Sunday, April 14, 2019

DETOUR (1945)

Producers Releasing Corporation, 69m 5s

"Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all."

The above line of narrated dialog closes DETOUR and succinctly summarizes everything that comes before it in director Edgar G. Ulmer's bare-bones film noir, made on the cheap for pipsqueak B-studio PRC. After a man's repeated run-ins with incredibly bad fortune, complicated further by some questionable decisions made in haste, he walks a road in a trance-like state of hopelessness. He is keenly aware that someday the police will collect him; maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually. Without any decent prospects for the future, he is an outsider left to imagine how his life may have played out had certain moments of chance not transpired.

As the opening credits run, the background presents not the future, but the past. It is the view from the rear window of a moving automobile. Such backward imagery makes sense in the tortuous context of DETOUR, a bleak study of a man's failed attempt to outrun his past. As he makes his way east via a combination of hitchhiking and hoofing, Al Roberts (Tom Neal) stops at the Nevada Diner, where his surly demeanor quickly establishes the loner as the diner's least likable guest. He becomes particularly upset when he hears a jukebox rendition of "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me." It is at this juncture where the filmmakers rely on the plot mechanics of CASABLANCA (1942) to delve into the lead protagonist's history, but the intense chiaroscuro imagery that follows is unfiltered noir. A subjective darkness envelops Al as a series of flashbacks arise. During his piano-pounding days at the Break O' Dawn Club in New York City, he falls for singer Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake). Though a tremendously talented, classically-trained pianist, for whatever reason Al finds himself on the nightclub's schedule, playing for tips from the evening hours until 4 AM. Nonetheless, he considers himself to be fairly lucky. He plans to make an honest woman of Sue, but she is bound for Hollywood and the potential stardom it offers a chosen few. Before long, Al feels a magnetic pull to join his beloved in the land of hopes and dreams. Al sells everything he owns and makes the trip west with only a small suitcase in hand.

An archetypal noir protagonist, Al laments the lack of money available to him, but wouldn't know what to do with it if he had it. Headed for California with precious little cash to his name, Al covers the most ground as a hitchhiker. He is scooped up by Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald) in Arizona. Charles is a pill-popping bookie with a fat pocket and a nice car, but his right hand is marked by deep scratches. He explains to Al those wounds were the work of, "...the most dangerous animal in the world:  a woman." Charles also bears a large scar on his arm that stands for the family life with which he no longer identifies. The well-established film noir atmosphere thickens when heavy rainfall coincides with the untimely death of Charles! Not optimistic the police would be sympathetic to his cause, Al assumes Charles's identity rather than risk involving the law. Al not only takes the identity of a dead man, he leaves his own personal belongings with the lifeless body of Charles. Such actions never seem to pan out favorably in the unforgiving noir landscape, and Al experiences nightmares that foretell his decline. Charles may have been a cheap chiseler out to dupe his own father, but he probably deserves a better memorial than he is granted.

"Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you."

Al is assailed by fate again, far more dramatically this time, when he picks up an endlessly acerbic woman named Vera (Ann Savage in an unremittingly theatrical performance). She is the "dangerous animal" that left Charles battle-scarred. A quick study, Vera appraises Al and plans to exploit his tough situation for her own gain. At this point, the ugly downward spiral into which Al has tumbled seems to offer no possibility of an escape route.

"You know how to work it?"

The role of women in film noir has received much critical attention, mostly in terms of the rigid archetypes so many of the genre's female characters embody. Both of the major female characters of DETOUR contribute to the lead protagonist's downfall, even if the disposition of one woman is far more displeasing than that of the other. Things start to deteriorate for Al when the love of his life Sue decides to leave him in search of stardom. The title of the song he associates with her suggests his decision to trail her will be a big mistake, as does the thick fog of the city streets the couple navigates as she explains her desire to pursue her dreams. Most interesting, the downpour that accompanies the death of Charles occurs immediately after Al visualizes Sue performing somewhere in the Los Angeles area. His dream of a reunion with Sue must be very foolish, but Al is unable to decode the indigenous red flags of film noir, even as he goes into self-preservation mode.

Al travels in the direction of one woman, but it is his destiny to be besieged by another along the way. To say fate deals Al a bad card would be about as understated as that idea could be expressed. An unapologetically caustic woman, Vera shoves Al into a corner and does everything within her power to keep him there. Though when they meet Al shows Vera kindness and even senses her inner-beauty, once she recognizes she is in firm possession of the upper hand, her verbal ferocity knows no boundaries. She cares mostly about how much money she can squeeze out of him, and only Al cares that Vera's greed might be the undoing of both of them. She is intuitively defensive and angers easily, but nothing upsets her more than when Al shows no interest in her playful advances (the scene in which Vera throws her shoes out of sexual frustration is a nice touch). At the same time, she knows she is no great prize—she feels "10 pounds lighter" after a bath, and would rather avoid the police based upon her own murky past.

