Detour: A Bad-Luck Odyssey

detour1Edgar 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”).

detour4Detour 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).

detour2Al, 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.

detour3Another 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.

detour6Ann 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.

Klute (1971)

klute2Its rare that I watch a film these days and just think, wow, I’ve just seen one of my favourite films, ever. That’s what happened watching Alan Pakula’s 1971 thriller Klute. It was just… brilliant. Almost faultless. The script, the acting, the cinematography, the understated direction, the subtle, unnerving music score… wonderful stuff. To think I stumbled into buying this Criterion edition on Blu-ray pretty much by accident.

Its a comforting thought that there are lots of excellent films out there that I just simply haven’t stumbled across yet. Its then a scary realisation that, following that flow of logic, that there are lots of excellent films that I never will. Well, at least Klute didn’t escape me.

Its a curiosity that the subject of the films title, detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) isn’t really the focus of the film: he’s secondary throughout to the drama and ensuing character study surrounding call-girl/aspiring actress Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), a breathtaking turn that rightfully won Fonda an Academy Award. I’m not a fan of Fonda -it was really Sutherland’s involvement that turned me onto this film- but she blew me away with this one, causing me to reconsider my appraisal of her as an actress. The film follows a missing-persons investigation that brings John Klute to New York, his only lead to finding missing businessman and friend Tom Gruneman bringing him to the door of Bree Daniels, and a subsequent tour of the low-rent, low-life worst of 1970s New York.

klute3The setting is everything: there is a gritty, nightmare reality to New York depicted in this film, far removed from the post-bankruptcy Disneyland that the city has since become. These are streets not far from those of Taxi Driver. There is something so simple and direct about it: Pakula isn’t trying to shock, he’s simply showing us how things are (were). Likewise none of the cast really draws any attention to themselves- this is the era of 1970s American Cinema and an understated realism to performances and appearances: these are not remarkable-looking, beautiful people populating this film, just ordinary-looking Joes, and indeed the scariest thing about the killer that stalks Bree is that he appears to be an Everyman, nothing remarkable about him at all. I think modern Hollywood would be hard-pressed to cast this film now; the whole point of actors now is to draw attention to themselves, engender individuality to justify their multi-million dollar pay-cheques. Sutherland seems to blend with the wallpaper and brickwork in some scenes, as if he’s trying top convince us he isn’t even there. Fonda, of course, only benefits from the vacumn he leaves in his wake: the film is really her story, and everyone else -Klute, her clients, her psychiatrist, the killer- orbit around her like satellites caught in her gravity.

The cinematography by Gordon Willis (described as the “prince of darkness” because of his skills with light and dark in his films) is draw-droppingly beautiful. Several times I was reminded of Blade Runner, and its clear to me that Klute was likely an influence on how that film looked (compare much of Klute to, say, the lighting of Deckard’s apartment), but while Blade Runner‘s cinematography always drew attention to itself, becoming a character all its own in that film, there is a subtlety to the photography here. And yet the atmosphere, the claustrophobia that fills Klute is all from that cinematography: Bree has an heart of darkness that we can see in every scene, and the delicious (oh so 1970s!) ending has an ambiguity enough to suggest she never escapes from it.

Fantastic film. I absolutely loved it. If by some slim chance you were like me and have never seen it, rectify that as soon as you can.


Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

anatomy1Otto Preminger’s courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder is a powerful and fascinating film, but I have to confess, I think I really need a second viewing to properly judge it. This is really through no fault of the film itself, but instead due wholly to me being distracted by Lee Remick’s character, Laura, the raped wife who proved to be a particular point of difficulty for me. This wasn’t anything to do with Remick’s performance, which was excellent, and as it turned out, quite true to the real-life origins of the film which I’ll get into shortly.  Rather, it was perhaps my perspective of enlightened times some sixty years later, and my disbelief at her apparent casual reaction to her own rape. Having reflected upon it for several days, I suppose that casualness was the whole point, but on my initial viewing of the film (and who knows? It might irritate me always) it bothered me throughout, it didn’t ring true; it seemed grossly nonsensical. Laura has been raped, a deeply traumatic and devastating experience for any woman, and yet Laura not only seems to have dismissed it as just an unfortunate episode, but subsequently continues to flirt with every man she meets, including our nominal ‘hero’ Paul Biegler (James Stewart) and dresses provocatively, like some kind of decidedly dumb-blonde femme fatale.

Of course, the unreliable narrative of her rape is the whole point of the film, but on this first viewing it appeared to me to be too obvious, too blunt. I suppose this may be a case of how strange real-life can be (the film is based on a real 1952 case, but I didn’t know it at the time – perhaps coming into a film ‘unspoiled’ can actually sometimes be counter-productive) but it hampered my enjoyment of the film somewhat. I guess what I’m getting at is that I think more subtlety would have been preferable, as I was repeatedly distracted by it: how could anyone take her, or her story, so seriously, if it was so blatantly dubious? Again, maybe that’s the point of the movie.

