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.

Check out our reviews on other Film Noir at our Review Hub.

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