Sunday, August 13, 2017

Stubs - Atomic Blonde

Atomic Blonde (2017) Starring: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella. Directed by David Leitch. Screenplay by Kurt Johnstad. Based on the Graphic Novel: The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart. Produced by Charlize Theron, Beth Kono, A. J. Dix, Kelly McCormick, Eric Gitter, Peter Schwerin.  Run Time: 115 min. U.S. Action, Spy, Thriller

You have to give Charlize Theron a lot of credit. A statuesque beauty, she has made a career playing less than glamorous roles, including Monster (2003) and just two years ago, she starred in Mad Max: Fury Road as Imperator Furiosa, a soldier with a mechanical arm. This year she plays Lorraine Broughton, a top-level MI6 field agent in Atomic Blonde, a film she also produced. While there are no mechanical arms on Lorraine, to say that she is a glamorous spy would be wrong. This is a very visceral role that Theron had to train extensively for.

Lorraine (Charlize Theron) tells her story during a debriefing led by Eric Gray
(Toby Jones),
 her M-6 supervisor and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman).

Set in the days around the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Lorraine is sent by her superiors to retrieve a list of spies on both sides of the Cold War that has fallen into the hands of a Russian spy, thanks to the assassination of M-6 agent James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave). Lorraine’s contact in Berlin is David Percival (James McAvoy) the only other M-6 Operative then in the city. The story unfolds through her post-mission debriefing in front of Chief 'C' (James Faulkner), the head of M-6, Eric Gray (Toby Jones), her M-6 supervisor and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman).

David Percival (James McAvoy) is her M-6 contact in Berlin.
The story that unfolds has a lot in common with a standard James Bond mission. There are double agents, fight scenes, and lovers, but there is a twist to nearly everything along the way. There is a lot to suggest that Lorraine Broughton is a true female Bond, that the world has been searching for in these days of diversity. But that would be a bit of an understatement. On one hand, the film succeeds where Bond sometimes fails, at the same time, the reverse is also true.

The fight scenes are well done and very visceral.

Unlike most hero films, Lorraine is shown to be very human. In the fight scenes, of which there are several, we get a real sense that she gets as much as she hands out. There is one fight, in particular, a ten-minute seemingly one-shot sequence, in which we hear her give her all as well as the sense that she is also getting the you-know-what kicked out of her at the same time. These are perhaps the most visceral fist fights in recent memory on film.

But there are issues as well. The premise, the recovery of a list of agents, is as old as the spy genre. I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre, but this sounds like well-trodden territory.  Also, while we’re following Lorraine, we never really know why she goes some places, other than it is in the script. New to Berlin, she seems to know her way around and even makes contact with a loyal band of underground protesters in East Berlin, even though she is warned at the outset not to trust anyone. But it is the audience that is left not sure who to trust.

For a spy, someone you would suspect would try to fit in, Lorraine truly stands out. Not only is she tall and impeccably dressed, but her blonde hair is eye-catching. Even she realizes it as on occasion she tries to hide it under a hoodie or even a wig.

The film does a really good job recreating the environment of Berlin in 1989, from the music (the soundtrack features not only several David Bowie songs but also the original German versions of Peter Schilling’s Major Tom aka Völlig Losgelöst and Nena‘s 99 Red Balloons aka 99 Luftballons) to the actual wall itself, which is quite believably reconstructed. There is also the use of what appear to be television news reports that document the time.

There are some really good performances along the way in addition to Theron’s. James McAvoy’s Percival is nearly impossible to predict. Even though his appearance is somewhat brief, John Goodman gives his usual solid-performance. It is easy to see why he seems to be cast in every movie made. Sofia Boutella, who we first saw in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015) and was most recently prominent in Universal’s The Mummy (2017) misstep, plays a very different character here. Boutella's Delphine Lasalle is a French spy who is in over her head, one of the many characters Lorraine comes in contact with in Berlin, though they come in contact with each other several times.

Sofia Boutella plays Delphine Lasalle, a French spy in Berlin.