Anatomy of a Murder is a film about a man who has killed someone in cold blood, in front of witnesses who clearly saw him do it, who then tasks a lawyer to try to engineer some way through the law to ensure he gets away with it. Not so much the law getting justice done but the law thwarting justice. In these troubled and more cynical times we are used to injustice and criminals escaping their just deserts but in 1959 this must have been a very troubling,  radical and rather scandalous subject for a film. Its detailed dramatisation of the courtroom and machinations of the justice system enables a view that must have been remarkable at the time it was first released.

anatomy2The key to me accepting some elements that I initially deemed preposterous was something done in retrospect (hence thinking a second viewing will prove more enjoyable), by later discovering the true events that inspired it. The film is based upon a book written by attorney John Voelker (under the pen name Robert Traver) that was based on one of his own cases, in which Voelker secured an acquittal for his client Coleman Peterson, who had shot dead Mike Chenoweth, a tavern owner in July of 1952 (Voelker is pictured above with Coleman Peterson and his wife, Charlotte). Charlotte claimed that she had been raped by bar-owner Chenoweth, and Voelker’s case centred upon the argument that the enraged Peterson acted out of brute instinct and temporary insanity- an “irresistible impulse”- essentially that he didn’t know what he was doing, unaware of right or wrong and was therefore innocent of the charges. This was a case not without precedent (as is detailed in the film) but remains a rather dubious chapter in judicial history. For my part there is lingering distaste considering the injustice done to the victim, whose murderer got away scot-free.

The film followed the real events very closely, indeed proving to be a fairly reliable and sincere representation (even the dog and his torch was real): so much so in fact, that it largely filmed in the locations (or close to them) that the events occurred, including the trailer park where Peterson and his wife lived and from where they skipped town without paying the Voelker the three thousand dollars they owed him. In the film, this appeared to me to be one twist too many, but incredibly it did indeed happen, even down to the note Peterson left him claiming he was following “an irresistible impulse” in clearing out, the bitter irony of it being the same justification used to get him out of the murder charge serving the film as a final moment of fitting black humour (Voelker, of course, later earned plenty for his efforts by turning the story into the best-selling novel and later selling it to Hollywood).

Its pretty clear that Anatomy of a Murder has a certain noir sensibility and feel- partly this is the atmospheric soundtrack by Duke Ellington, whose modern jazz score lends a definite moody, semi-noir ambience. Moreover, the characters themselves are quite dark and multifaceted, doubling the films moral ambiguity. Traditionally, our attorney defending Frederick “Manny” Manion (Ben Gazzara), would be a righteous and noble defender of justice, especially with James Stewart cast in the role (the modern equivalent would be someone like Tom Hanks): instead Paul Biegler knows he’s on the ‘wrong side’ and isn’t avert to subverting justice to win through. Biegler is clearly suspicious of Manion’s claim that his wife Laura was raped but then suggests to Manion the mechanism of how to get away with the murder, leading Manion into the idea that he was crazy with rage and temporarily insane. Biegler seems to be a typical hometown, ordinary decent guy and unassuming, but at others is canny and astute and manipulative: its almost disconcerting seeing Stewart in such a role, but the almost unlikely casting certainly works in the films favour.

anatomy3Laura Manion, as I have noted, is definitely an unlikely victim – clearly an attractive woman with low self-worth, she evidently seeks the attention of men which is hardly wise whilst married to a blatantly jealous, violent and abusive husband who perhaps neglects her. It could be inferred that she cheats on him often and that any sexual contact with  innkeeper Bernard “Barney” Quill was likely consensual; the rape claim was either a defence she made to her husband or one they concocted together after Manion killed Quill. Biegler makes a point of instructing Laura to dress less provocatively when in court, to play up to the jury her role of decent and loving housewife, to reinforce the idea that she was raped rather than a cheating nymphomaniac. Manion, of course is a hot-tempered and violent military man who is using the system to escape justice and is shady enough to skip town without even paying the attorney who saved him.

Perhaps the biggest noir element of the film is what it chooses not to show us- the film lacks any flashbacks to the night of the murder, so we are not given any visual clues, only aural testimonies which at times contest with each other. Flashbacks might have been perceived as definitive, revealing the truth, which in the film is left as uncertain. We only know what the Jury is led to believe, and the ambiguity, both implicit and moral, is rather concerning.

What a subversive and shocking film for the 1950s! Indeed the film came under fire by the censors, criticised for its use of words like “panties” and “contraceptive” and terms like “penetration”, “sexual climax”- the film pushed the boundaries of what was permissible at the time and its clear how groundbreaking and scandalous the film was back then. Even today -perhaps particularly so- its sense of thwarted, even abused justice resonates.

The cast is excellent-James Stewart was always a gifted actor capable of considerable nuance, Lee Remick is naturally beautiful but carries with it surprising layers of depth: possibly a manipulator of men, or a foolish young woman and victim of domestic violence: its a remarkable performance from a relative newcomer to the screen (originally the role was destined for Lana Turner whose unfortunate designer wardrobe claims had her at odds with Preminger, and replaced by Remick). Ben Gazarra is suitably slimy and cunning, always submerging constantly pent-up rage; at his wife, at his jailers, at the world at large. I was particularly impressed by a very contained performance by George C. Scott as prosecutor Claude Dancer, who seems well aware of what Biegler is doing: there is a subtlety to him that threatens to steal every scene he is in, just drawing in your attention: I was not surprised to learn that it earned Scott an Academy Award nomination, but was surprised that it was one of his very earliest film roles, it is so self-assured.

The person who does indeed steal the show was, ironically, not even an actor- Joseph N. Welch, a real-life attorney who had served as counsel for the U.S. Army during the Army-McCarthy trials and was at the time a publicly-known figure, plays the presiding Judge Weaver. His quiet and affable nature lends an air of dignity over the courtroom drama and his ease is quite remarkable.

So I really did enjoy Anatomy of a Murder, and suspect my misgivings during my first viewing will be removed upon watching the film again, now that I am aware of the story behind it. Sometimes reality can be crazier than fiction, after all, and its interesting how remaining spoiler-free possibly harmed my first viewing. Fortunately this Criterion edition on Blu-ray looks quite splendid and has a raft of supplements, and I’m sure will indeed reward subsequent viewings.