Like a large number of noir characters, Vera exhibits a physical weakness:  in her case, a chronic cough. Al notices this trait and likens her to Camille (LA DAME AUX CAMÉLIAS, 1848), who died of consumption. Despite Al's attempt to establish intellectual superiority, Vera is familiar with his reference. Her existential philosophical position makes sense in light of her apparently terminal condition, particularly when she confesses, "I'm on my way anyhow." Her failing health coupled with her tendency to drink heavily leads to respiratory failure in one of the most famous of noir fatalities. An unlikely cause of death perhaps, yet it seems entirely plausible on grounds of the film noir's fatalistic sensibility. Like Al, Vera appears destined for destruction, unequipped with the capacity to steer in the opposite direction.

It is not only Vera who struggles with communication skills. It appears all forms of communication are strained, ineffective, dishonest or unwelcome. Near the film's exposition in the diner sequence, Al articulates his emotions ineffectively with others. The first time Al reaches out by phone to his love Sue, he speaks plenty to her, and a conversation is implied, but never do we hear her voice. Rather strangely, when Sue is shown with a phone to her ear, she does not say one word. Later when Al is in Hollywood, he again telephones Sue, but this time it is Al who does not speak (due to Vera's omnipresence). Unable to connect with Sue, it is fitting Al makes an emphatic telephone connection with Vera, who fails to drop the dime she had threatened. Charles tried to make a connection of some sort with Vera before she clawed him; most likely it was unwanted touching (the event is discussed but never shown). Then there is the office scene at the used car lot, where Al cannot name the insurance company that covers the car he supposedly owns. What normally would be basic conversations in everyday situations go nowhere in DETOUR.

Analysis of the film noir often involves heavy use of the term "protagonist" since the genre's lead characters seldom could be described as anything else. Only rarely is there someone of untarnished goodness to consider, less often does the story include someone who could be described as a hero. The embittered character Al Roberts, who also serves as the story's narrator, takes that notion a step further when he accuses the viewer of betting against him. "You're going to tell me you don't believe my story about Haskell dying and give me that 'don't make me laugh' expression on your smug faces," he grumbles. Similarly, later he says none of us would accept his account of Vera's accidental death. Of course, the aim of narration in any film is to get the viewer on the side of the narrator. Al's narration indeed requests our sympathy, which he mostly deserves, especially from the standpoint of lost identity. At the film's conclusion, Al should feel relieved. Since he and Vera registered as Mr. and Mrs. Charles Haskell, Jr. at the rental apartment where Vera's body was found, the police are on the hunt for Charles. That reality means nothing to Al, who is neither himself nor Charles Haskell. He is a man of no true identity, from neither east nor west, trapped in noir no man's land, a place where danger cannot be averted. His complete lack of place, except perhaps in a jail cell, makes Al one of film noir's most directionless unfortunates. Based upon his lack of detestable qualities, he is among the more sympathetic of condemned noir figures. Far less sympathetic was the actor who portrayed Al. In one of Hollywood's great ironies, Tom Neal was convicted on November 18, 1965 of involuntary manslaughter after he shot his wife to death earlier that year. He served only six years for the crime, but died shortly after his release from prison at the age of 58.

New to the Criterion Collection, DETOUR has received a game-changer of a 4K digital restoration, framed correctly at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the dual-layered Blu-ray edition. If this release does not stand triumphantly as the most important film restoration of 2019 it will come as quite a surprise. For those of us familiar with the film's prior home video incarnations, to witness it unfold in such a pristine state is a bit baffling, with the persistent perspiration that covers Al's forehead palpable throughout the presentation. The only hints of the various source materials that comprise this new transfer are a few instances of missing frames.

Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Image Entertainment DVD (2000)

Special features include the documentary feature EDGAR G. ULMER: THE MAN OFF-SCREEN (2004, 75m 36s), which covers a tremendous amount of interesting information about "The King of the B's." Ulmer was noted best for making watchable movies in a small amount of time on limited funding. Peter Bogdanovich says Ulmer's career made quite an impact on future generations of indie filmmakers, who were inspired to believe they too could make something out of next to nothing. Wim Wenders makes the assertion that sometimes the most inexpensive of film productions, despite various shortcomings, actually come closer to the truth of existence than their larger-budgeted counterparts. Other important filmmakers who reflect on the career of Ulmer include Roger Corman, Joe Dante and John Landis, all of whom hold Ulmer in high regard and appear pleased to be participating.

