murder raps hanging over him, a dead man’s bankroll in his pocket, no legal name or identity and the harried, unshaven face of a Death Row inmate, are not his fault in any way whatsoever. They are simply the result of extremely bad luck and a few botched attempts at self-preservation. As he puts it himself, in the voiceover monologue which comprises probably the film’s most famous dialogue;
“That's life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you. […] Yes, fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all.”
Who but the shadow-haunted Edgar G. Ulmer could dish out this kind of full strength Franz Kafka shit to the Great American Public a few months after VJ day, and call it entertainment? I ask you. No wonder us weirdos here in Europe love him so much.
You’d imagine our protagonist must have been around the block a few times during his time as a New York nightclub pianist, but there’s nothing in the film to indicate that he’s used to dealing with this level of sleazoid craziness. (Neal’s nervous “uh, yep” responses to Haskell’s ‘locker room banter’ are great.)
More than anything, Roberts’ time with Haskell strikes me as a precursor to the kind of traumatic exposures of youthful, rational innocence to psychopathic, criminal experience which David Lynch always likes to include in his films – think Jeffrey encountering Frank for the first time in ‘Blue Velvet’, or Balthazar Getty sharing a ride with Robert Loggia’s Mr. Eddy in ‘Lost Highway’ (a film whose title would have been perfect for this film incidentally, had Hank Williams only had the good grace to record his definitive rendition of Leon Payne’s song a couple of years earlier).
And if Al thought Haskell was bad news, well… just wait until fate sticks out a particularly gangrenous foot and puts Vera (Ann Savage) in his path - good god.
In deference to standard film noir lingo, I’ve read Savage’s character described on various occasions as a ‘femme fatale’, but that designation feels both woefully off-base and laughably inadequate when it comes to trying to define Vera. No weak-assed “seductive spider luring unsuspecting men into her web” shit for this gal – she’s a full-on Amazonian destroyer right from the out-set, heart full of hate, claws at the ready and eyes black as coal.
Clearly a stronger and more lethal denizen of the same predatory netherworld that Haskell sprang from (it was she who left him with those aforementioned claw-marks), Vera is a venom-spitting, animalistic witch whom the script gifts with absolutely no redeeming qualities or sympathetic characteristics whatsoever.
We could sketch in the kind of hellish upbringing which must have led her to adopt such an unholy attitude at the tender age of twenty-four, but you’ll get little help from the script in that regard, beyond an implication (unconfirmed) that she is slowly dying from TB or some similar condition. Or, we could go for a straight misogynistic reading and blame her with dragging Roberts down to hell… except for the fact that Haskell’s death had already left him riding the Lost Highway before he even met her.
Perhaps it is best however to simply see Vera more as a personification of pure, undiluted self-preservation and material greed than as a human character, or as a demon sent forth simply to accelerate Roberts’ journey to damnation, her intersection with him merely a symptom of the randomised cruelty of the universe.
Excluding the opening framing device which finds the doomed and dishevelled Roberts bemoaning his fate in a road-side diner, the entirely of ‘Detour’ is recreated for us in flashback, filtered through his subjective recollections. With this in mind, do the extraordinary circumstances which put him in the immediate proximity of two suspicious deaths whilst remaining guilt-free really, on reflection, seem remotely plausible..?
Or, are we merely seeing the stories he’s cooked up for the judge, repeated and rehearsed so many times in his mind’s eye that they’ve supplanted the more damning truth in his memory?
Once this seed of doubt is planted of course, everything we see in the film becomes suspect. Could any real person be as single-mindedly monstrous as Vera, or as unrepentantly sleazy as Haskell? And what about Al’s seemingly idyllic relationship with his sweetheart back in New York? It seems unlikely that she’d suddenly up sticks and relocate to the West Coast without prior warning, leaving him behind to do as he pleases, if things were really this rosy between the couple. Could it be that she actually made the move specifically to get away from him..?
In other words, are all of the events we see portrayed in ‘Detour’ merely the self-justifying fantasies of a character who is in fact exactly what he initially appears to be – a psychotic, delusional drifter, lost forever on the road, haunted by the ghosts of the crimes and personal failures he refuses to acknowledge?
