Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Looking Back at (and in) DETOUR



Ed here: This is a long but worthwhile look at "Detour" from Movie Morlocks. It also gives us some intriguing background on the intriguing Edgar G. Ulmer.
A recent weeknight found me flipping through my DVD collection looking for a film I could watch in one sitting.  No BEN HUR on a Wednesday.  No HIS GIRL FRIDAY, for that matter.  I’ve discovered I have about 80 minutes on weeknights before my brain turns to pudding, which has led to a steady regimen of B movies from Poverty Row during the week and masterworks from the Majors on weekends.  On the day in question, the B film was DETOUR (1945), a 68-minute gem from Producers Releasing Corporation (their productions spanned from I TAKE THIS OATH in 1940 to the equally ill-remembered IN THIS CORNER of 1948).

There’s a lot to love about DETOUR, starting with the obvious talents of director Edgar G. Ulmer and lead actors Tom Neal and Ann Savage. Savage turns in a particularly strong performance, living up to her name as one of the most vicious femmes fatales in the history of film noir.  If Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat is a quicksilver promise in the moonlight and Ava Gardner’s Kitty Collins is some mythological siren, Savage’s Vera is a rabid pitbull.  For a moment, Neal’s Al Roberts makes the mistake of thinking she’d be a cute pet, then she sinks her teeth and he can’t shake her.  There is no other performance I can think of that matches it for pure savagery.

But as I watched this film again, what struck me most is how carefully Ulmer crafts flashbacks, and how these transitions seem to invite us to pay closer attention to all moments of retrospection in the film.  If we do, we understand two things.  In terms of the story, we see Al is doomed because of his inability to look beyond the past. In terms of production, we see DETOUR is a work of art, for it seamlessly joins message and medium.
This might seem like a big claim for such a small picture, but there is evidence for making the case both within the movie and in the arc of Ulmer’s career, for he had a hand in groundbreaking works and lavish productions alike before delving into B pictures.  His first film, MENSCHEN AM SONTAGG (PEOPLE ON SUNDAYS, 1930), was extremely influential and quite successful—a precursor to neorealism in its use of non-professional actors featured in real and staged scenes of daily life.  Also remarkable was the crew of that film, which included Robert Siodmak, Curt Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinneman (providing further proof, if any were needed, that film noir is distinctly American in the same way as Jazz; it too was born at the crossroads of foreign and American cultural influences—in this case German visual sensibilities and American hard-boiled storytelling). A scant four years later, Ulmer would be at the helm of BLACK CAT for Universal Pictures, creating a vision no less unique, though with a more impressive budget.
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1 comment:

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

This was the first noir film I ever watched and I liked it a lot. It seemed as if Edgar G. Ulmer woke up one day, picked up his camera, asked Tom Neal and Ann Savage to follow him out, and shot the film from dawn to dusk. I was able to predict the end. Thank you for sharing this review.