Detour: Extremist noir

Detour, released in 1945 and directed by Edgar G Ulmer, was a product of the highly productive, if now largely forgotten series of low-rent movies produced through short-lived studios known as ‘poverty row’, B-movies produced by small studios from the late twenties through to the mid-fifties, typified by featuring relatively unknown actors, low budgets, basic set design, and short shooting schedules. Over the years it has found itself designated classic of film noir, has appeared on numerous great movie lists, notably the All-Time 100 Movies, and has been bestowed the label of ‘cult film’. A cult film is defined by a fanatical devotion from a small number of fans, and this can sometimes lead to a it being regarded as a novelty. This is an unfair label to be placed on a film like Detour, which I think should not only be regarded as a classic of film noir, but a film that subverted common practise of the time and took noir to its logical, and purest, extreme.

Detour is now in the public domain, and is available for download here;

Detour tells the story of Al, played by Tom Neal, a hapless piano player from New York. He plays in a small bar, and is in love with Sue, an ambitious young singer he accompanies on the piano. We first see Al in a roadside cafe at night, unshaven, dishevelled, and argueing with the staff and other customers. His narration, in classic noir style kicks in, we learn that some misfortune has beset him, and a flashback begins.

Al and Sue are performing a rendition of ‘I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me’, and afterwards Sue tells Al she intends to leave New York for Hollywood, and after initially criticising her decision, Al eventually agrees to join her once she is set up there. She leaves, and, lacking money, Al decides to hitchhike the journey, and is picked up by convertible driving Charles Haskell Jr, a cynical chancer with the demenour of a small-time crook. Haskell spends most of his time bragging about his wealth, and Al spots some scars on his hands that Haskell attributes to ‘some dame’ whom he had also offered a life. Haskell is obviously unwell, and during their journey together we see him popping pills. Night falls, and as they drive through a lonely part of Arizona, Haskell falls asleep in the passenger seat, and it starts to rain. Al unsuccessfully attempts to raise him, to ask if he should put the top down, and opens the car door. Haskell falls out, and smashes his head on a rock and dies. After some initial moral to-and-froing, Al decides that the police would never believe that he hadn’t committed murder, and drags Haskell’s body to some undergrowth, swaps their clothing and wallets, assumes his identity, and a not inconsiderable sum of money, and drives away in the convertible.

Al sleeps the night in a motel, and the next morning wakes and continues his journey to Hollywood, not before picking up a girl outside the motel who is also heading for California. She tells him to ‘call her Vera’, and he introduces himself as Haskell. After some initial stilted conversation, she tells Al that she knows he is not Haskell, as she is the one who gave him the scratches on his arm, and that she knows that Al has killed him. She takes Al’s, or Haskell’s, money in exchange for her silence, and they both agree that on arrival in Hollywood they should sell the car with her keeping all the money.

They get to Hollywood and rent an apartment as Mr and Mrs Haskell, and while Al spends the time stalking the apartment with a worried look permenently fixed to his face, Vera sets about getting drunk and chastising him for his bad decisions, threatening every so often to phone the police and tell them everything. They attempt to sell the car the next day, but Vera calls it off after noticing an article in a newspaper that tells her Haskell’s father is dying, and he is looking to reconcile with his long lost son. Sensing an inheritence, Vera attempts to convice Al to play Haskell in front of his dying father and family, and Al refuses, believing he would be found out. They retire back to the apartment, where Vera gets drunk again and harangues Al, threatens to phone the police, and eventually runs with the phone to her room where she locks herself in. Al pleads with her to see sense, and eventually grabs the phone line under the door and pulls it, trying to drag the phone away from her. After a few moments tugging, he opens the door and Vera is lying dead, the phone cord wrapped around her neck. Al has another moral dilemma, and speculates on how life’s misfortunes have got the better of him, and we return to him in the cafe from the first scene, unshaved and dishevelled. He leaves the cafe, and while walking down a dark road, is picked up by a police car which then drives away without explaination.

The film itself is just over an hour long, and is surprisingly low-rent, even for a B-movie. The filming took place over six days, only three sets were used, a few scenes were shot on location in the California desert. Stock footage and a short location scene on a used-car lot is used to represent Los Angeles, and a street scene in New York is clearly just a set with fog used to obscure the background. This film has more scenes where the characters are either driving or being driven in a car than any other I’ve seen.

The low-rent nature of the film leaves us to focus on the main characters. Apart from fairly fleeting appearances by Al’s love interest, Sue, and the real Haskell, and a few lines from minor characters, Al and Vera take up all of our time. Vera, played by Ann Savage, is a classic noir femme fatale, but taken to a logical extreme that is often unnerving; she has all the sass and cunning of a traditional noir female lead, but is completely amoral and unsympathetic, and at times she makes for uncomfortable viewing. She spits out her lines, and is permenantly blackmailing, threatening, mentally torturing, or just plain insulting Al, berating him and calling him a ‘sap’ or a ‘sucker’ every other sentence. She assumes the dominant role in the parternship, with Al is usually either nervously following her plans or worrying about whether he should. Al is repulsed by Vera, and the viewer is left with no appealing qualities to see in her. In many of his scenes with Vera, except their last, he has the demenour of a kicked puppy, and several times we are led to think he may be on the verge of killing her. But even so, her cunning does not extend to her intelligence, and between whining and attempting to appeal to her better nature, or which she has none, Al is left to convince her that her plan to impersonate Haskell is front of his family is completely ridiculous and unlikely to succeed.