Whether or not Ulmer consciously intended us to engage with this subjective reading of the film, we will probably never know, but for viewers who want to take the plunge, all the clues are there for the taking, right down to our narrator’s guilt-diffusing suggestions that his ‘victims’ would probably have croaked sooner or later anyway (Haskell’s pill-popping, Vera’s TB).
Viewed anew through this distorting lens, ‘Detour’ begins to feel less like a prime slab of Film Noir and more like a precocious early exemplar of the kind of reality-dissembling psychological horror which would eventually reach full flower in the ‘60s and ‘70s, in the wake of ‘Vertigo’, ‘Repulsion’, Bergman’s ‘Persona’, and Altman’s ‘Images’. (2)
Certainly, in keeping with much of Ulmer’s work, ‘Detour’ carries a heavy-lidded, narcoleptic atmosphere, instinctively signalling to us that reality is not quite what it seems. From the ludicrously fog-shrouded, consciously artificial ‘New York’ scenes, which seem to be taking place more in some featureless, oneiric void than a modern cityscape, to the slow, languorous scene transitions and heavy use of super-imposition, we’re in Uncanny Valley here right from the moment Roberts’ internal monologue takes over.
Elsewhere, Ulmer even manages to incorporate some of his beloved expressionist horror tropes into the film’s production design. The tightly directed spot-lights which illuminate Roberts’ eyes against his otherwise darkened face as he begins reminiscing in the diner seem to have come straight from Lugosi in ‘White Zombie’ (or perhaps more pertinently, Karloff in Ulmer’s ‘The Black Cat’?), whilst our first glimpse of Ann Savage, during the scene in which Al picks up her up at a deserted gas station, sees her made up as if she’s literally just risen from the grave – dirt and grease in her hair, cracked white pancake make-up and heavy shading beneath her eyes. You can almost imagine her brushing the coffin-dust off her shoulders just after the scene cuts.
That Ulmer manages to achieve this ambience whilst simultaneously anchoring the film in the dusty, blue collar realism characteristic more grounded, ‘50s style noirs – shot-on-location backwoods scrubland framing a drab world of motel cabins, gas stations, cheap suits and cardboard suitcases which defines the perimeters of transient American life – is a remarkable achievement.
I know I keep going on about him in these noir reviews, but when it comes to mapping out the treacherous horror-noir borderlands within which ‘Detour’ seedily lurks, it’s difficult not to recall the work of Jim Thompson. During the latter half of the film in particular, the kind of gruelling psychological torment which would later define Thompson’s novels becomes almost palpable, as Vera and Al are forced by the unswervable impulses of blackmail and greed to co-operate and co-exist despite being pretty much continually at each other’s throats, their mutual hatred pushing them even closer together as distrust refuses to allow either of them let the other out of their sight.
By the time we find two characters who can’t stand the sight of each other spending entire days playing cards in a stuffy, furnished apartment as they passively wait for some old man neither of them have actually met to die of natural causes… well, there is a sheer surrealistic perversity to the situation that seems to pre-empt Thompson’s frighteningly bleak sense of humour, with the European-aligned Ulmer perhaps arriving at the same destination via Kafka or Sartre.
Uniquely perhaps, the irresolvable mystery of intent behind ‘Detour’ leaves us with two films in one, each of them authentically brilliant. Even if we allow Al Roberts to take us (and himself) for suckers, we’re still left with an eye-watering shot of pure, cask strength b-noir essence – a quintessential tale of hapless rube caught up in a world that increasingly resembles a giant mousetrap, walls closing in and exits disappearing as fate inevitably leads him on toward a room full of what Vera memorably describes as “…that sweet perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers”.
And, if we call our narrator on his BS meanwhile… well, we’ll soon find ourselves descending into even darker realms, as that good old abyss begins to look back into us, reflected impossibly off the asphalt of the Lost Highway.
Wrong Side of the Art.
(1) ‘Detour’s script is ostensibly credited to William Goldsmith, adapted from his own novel, though research carried out by Ulmer biographer Noah Isenberg indicates that very little of Goldsmith’s work actually made it to the screen. Instead, Ulmer (we presume) pretty much rewrote the film on the fly during shooting, entirely dropping a parallel storyline involving Roberts’ girlfriend’s travails in Hollywood and created the finished film’s tightly-locked subjective flashback structure during editing.
(2) Why do all of these films – ‘Detour’ included – have ambiguous / abstract one word titles, incidentally? Answers on a postcard, please.