Overall, I’m not really sure what to make of Atomic Blonde. Obviously well-thought out and well-made, I never really connected with it. I can admire what they put on the screen, but they never pulled me in. Maybe your experience might be different, mine might explain why this film didn’t do better at the box office. If you’re a fan of Theron’s or if you’re itching for a Cold War spy film, then this is a must see. Otherwise, you might find something else at the multiplex to watch instead.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Review Hub - Sharknado

Before its initial airing on SyFy Channel in 2013, I had first heard about the original Sharknado at San Diego Comic-Con that year, as no doubt many others had, leading to some legitimate curiosity as to what the movie could possibly be. The premise alone created a lot of media buzz, and once it finally aired it proved to be a massive hit due to its enjoyably bad nature. This of course led to sequels that have been released on an annual basis, as well as some expansion into other media, including getting its own Pop! Vinyl by Funko and, of all things, a brief stint in comics in the form of a one-off crossover with Archie.

Not even Riverdale is safe. (Yes, this was a real
one-shot that got published.)

Though the quality of the sequels is debatable, we at this blog remain devoted to watching each movie as it comes out and giving our opinions on them if able. Below is a list of every Sharknado review up to this point, listed by order of release.

(Note: Though we have not yet reviewed Sharknado: The 4th Awakens, it is listed here anyway for completeness.)

Sharknado 2: The Second One
Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!
Sharknado: The 4th Awakens
Sharknado 5: Global Swarming

Sharknado 5: Global Swarming - #MakeSharknadoGreatAgain

This year, Syfy continues its annual tradition of airing another installment in the Sharknado franchise. While the first three enjoyably reveled in the depths of absurdity, the fourth one is when the series began to outstay its welcome, with a plot that stretched suspension of disbelief too thin even for a Sharknado movie and cameos from increasingly lower-tier celebrities. This trend continues with Sharknado 5: Global Swarming, which wasn’t “so bad, it’s good” so much as it was just straight up bad.

An undisclosed amount of time after the events of Sharknado: The 4th Awakens, Fin Shepard (Ian Ziering) and his family are summoned to London to speak with NATO about the Sharknados. Almost as soon as he arrives, Fin is contacted by Nova (Cassie Scerbo) and asked to explore a passage underneath Stonehenge to look for an ancient artifact that may be connected with the Sharknados. After a sequence ripped straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Fin and Nova retrieve the artifact, which triggers a collapse that sinks Stonehenge before summoning a Sharknado that devastates part of London. As Fin battles the Sharknado, his son, Gil (Billy Barratt), who is wearing a helmet that protects him from sharks and severe weather, becomes trapped in the storm and vanishes along with it. With Nova’s help, Fin and his wife, April (Tara Reid), follow the chaotic storm around the world in an attempt to rescue their son and prevent the Sharknado from growing stronger.

The story is painful to watch, as it not only starts with the protagonists unwittingly creating the initial Sharknado, it also relies on poor logic to move itself forward. There are a lot of inexplicable conveniences made solely to protect Fin from dying, such as the Sidney Opera House transforming into a battle station, or give him additional power, such as the Pope (Fabio) giving him a super powerful chainsaw. When the protagonists are given the solution, they don’t use it and instead opt for one which involves a severe anachronism and there is a subplot where someone steals the artifact (for no discernable reason) that only exists to create unnecessary drama. This concludes with an ending that, while surprisingly dark, rips off another famous movie and somehow manages to set up a sixth installment. It’s also hard to care about any of the characters during the movie, as it’s painfully obvious that Fin is going to survive the whole ordeal and that nearly anyone else who shows up is most likely going to get squashed or eaten by a random shark.

On top of the painful story, there are the obligatory cameos from mostly lower-tier celebrities. While any of the cameos are subjective in their enjoyment, I personally liked the cameo by Tony Hawk, especially since he is one of the few who isn’t directly killed by a shark. There are also more appearances by real-life news anchors, who seemed to trade some of their dignity for a chance to report on the chaotic Sharknado devastating the globe. In spite of anyone’s ability, however, just about everyone still falls under the plague of stiff and wooden acting that permeates the film as a whole.

