Edgar G.Ulmer’s 1945 noir nightmare Detour is a delirium of ill-Fate. Anybody who has felt their life is spiralling out of control at the whim of unseen forces will see much that is familiar in Detour– as will anybody who feels they never got an even break or fulfilled their early promise and dreams. Protagonist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a perennial loser; a gifted musician whose dreams of success and Carnegie Hall lie in tatters, reduced to playing piano in a threadbare dead-end New York nightclub. The only good thing in his life is his beautiful singer girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake), but then even she disappoints him when she decides to leave and seek fame in Hollywood. Al can’t see the point- after a lifetime of disappointments, he knows he’s beat and only more bitter failure awaits in that city of broken dreams. Eventually his loneliness gets the better of his depression and he decides to hitchhike across the county to Sue and try convince her that they get married. But Al doesn’t realise his bad luck is only going to take several turns for the worse (at the film’s close Al will ruefully note “…fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all”).
Detour is a fascinating film, as much for things off-screen as on. There is a seductive parallel in the career of Al and that of the films director, whose film-making career was sidelined to Hollywood Poverty Row after a scandalous romance with the married niece of the head of Universal. It saw Ulmer kicked out of the major studios forever, after just one movie (the well-regarded Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi Horror The Black Cat (1934)). Always on the outside, looking in, Ulmer was forced to make no-budget b-movies for the rest of a frustrated career and possibly felt some kinship and sympathy for the frankly unlikable dead-end losers of Detour: indeed, is part of the films fascination down to the sympathy it has for its monsters and victims of fate?
In Arizona, Al is picked up by gambler Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) and Al’s luck seems to have changed (Haskell buys penniless Al a meal and is going to the West Coast himself) but while they take turns driving to make good time, and Al is at the wheel, it starts to rain – when Al pulls up to raise the car’s hard-top he struggles to wake Haskell up. When Al opens the passenger door, Haskell falls out of the car and smashes his head on a rock on the ground. Haskell is dead -has died in his sleep, inferred by medication he repeatedly took earlier and Al’s inability to wake him- but it looks suspicious with his head smashed in. Al panics and hides Haskell’s body in a ditch off the road, and changes into Haskell’s clothes so he can continue his journey in Haskell’s car, posing as Haskell.
But is what we have been told by Al, and seen onscreen, what really happened? Is the narrative that Al fears the cops may come to after seeing the body etc what actually happened? Part of the hypnotic quality of Detour is the unreliability of its narrator: Al continuously professes his innocence, caught up in events out of his control, but what we ‘see’ doesn’t always gel with what Al says in his narration, or it feels somehow dubious. Possibly this is down to the film’s meagre budget- shot on just three sets, some drenched in fog to hide how bad they are, with lots of unconvincing rear projection, little in the film itself actually convinces; it looks ‘wrong’. In some sections the film has been flipped, leaving drivers at the wheel on the wrong side of the car and the cars on the wrong side of the road. Its all likely a result of working so cheap, but it does work in the films favour in adding particular doubts on Al’s veracity.
Regards unreliable narratives, in later years director Ulmer made claims that when a young man still in Germany, he worked on Metropolis (1926) and “M” (1931) as well as other classics, claims that have never been substantiated but air a certain mystique to his career and thoughts of what might have been had he not been relegated to Hollywood’s Poverty Row (Detour was made for PRC – the Producers Releasing Corporation, often described as the ‘skid row’ of Hollywood’s Poverty Row).
Al, now posing as Haskell, resumes his journey West. He notices a lone woman at the roadside, thumbing for a ride near a garage. Al calls her over and allows her to join him. This is Vera (Ann Savage), an attractive but world-beaten woman “Man, she looked as if she’d just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world!” Al’s narration tells us. Vera is a monster, a witch, a harpy, a bitter vengeful woman angry at the world and everything in it, and woe anyone that gets caught in her path. To make matters worse for Al, she hitched with Heskell a few days before, so knows that this isn’t Al’s car, and that he isn’t Haskell. One has to consider if the film should almost have a glum Humphrey Bogart voice-over here: “of all the hitch-hikers in all the world, I had to pick up this one!” Vera immediately blackmails Al, spitting threats to turn him in to the police unless he does as she says, which first involves selling Haskell’s car for a fast buck and later Al continuing to pose as Haskell when she learns from a newspaper that Haskell’s rich father is dying and leaving his son an inheritance. Al has a sudden flash of insight, realising they can never get away with it, but Vera is adamant; she is dying of consumption and has nothing to lose and will drag Al down to Hell with her.
Another detour: Tom Neal, who stars as the luckless Al, was for several years in an on/off relationship with rising-star actress Barbara Payton. A noted amateur boxer, Neal was in a fight with love-rival and actor Franchot Tone in Payton’s front yard that left Tone in hospital. Possibly out of guilt, Payton subsequently married Tone, the rabid news coverage leaving Neal essentially blacklisted from working in Hollywood. However, Tone and Payton’s marriage only lasted weeks before Payton went back to Neal, and Payton and Neal’s relationship became gossip-tabloid fodder for years until they themselves split up. Payton’s promising career was long over and her life spiralled downwards into alcoholism, drugs, prostitution and and an early death in 1967 at just 39. Neal, meanwhile, became a landscape gardener and later remarried. His wife died and he later married again, but after a few years he killed this wife by shooting her in the back of her head, which he claimed was an accident. Convicted of manslaughter, he served six years until released in 1971, soon after which he died in his sleep of heart failure. Just 59 years old.
Yes, I appear to have taken a detour.
But isn’t it strangely hypnotic and fascinating, how the sleazy underbelly of Hollywood arises from stories surrounding this film, or, when watching it, one can get distracted from its unreliable narrative with considerations of the real-life stories of those on and off the screen. I suppose this is a special trick of old movies: as I have remarked before, one can look up cast names on the internet and learn their real stories, lifetimes summarised in pithy paragraphs.
Ann Savage, who plays Vera with such consummate, horrifying scariness: a character decades ahead of her time, almost out of time, as if the character of a Quentin Tarantino crime flick fell through past decades into another movie. Possibly the scariest femme fatalle I have ever seen. Pretty. Earthy. Brutal. Desperate. Despicable. Once ensnared by her, Al doesn’t have a chance. Not long after making Detour, Ann Savage left pictures, got married, and later worked as a secretary at a law firm. Our loss. She’s clearly a b-movie actress at work here but my goodness, her Vera is something else: not evil incarnate as much as a monster created by the world, a victim herself, really, lashing out at the world with genuine venom. Poor Al.
If we believe him. As Al tells it, the two have a fight, and Vera storms off in a drunken rage to her room, becoming entangled by the phone cord around her neck as she threatens to finally inform the police on Al. Desperate, Al pulls on the cord that runs under the door, unknowingly throttling Vera to death…
But how much of any of Al’s version of the events in this movie is true? Should we believe anything of what we have seen? Is Al’s self-pity and sense of impending doom from the vagaries of fate just him trying to absolve himself of responsibility for his own actions? Has his mind taken a detour from his reality, telling an alternative version of events? Is it something of a synchronicity that I watched Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder so recently, a film itself full of moral ambiguity, lies and untruths?
Detour is a brutal, hypnotically fascinating masterpiece from the gutter of Hollywood, and I have to wonder if any of its narrative is true, where the lies begin and end, how the celluloid fantasy frozen forever bleeds out into the realities of those that made it.