As a side note, Tom Neal seemed to exemplify the film noir male more powerfully in his private life than the uncertain and nervous characterisation of Al we get in the film. He was a successful college boxer, and in 1951 left actor Franchot Tone in a temporary coma after beating him half to death in a dispute over a mutual love interest, Barbara Payton, and in 1965 he was conviced of involuntary manslaughter and served six years in prison after shooting his third wife, Gale Bennett, in the back of the head, killing her.

Al’s narration reveals another dimension of the film, and unlike most traditional hardboiled narration in a noir, cannot be taken at face value. Throughout Detour we get the impression that the viewer is being deceived. In most noir, we take for granted that the  narration is the viewer’s exclusive access to the inner thoughts and feelings of the protagonist. The protagonist has no reason to lie to the passive viewer. In Detour, given the unlikely nature of the deaths that occurr in Al’s presence, which he acknowledges and frets about continuously, and the almost pleading tone he adopts, we get the impression that the narration is a deception. Al has committed the murders of Haskell and Vera, and what we are hearing are his attempts to convince us of his innocence with ludicrous explainations of their deaths, and the pictures we are seeing on the screen are his lie to the viewer. This is where the cynical pessimism and lack of apparent morality in film noir is taken to its conclusion, where the viewer is in fact being deceived by a murderous protagonist, and the cynicism is reaching beyond the screen.

The very last scene, though, proves Detour’s place as the purest of noir films, and has to be seen in the context of restrictions on filmmaking at the time. Between the end of the silent era to around the late fifties, all American films were subject to massive censorship at the hands of the Motion Picture Production Code, an overwhelmingly conservative code of moral standards for cinema. Known as the Hays Code, after William H Hays, Hollywood’s chief censor until he retired in 1945, it was introduced in 1930, though for the next four years was mostly ignored This period, know now as ‘pre-code Hollywood’ produced many films that appear shockingly racy when compared with what came after them, dealing with themes of drugs, sex, murder, prostitution, homosexuality, abortion, and portraying women and blacks in a strong and favourable light, something later Hollywood often failed to do in regard to the former, and nearly always failed to do regarding the latter.

The Hays Code became mandatory in 1934, and was effectively enforced from then onwards, prohibiting, among many things; themes on homosexuality, depictions of mixed race relationships, favourable portrayls of sexual relations outside marriage, ridiculue or criticism of authorities or religious figures , ‘lustful kissing’, ‘scenes of unnecessary passion’, unnecessary portrayls of violence, and any nudity. Its intention was to capture cinema, seen by many conservatives as a deviant art form, and instill in it the virtue of ‘traditional values’. Even Betty Boop found herself transformed from flapper to long-skirted housewife. Few films managed to get past the restrictions, and when they did it was through minor transgressions. Hitchcock notably mocked the code’s ban on kissing scenes lasting longer than three seconds in his 1946 release Notorious; Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman engage in a prolonged session by breaking off their kiss every three seconds to nuzzle each other, and then start again. Amazingly, and to Hitchcock’s great satisfaction and amusement, he let this carry on for two-and-a-half minutes.

A victory over the censors, but one that seems incredibly tame when compared to a film such as the 1931 pre-code classic Safe In Hell, about a smart and savvy secretary-turned-prostitute played by Dorothy Mackaill, with its frank depictions of murder and sexuality, almost nudity, the presence of a strong and intelligent female role, and its allowing black actors to forfeit any ‘negro dialect’ required of them in later films. Between this, and Cary Grant’s extended kissing, we see the effect the code had on American film.

Not satisfied to restrict filmmaking on the moral plane, the code also extended to politics, with its specifications for ‘respectful treatment of the flag’, and that the nation, and authority were not to be made light of. All in all, the Hays Code set out to ensure that,

‘No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it’

Another important aspect of the code was that crime in film could not be presented as in any way rewarding, and criminals would always have to either apprehended or punished for their crimes by the end of the film. Although appearing to follow this rule, the last ten seconds of Detour completely circumvent it. As Al walks into the night, and the police car rolls up to collect him, we can almost imagine Edgar G Ulmer laughing behind the camera, and his audacity is astounding.

Al’s ‘arrest’ is so brief, so unnecessary, and presented in such an offhand way, almost as an afterthought  as though Ulmer had finished the film and suddenly remembered the existence of the censor, that we know it too to be a deception. Never has a token gesture been so purposefully lazily committed to film. Ulmer is winking to the audience, and telling us that, if not for the police car, the film would not have made it past the censors, but, as both audience and director know, in reality Al has walked in to the night, and has gotten away with murder. He may as well have flashed a message over the police car, ‘for the benefit of the censor’. Detour has performed the impossible task of completely subverting the Hays Code while complying with it, albeit with an obvious complete lack of sincerity, at the same time. The last ten seconds of the film are a middle-finger salute to the censor.

The fact that the protagonist has committed murder and gotten away with it, the unpleasant and unsympathetic characterisation of Al and Vera, compounded with the fact that Al has sought to deceive the viewer through the entire film and his narration, show Detour to be almost a pre-code film. Stripping away Al’s unvoiced deception of the viewer and the token gesture of the police car to save the shock of the censor’s imagined ideal of respectable filmgoer, the viewer is confronted with noir in its pure form; the unpalatable reality of a murderer who has gotten away with it. Because of its low-budget and technically strange presentation, and the almost ‘nothing to lose’ feeling familiar of many B-movie productions, Detour is noir in its logical extreme, a film that the big studios were prevented from, and would not have run the risk of, trying to make.


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