On a technical level, it’s a given that the CGI is terrible and the special effects are incredibly fake-looking. In the case of Sharknado 5, there is possibly an overabundance of special effects, even for a Sharknado movie, which adds to the feeling of a completely unbelievable story, even by Sharknado standards. The only notable music is a reappearance of the official theme song at the beginning, coupled with animated footage referencing famous movies and the “Left Shark” internet meme.

Sharknado 5: Global Swarming is simply a bad movie. With a dumb and unbelievable plot line, bad acting, forced references and horrendously bad special effects, it’s hard to recommend this to anyone apart from the diehard fans. We’ll likely still watch Sharknado 6, teased during the ending, but more out of obligation, as the setup gives the impression that the writers have completely run out of ideas. Only time will tell if a franchise that already jumped the shark can possibly recapture what made the first one so enjoyable.

Stubs - Shield for Murder

Shield for Murder (1954) Starring: Edmond O'Brien, Marla English, John Agar, Emile Meyer, Carolyn Jones, Claude Akins, Larry Ryle, Herbert Butterfield, Hugh Sanders, William Schallert, David Hughes, Richard Cutting, Richard Deacon. Directed by Edmond O'Brien, Howard W. Koch. Screenplay by: Richard Alan Simmons and John C. Higgins. Based on the novel Shield for Murder by William P. McGivern. Produced by Aubrey Schenck. Run Time: 82 minutes. USA. Black and White. Film Noir, Drama, Crime

While the name William P. McGivern might not be a household name today, he was a prolific writer in the 1940s and 1950s, publishing about 20 novels, most of them mysteries and crime thrillers under the pseudonym Bill Peters. The films Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), The Big Heat (1953) and Rogue Cop (1954) were all based on his books, which dealt with crooked lawmen. One more novel he wrote, Shield for Murder, dealing with similar themes, was also made into a movie.

The story attracted the attention of Aubrey Schenck, the nephew of Joseph and Nicolas Schenck. Aubrey, like his more famous uncles, was also involved in the film industry, having begun producing films with Shock! (1946) starring Vincent Price. Aubrey was no stranger to film noir, having produced T-Men (1947), so his interest in the novel should come as no surprise.

When it was announced in April 1952 that he intended to produce the film, actor Dana Andrews was in the leading role. That all changed over time. When it was announced in December 1953 that the film was going into production in January, Schenck had a producing partner, Howard W. Koch.

Koch had begun working for Universal Pictures in their New York office before moving to Los Angeles and debuting as an assistant director in 1947. Koch’s first job as a producer was the film War Paint (1953). But before the film would actually go into production in May 1954, Koch would move to behind the camera as the director. Actually co-director, with Edmond O’Brien, who was also signed to star in the film. It was the first time in the director’s chair for both men.

Originally a stage actor, O’Brien first got the attention of producer Pando S. Berman, who offered the actor the romantic lead in RKO’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), which starred Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara.

O’Brien’s Hollywood career took a bit of a hiatus during World War II when he served in the Air Force. He would appear in films, though, during the war years. In Winged Victory (1944), he was credited as Sgt. Edmond O'Brien.

After the war, he would appear in such films as The Killers (1946), White Heat (1949), D.O.A. (1950) and The Hitch-Hiker (1953). He would actually receive an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Oscar Muldoon in the Humphrey Bogart film, The Barefoot Contessa (1954), released the same year as Shield For Murder.

The film opens with the murder of bookmaker Perk Martin (John
Beradino) by Detective Barney Nolan (Edmond O’Brien). 

In the film, O’Brien plays crooked police detective Barney Nolan. When we first see him, Nolan is in the shadows, putting a silencer on his revolver, waiting for a bookmaker, Perk Martin (John Beradino), who gets dropped off in front of him. Nolan wastes little time before he accosts the man and, pretending to be under an official cause, takes him into a nearby alley. The bookie, who knows Nolan, tries to find out how much of a bribe it will take to let him go when Nolan shoots him in the back. He then robs the body of $25,000, before removing the silencer from his gun. He then shouts out a warning, before firing two shots into the air, trying to make it appear that the bookie was shot trying to escape.