A historical review of Edgar G. Ulmer's professional and private lives is complicated by his tendency to stretch the truth or even lie outright. For instance, he used a letterhead that announced Doctor of Philosophy, a title he never earned. Similarly, Ulmer said he was born in Vienna, a city of prestige, though in truth he was born in Czechoslovakia. He immigrated to Ellis Island in 1923, but like Al in DETOUR, was torn between two different places. Ulmer did not fully embrace America, nor did he completely leave European culture behind. However, World War II prompted Ulmer, a Jew, to remain in the US. Ulmer claimed to have worked on some very famous and influential productions, such as THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920), METROPOLIS (1927) and M (M - Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder, 1931). He also took credit for the innovative moving camera sequence in THE LAST LAUGH (Der letzte Mann, 1924). Biographer Noah Isenberg could not substantiate Ulmer's claimed contributions to any of these films.

The Hollywood credits of Ulmer are easier to verify, even if some of the details behind his projects remain open to debate in terms of creative contributions, budgets and shooting schedules. One of his greatest achievements was THE BLACK CAT (1934), shot in 15 days on a $91K  budget. It remains a supremely disturbing watch today, and one of the finest fright films to emerge from Universal Pictures, the studio noted mostly for its quality horror films at that time. A major turning point in Ulmer's filmmaking career transpired when he had an affair with 20-year-old Shirley Castle, his eventual wife, who at the time was married to producer Max Alexander, nephew of Universal Pictures president Carl Laemmle. Ulmer found himself alienated from mainstream Hollywood productions and was forced to move on to "Poverty Row" studios, where he would churn out the type of product for which he is remembered. He boasted a 6-day shooting schedule for DETOUR, though his daughter Arianne Ulmer notes the shooting schedule indicated 14 camera days. Again, the filmmaker's account of things appears somewhat sketchy. Ulmer worked mostly overseas in the 1950s and 1960s, and seemed happy to be there. His final film would be THE CAVERN (Sette contro la morte, 1964), for which Ulmer was in poor health according to John Saxon. Following a debilitating stroke, Edgar G. Ulmer passed away in 1972 in Woodland Hills, California.

"Noah Isenberg on DETOUR" (21m 11s) was recorded in November of 2018 for the Criterion Collection. The author of EDGAR G. ULMER: A FILMMAKER AT THE MARGINS (2014) and DETOUR (2008, BFI Film Classics) chronicles Ulmer's career from front to back. In Europe, Ulmer worked as a set designer for Max Reinhardt, then transitioned to the art department at Universal Pictures after he relocated to Hollywood. His early career was tethered to William Wyler, who churned out 2-reel Westerns at the time. The first feature Ulmer directed for Universal was THE BLACK CAT, shot while studio boss Carl Laemmle was on holiday in Europe. Laemmle returned to discover a product that was far too radical in style for his tastes, and to make matters worse, it was during this production when Ulmer fell for Shirley Castle. The author believes Ulmer was most effective at the margins of the film industry, and would not necessarily have made superior product with higher budgets. DETOUR backs up that argument with heavy use of stock footage, rear projection, a fog machine and reversed negatives (painfully apparent during a hitchhiking sequence). Ulmer's minimalist approach to the material is precisely what makes it impactful.

The story of DETOUR's restoration (11m 2s) begins in 2002, when Arianne Ulmer brought her film and video master collection to the Academy Film Archive. Director Mike Pogorzelski explains ten years were spent in search of the necessary film elements that would make restorative work possible. A 35mm nitrate composite print was discovered in Belgium, but French and Flemish subtitles would have to be removed. A variety of modern digital restoration techniques made the project possible per film preservationist Heather Linville. Pogorzelski believes the Belgian source material was only one generation away from the camera negative.

Also included is a Janus Films rerelease trailer (1m 32s) and a carefully-researched production review by Robert Polito, who concludes DETOUR's framework came into being very late in the filmmaking process, as Ulmer reduced the film's perspective to the fragile psyche of its lead protagonist. Polito does such a fine job in his review of the original screen treatment by Martin Goldsmith that one cannot help wonder about the more elaborate motion picture that another studio might have produced, and whether that product might have been even better than the justly revered DETOUR we know today.