Posted by Shannon Clute on June 9, 2013
A recent weeknight found me flipping through my DVD collection looking for a film I could watch in one sitting. No BEN HUR on a Wednesday. No HIS GIRL FRIDAY, for that matter. I’ve discovered I have about 80 minutes on weeknights before my brain turns to pudding, which has led to a steady regimen of B movies from Poverty Row during the week and masterworks from the Majors on weekends. On the day in question, the B film was DETOUR (1945), a 68-minute gem from Producers Releasing Corporation (their productions spanned from I TAKE THIS OATH in 1940 to the equally ill-remembered IN THIS CORNER of 1948).
There’s a lot to love about DETOUR, starting with the obvious talents of director Edgar G. Ulmer and lead actors Tom Neal and Ann Savage. Savage turns in a particularly strong performance, living up to her name as one of the most vicious femmes fatales in the history of film noir. If Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat is a quicksilver promise in the moonlight and Ava Gardner’s Kitty Collins is some mythological siren, Savage’s Vera is a rabid pitbull. For a moment, Neal’s Al Roberts makes the mistake of thinking she’d be a cute pet, then she sinks her teeth and he can’t shake her. There is no other performance I can think of that matches it for pure savagery.
But as I watched this film again, what struck me most is how carefully Ulmer crafts flashbacks, and how these transitions seem to invite us to pay closer attention to all moments of retrospection in the film. If we do, we understand two things. In terms of the story, we see Al is doomed because of his inability to look beyond the past. In terms of production, we see DETOUR is a work of art, for it seamlessly joins message and medium.
This might seem like a big claim for such a small picture, but there is evidence for making the case both within the movie and in the arc of Ulmer’s career, for he had a hand in groundbreaking works and lavish productions alike before delving into B pictures. His first film, MENSCHEN AM SONTAGG (PEOPLE ON SUNDAYS, 1930), was extremely influential and quite successful—a precursor to neorealism in its use of non-professional actors featured in real and staged scenes of daily life. Also remarkable was the crew of that film, which included Robert Siodmak, Curt Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinneman (providing further proof, if any were needed, that film noir is distinctly American in the same way as Jazz; it too was born at the crossroads of foreign and American cultural influences—in this case German visual sensibilities and American hard-boiled storytelling). A scant four years later, Ulmer would be at the helm of BLACK CAT for Universal Pictures, creating a vision no less unique, though with a more impressive budget.
DETOUR is a different beast from either of these, with a less linear story line. It’s the tale of a man who makes a fateful decision and can’t escape the consequences (is there any other noir tale?), told through a series of flashbacks. Not surprisingly, flashback is a common noir narrative device; film noir rose to prominence during WWII and thrived for the next decade, throughout the disintegration of community brought about by a period of increased prosperity and mobility, and it’s thus fundamentally a genre about looking back to a more innocent and idyllic time (which may or may not ever have existed). But Ulmer handles flashback with a dynamic and reckless perfection that has been misunderstood as the sloppiness of low production values.
The first overt, staged flashback occurs less than four minutes into the film, establishing the backstory to the situation in which doomed protagonist Al now finds himself. It’s a scene that has attracted critical attention, and no one sets it up better than James Naremore in his book More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts. An all too familiar tune plays on the jukebox, and sparks Al’s memory of happier days. In Naremore’s words, “The lights suddenly dim, signaling a transition into subjective mood. A spotlight hovers around Neal’s eyes, giving him a demonic look, and for a moment we can sense a technician behind the camera, trying to aim the light correctly. Neal broods, and the camera tilts down to view his coffee cup; what it sees, however, is a model, several times larger than the original, looming up before him in vaguely surreal fashion. Few people will notice that a substitution of coffee cups has occurred; indeed they are not supposed to notice, because Ulmer wants to create a dreamlike close-up of an apparently ordinary object and thus set the stage for the nightmarish flashback.” (147)
Naremore’s reading gives us a sense of how carefully Ulmer constructs this moment, but I would suggest that the scene is executed with an even greater degree of technical mastery than Naremore grants. I don’t believe the wiggle of the light in Neal’s eyes is a mistake, but a calculated attempt to call attention to ways the camera and lighting help create the noir universe of longing and irreparable loss. This hardly seems too much to claim, for the giant coffee cup is likewise intentionally obtrusive, and is, moreover, divided perfectly in half with light and shadow—like the noir world itself.
If we accept such a claim, we begin to see other moments of apparent sloppiness as instances of similar artistry. For example, we can’t help but think back to the opening credits, imposed over what appears to be a badly managed traveling long shot of a landscape, camera facing backwards and jiggling as a car heads down the highway. We now realize this shot may have been perfectly executed, for by mounting the camera on the trunk rather than the hood Ulmer shows us, from the very beginning, that Al is a man forever looking back to the happy life he lived before his fiancée left him, no matter how much he fools himself into thinking he’s moving forward. Through his eyes, every road is bumpy and the whole world is barren.
Likewise, shortly after Al begins hitchhiking to LA to rejoin Sue and recapture what they once had, he is picked up by a questionable character named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald). There are several shots from the back seat of the car (or trunk, perhaps), of the backs of these two men as they drive. If we watch closely, we realize that no matter where Al sits, as passenger or driver, his eyes are reflected in the rear view mirror. Obviously that’s impossible, and is calculated to demonstrate, once again, that Al is trapped in a cycle of looking back, and that his apparent forward motion is anything but progress. If only he would dare to see this, or could stand to, he might be saved.
Of course, he doesn’t see, which is precisely why Vera (i.e. “Truth”) enters his life. She is not so much a woman—of flesh and blood, offering a possibility of escape through meaningful human connection—as an allegorical figure, the very embodiment of the savage truth he will never escape. What could be more noir? Or more artful?
(NOTE: Portions of this argument appeared previously in The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism, Dartmouth College Press, 2011, which I co-authored with Richard L. Edwards)
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