After killing Martin, Detective Nolan robs the body.

It seems like the perfect crime, but Nolan is unaware that an elderly deaf mute, Ernst Sternmueller (David Hughes), a resident in the next building, saw the entire episode.

The witness, an elderly deaf mute, Ernst Sternmueller (David Hughes).

The police arrive soon afterward with the investigation led by Sgt. Mark Brewster (John Agar). Brewster happens to not only work in the same division as Nolan, University, but is also Nolan’s tutelage and his partner. When he asks Nolan about the killing, Nolan replies that it was an accident, an excuse Brewster is willing to believe.

But Capt. Gunnarson (Emile Meyer), the new precinct commander, is not so willing to accept it, considering Nolan has been involved in two previous killings. He questions both Brewster and Nolan, telling the latter to use better judgment.

Patty Winters (Marla English) is Nolan's girlfriend.

Barney then leaves to go meet his girlfriend, Patty Winters (Marla English), who works at the nightclub. But he is not prepared to see her dressed in the outfit of a cigarette girl. While she considers it a step up, he becomes enraged at her very revealing outfit. Barney hits the club’s owner when he tries to explain and then leaves with Patty.

A couple of PIs, Fat Michaels (Claude Akins-r) and Laddie O’Neil (Larry
 Ryle), show up at police headquarters looking for Nolan, but instead
talk to his partner, Sgt. Mark Brewster (John Agar).

Meanwhile back at the police station, two private detectives, Fat Michaels (Claude Akins) and Laddie O’Neil (Larry Ryle), working on behalf of gangster Packy Reed (Hugh Sanders), come to collect the $25,000 of Reed’s money that the bookie was carrying at the time of the murder. Brewster informs them that the police only found around $300 dollars on the man when they arrived. But the detectives remind him that Nolan was already on the crime scene when Brewster arrived, suggesting he might have the money.

Cabot (Herbert Butterfield), a crime reporter, thinks there is a story.

Cabot (Herbert Butterfield), a crime reporter who hangs out in the detective room, overhears the conversation. Even though he already has a low opinion of Nolan, Brewster convinces him not to write about the situation until Mark can investigate.

Nolan takes Patty to see a model home he wants to purchase for them to live in.

Meanwhile, Nolan tells Patty that his financial situation is improving as he takes her to see a furnished model house in a new development called Castle Heights. After showing her the modernity of the house, he leaves Patty alone inside and goes into the backyard to bury the cash.

After Nolan drops Patty back at her apartment, Fat Michaels and Laddie O’Neil pay her a visit. They are interrupted though by Brewster, who is also waiting for her. After scaring them away, Brewster tells Patty about Nolan’s behavior. When he asks about where they went that night, Patty tells him about the model home but denies she was ever left alone.

Brewster talks to Patty about Nolan's behavior.

At about the same time, Nolan goes to see Packy in what would pass as a 1950’s man cave, complete with a full bar and television. The gangster makes it clear he wants the money back, even offering Nolan the job of ensuring its return. Packy knows Nolan shot Martin, but Nolan is uncooperative, telling Packy Martin only had small bills on him. Packy’s bodyguard (Gregg Martell) prevents Nolan from leaving only long enough for Packy to tell him there’s no place to hide, even in the big city.

Gangster Packy Reed (Hugh Sanders) tells Nolan he wants his money back.

The next day, when an assistant district attorney (William Schallert) is interviewing Nolan, Sternmueller comes to the office and hands the DA a note, who in turn gives it straight to Nolan. In the note, Sternmueller writes that he witnessed the entire incident and it did not happen the way it's reported in the newspapers. Sternmueller doesn’t recognize Nolan, who after reading the message hands back a written reply that someone will come to interview him.

Sternmueller comes to report to the police what he had seen.

While he waits for a policeman to arrive, Sternmueller puts to paper how he saw the events play out that night. He is still in the midst of his statement when Nolan arrives. He closes the tablet he’s writing in when he sees the detective. Nolan looks out the man’s window and sees the alley where he killed the bookie. At that moment, Sternmueller recognizes Nolan’s overcoat as the one worn by the assailant.

After killing Sternmueller, Nolan throws his body down the stairs.

Nolan tries to offer Sternmueller a bribe, but becomes frustrated when the old man can’t understand him. He pushes him back and Sternmueller falls to the ground. It is only afterward that Nolan realizes the man has hit his head on the bed frame and is fatally injured. Nolan then tries to make the death look like an accident by throwing the body down a flight of stairs.

Joe the Bartender (Vito Scotti) and Proprietress (Grazia Narciso)
 run the Italian restaurant Nolan takes refuge in.

Nolan takes refuge at an Italian restaurant/bar run by Joe the Bartender (Vito Scotti) and Proprietress (Grazia Narciso), where he makes the acquaintance of Beth (Carolyn Jones), a blonde barfly. They drink until she convinces him to buy her dinner. While they’re eating, Nolan comes to realize that she is cheap, as she can’t recall who gave her a bruise on her arm. Michaels and O’Neil arrive and put a damper on the party. As horrified customers watch, Nolan beats both men brutally with his service revolver.

At the restaurant, Nolan befriends Beth (Carolyn Jones).

Meanwhile, Brewster is investigating Sternmueller’s death and discovers the tablet with his written statement. He knows now that his death was no accident.

Brewster goes to Nolan's to arrest him for the bookie's murder.

When Nolan returns home, he finds Brewster there to arrest him for the bookie's murder. After Nolan implicates himself in Sternmueller’s death and pleads for time, Brewster draws his gun to arrest him. But Nolan knocks the gun out of his hand and takes charge of the situation. He momentarily considers killing his partner, but cannot bring himself to do it. Instead, he knocks him out and leaves.

Nolan considers killing his partner, but just knocks him out instead.

Nolan runs to Patty, who is already in bed. After he wakes her up, he informs her they are leaving immediately. Suspecting that this is about the money that actually belongs to Reed, she begs him to stay and let his partner help straighten things out. Angered that his girl has been talking with Brewster about him, Nolan slaps her, knocking her down to the bed. Suddenly shocked by his violence towards her, Nolan flees.

Meanwhile, his partner, having recovered, delivers his report to Gunnarson. The captain brings everyone from the detective room into his office, including Cabot. He hates bad cops and orders that Nolan be arrested. He also gives Cabot permission to print the story.

Captain Gunnarson (Emile Meyer) can't stand bad cops.

Knowing he’s a wanted man, Nolan heads back to his apartment and to a basement storage room, where we know his patrolman’s uniform is stowed. Donning the uniform, he blends in with the other patrolmen who have arrived at his apartment looking for him. He manages to walk away, pretending to be the beat cop.

For a fee, The Professor (Richard Deacon) lets Nolan hide out.

Nolan hides out with the Professor (Richard Deacon), who is busy studying for a test at night school. He has arranged with a man named Manning (Richard H. Cutting) to smuggle him out of the country for a fee. But it is far more than Nolan has on him, so they arrange for a drop. The Professor mentions the high school where he takes classes and they agree to make the exchange in the Men’s Locker Room. Manning also arranges for a car so Nolan can retrieve the money.

Meanwhile, Patty tells Brewster more about the visit to the model home and that she had been left alone in the house. Brewster suspects that is where the money has been hid.

Later that night, in a very crowded locker room, Manning’s messenger (Frank Marlowe) arrives and they make the exchange, money for the tickets and a new passport. But a heavily bandaged Michaels is also there and has the messenger look in the envelope Nolan gave him. Instead of money, there is only cut up newspaper.

Michaels and Nolan carry their gunfight into a crowded swimming pool.

Michaels then chases Nolan through the gym to the crowded swimming pool. In the ensuing gunfight, Nolan kills Michaels and escapes in the car Manning had provided. Nolan then drives to the model house, but is met by numerous police units blocking the streets of the development. After shooting an officer, Nolan runs to the house and retrieves the cash, but is surrounded by police, including Brewster and Captain Gunnarson. Not willing to give up, Nolan fires at the officers and they respond with a hail of bullets, killing him.

Nolan goes down in a blaze of gunfire as he refuses to surrender.

The film was released on August 27, 1954, and while the reviews were mostly positive, it’s hard to know how well it did at the box office. According to the producer the film "grossed a lot of money, you wouldn't believe how much; on television, it's made a fortune." So, the numbers are pretty vague.

This is the second time I’ve seen this film. The first was years ago, during TCM’s first Summer of Darkness, the most recent was watching the film on Blu-Ray. As far as that goes, it was cleaned up for this release. While MGM owns the rights, the Blu-ray was from Kino Lorber. I’m guessing MGM has given up trying to sell their library on discs and has given that task over to others.

While the film is good, it’s really far from great. You can tell the production was done on a low budget, using locations around Los Angeles, rather than a studio. The Castle Heights development is real and not too far from where 20th Century Fox calls home. Somehow, I doubt it is still the middle-class starter neighborhood it is shown to be in the film.

For the most part, the production qualities are pretty good considering. There is one shot early on, when Nolan is taking Perk to his death in the alleyway, that you see the shadow of the boom microphone, but that is the only obvious error that I remember seeing. It does, though, at least temporarily take you out of the film.

One of the joys of watching the film is to see all the actors you recognize from TV. Actors like Richard Deacon, best known for his role as Mel Cooley on the Dick Van Dyke Show in the early 1960s, plays it about as tough as he can in this picture. Willian Schallert, Patty Duke’s TV dad, has a small role as the Assistant District Attorney, so I don’t think it really challenged his range. Carolyn Jones, forever remembered as Morticia on TV’s The Addams Family, plays Beth, a woman with seemingly low morals, as she lets Nolan ply her with liquor.

Claude Akins is one of those actors that appeared in a guest role on just about every TV series from the 1950s and 60s you can name. A character actor, he could play it tough or he could play it cowardly with just about the same believability. His first appearance was in the film From Here to Eternity (1953) and he made a few films before his career turned more to the little screen. He was well enough known to play himself in an episode of I Love Lucy. Here he plays it tough and mean. You really get the impression he’s the type that likes to knock heads together. It’s a good meaty supporting role.

Emile Meyer, who plays Captain of the Detectives, is another familiar face, having appeared in such films as Shane (1953), The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and numerous TV shows from the 1950s through the 1970s. Here he plays the tough, but fair, Captain, who knows he has a bad cop on his hands with Nolan and when he has the evidence is not only not afraid to go after him but to let the city know as well. Again, another believable performance.

Marla English got an introducing sort of credit, but don’t beat yourself up if you’ve never heard of her before. English was cute, to say the least, but she had a very short acting career, walking away from Hollywood at the age of 21, in 1956, when she married a San Diego businessman. She’s good in this part, but there were probably hundreds of actresses who could have filled the bill.

John Agar is probably best remembered for his roles in John Wayne films Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949); and for being Shirley Temple’s first husband. Otherwise, his career consisted mostly of “B” movies, a category in which Shield for Murder would also fall. He’s good here, not spectacular, but he gives an even performance.

The lead in the film, Edmond O’Brien, almost seems too old for the role, especially since his love interest is, based on the actress’s age, a young adult. This is probably more a problem with the script than anything else. O’Brien is good, but he doesn’t give a performance that would make one think he’s on the verge of winning an Academy Award or any award for acting. O’Brien made a lot of films, but his acting seems to be more on the hammy side. He’s good in this role, though his sudden bad feeling about hitting Patty seems a little out of character. He had, after all, killed a man in cold blood a few days before. Given his character’s wild reputation, it is sort of hard to believe this would have been the first time.

There are some story problems with Shield for Murder, especially seen through the eyes of a modern viewer. After killing a man, Nolan is allowed to walk away with little interrogation about the incident. They didn’t even take his revolver away or assign him to desk duty. Maybe modern procedures are in place now only after years of the police being cavalier about one of their own killing a suspect. Here it is treated just like another day at the office and Nolan is allowed to go on his way.

It’s also interesting that there is only one crime reporter. Back then, especially in major cities, there were multiple newspapers trying to beat one another to the next story. One was probably enough to make the story work, but it shouldn’t have rung true for viewers when the film was released.

Shield for Murder would have worked better as a walk on the dark side of the American dream if Nolan hadn’t already been a bad cop. His killing the bookie for the money seems more par for the course, rather than a desperate move by someone having to do something normally against his nature.

Not a great film noir, Shield for Murder isn’t really all that bad. There are plenty more films that are much worse out there. I would recommend the film to anyone who likes noir. Even though this may not be the best example of the genre, it is still fun to watch.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Stubs - Detour

Detour (1945) Starring Tom Neal, Ann Savage. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Screenplay by Martin Goldsmith. Based on the novel Detour: An Extraordinary Tale by Martin Goldsmith (New York, 1939). Produced by Leon Fromkess. Run Time: 67 minutes. U.S.A. Black and White. Film Noir. Drama.

Sometimes it seems films have reputations that far outshine the film itself. Case in point, Detour (1945). I recently saw this film noir on Turner Classic Movies with the intro that it was one of the great film noirs. If you look it up, words like “seminal” are used, which simply means it influences later films, not that is actually great in and of itself. To save time, let’s just say it isn’t.

The film has all the hallmarks of film noir: voice-over narration, murder, a femme fatale, but those elements are like having all the ingredients to make a cake, but without having a pan to bake it in.  And by pan, I mean story. The fact that it is based on a book, Detour: An Extraordinary Tale by Martin Goldsmith, which is long out of print, might go a ways to explaining that. While you don’t need a great book to make a great movie and great books often times get made into mediocre films, you still need a good story to hang it all on.

Al Roberts (Tom Neal) serves as narrator to his own story. When we first met him, he is in a diner having a cup of coffee. He becomes agitated when another customer plays "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me," (music by Jimmy McHugh, lyrics by Clarence Gaskill) on the jukebox.

Al Roberts (Tom Neal) hears a song that reminds him of happier times.

The song reminds him of his past when he lived and worked in New York as a piano player in a nightclub. At the time, he was in love with a singer, Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake). They love each other and Al wants to marry Sue, but she has other plans. Sue wants to go to Hollywood and seek fame and fortune before considering settling down.

Al and Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake) when they were back in New York.

Time passes and Al calls Sue in California. He learns that, like so many wannabes in Hollywood, she’s working as a waitress. He decides that he’ll go to Los Angeles to join her. With little money, his only choice of transportation is to hitchhike across the country. And that plan seems to work, getting him to Arizona. That’s when a man named Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), driving a convertible, picks him up and offers to take him into Los Angeles.

Al decides to join Sue in Los Angeles but has to hitchhike there.

Charles seems easy going enough, even buying Al food at a diner along the way. But Al notices that he has scratches on his hand and eventually asks him about them. Charles explains that a woman to whom he had also given a ride, scratched him when he made a sexual advance.

Al gets picked up by Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), who offers him a ride to Los Angeles.

Al takes his turn behind the wheel that night, but when it starts to rain, he tries to awaken Charles and can’t. He stops the car to put up the top and when he goes around to the passenger’s door and opens it, Charles falls out, hitting his head on a rock by the road. And this is the spot that the movie goes off the rails.

Al convinces himself that he will be blamed for Charles’ murder and goes so far as to pull the dead man out of his car and drag the body away to hide it. Oh, and he steals the dead man’s wallet and cash for good measure. On the way back to the car, a Highway Patrolman is there to yell at Al for blocking the lane, as his car is not all the way over on the shoulder.

After he crosses into California and gets past the inspection, an exhausted Al checks into a motel to sleep.

Al manages to get through inspection when he enters into California.

The next morning, back on the road, Al offers a ride to a woman hitchhiker he meets, Vera (Ann Savage), when he stops to get gas. It is only after they are under way that Vera asks Al what he has done with Haskell's body. But Al continues his claim that he’s George Haskell until she calls his bluff. She recognizes the car, having been a passenger in it from Louisiana to Arizona when George got fresh with her and she scratched his hand.

Al decides to give another hitchhiker, Vera (Ann Savage), a ride.

Vera threatens to turn him over to the police but decides to blackmail him instead. She tells him rather than abandoning the car like he planned to do, they should sell the car for the money they’ll need. And while they start that process with a Used Car Salesman (Don Brode), Vera decides to back out of the deal.

Vera has been in the car before and knows it doesn't belong to Al.

Deciding that they’ll need an address for the sale, she forces Al into renting an apartment in Hollywood under the name Mr. and Mrs. Haskell. This is a sexless arrangement, with Vera commandeering the bedroom, leaving Al to the couch. He is so close to Sue, but he doesn’t want to drag her into the mess he’s in.

Vera insists they sell the car, but they'll need an address for the sale.

But Vera changes her mind about selling the car when she reads in the paper that Charles’ millionaire father is dying and wants to see his son again. The real George apparently ran away from home at an early age when he accidentally injured a friend of his. Vera wants Al to impersonate Charles, as soon as the father dies, to claim the inheritance. But Al refuses, pointing out that he knows next to nothing about either man. Vera, however, insists.

That night, back in their apartment, Vera and Al get very drunk and quarrel. To prevent Al from calling for help, Vera takes the phone, with an extra-long extension cord, into the bedroom.

Unbeknownst to Al, Vera falls asleep on the bed, with the cord around her neck.

Fearing who Vera might call, Al pulls on the cord, hoping to break it. But he apparently pulls hard enough that he strangles Vera with it. Even though it was an accident, he knows the L.A. police would never believe him. He decides to give up on ever seeing Sue again, but knows he can’t stay in L.A. nor go back to New York.

Accidentally, Al somehow kills Vera.

Instead, he must keep moving, knowing that someday he will be caught, which we see at the end of the movie, in a production code ending. Criminals can never get away with their crimes.

The film was made on a very low budget. While some report that it was $20,000, it is more likely that it was closer to $100,000; still low even for its time. And while director Edgar G. Ulmer would claim that it was shot in 4 days, a shooting script lists the production days as being in front of the camera from June 14 to June 29, 1945; 14 days. One of the tricks used to make the film on such a low budget was to flip the negative from some hitchhiking sequences with passengers getting in on what should be the driver’s side.

The film was surprisingly well-received when first released with positive reviews in the Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, and Variety. No details on how well it did at the box-office. The film would be remade in 1992, starring the lead actor’s son, Tom Neal, Jr., along with Lea Lavish.

Unlike contemporary critics, I am not a big fan of Detour. To me it demonstrates the worst kind of Film Noir, in that the situation the protagonist finds himself in is his own stupid fault, with the emphasis on stupid. There is only a story because Al decided not to do the right thing and report Charles’ death to the authorities. He hadn’t caused the man’s death and at worse it would be an accident. But because he stole the dead man’s identity, he only made things bad for himself.

And what a colossal coincidence that the woman he would pick up would have been the same one who had hitched a ride with the dead man in the first place. Coincidences are sort of shortcut story-telling. The writer needs it for the story to continue and no matter how far-fetched we have to buy it or the story dies on the vine.

The final straw is the rather unbelievable murder of Vera. Again, tragic accident, but Al only compounds things by running. Strangling someone with a telephone cord is hard enough to swallow; how unconscious must Vera be not to try and stop it by calling out or opening the door to show him what he was doing?

Every major plot point that the story relies on is too hard to swallow for me to really appreciate the film.

The acting isn’t much better. One doesn’t expect top notch acting in a low budget film, but I don’t think either actor is strong enough in their roles. Both Tom Neal and Ann Savage give sort of wooden performances which don’t help a film that is hard to believe.

While making a film on a shoestring budget is an accomplishment in and of itself, I can’t say that I give the film much more credit than that. Maybe if the story had been stronger I might be willing to overlook the acting and maybe if there was more chemistry I might have been more willing to overlook the holes in the story. But it isn’t and they aren’t. I can’t recommend Detour. There are far too many other and better film noirs worthier of your time to spend it on this one. I’m not sure where the reputation came from, but I don’t see it on the screen.

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