Is Tom Neal’s Al Roberts really Fate’s Plaything or just the ultimate pushy bottom?
Edgar G. Ulmer is one of the more provocative auteurs in movie history. His provenance is impeccable in its early phases. A set designer, production designer, and/or codirector with the likes of Max Reinhardt, Murnau, Lang, and Lubitsch in the 1920s (see Peter Bogdanovich’s interview with Ulmer in The Devil Made Me Do It for the details), he joined the parade of émigrés from the Viennese high-art community who came to America and changed its artistic landscape. In 1934, he made the Universal classic The Black Cat, pushing the limits of acceptability even for that period’s gruesome horror films. A year later he was toiling in the depths of poverty row. He began this part of his career by making bargain-basement westerns under the name of John Warner, then directed a series of cheap ethnic-market movies – Ukrainian, Yiddish, black – before moving into the phase for which he’s best known: a string of stylish low-budget 1940s horror films and noirs (Bluebeard, Strange Illusion, Detour, The Strange Woman, Ruthless). The precise cause of Ulmer’s early fall from grace has yet to be determined with absolute accuracy, but his cuckolding of the son of a powerful Hollywood mogul, along with his well-known personal intransigence and refusal/inability to put commercial considerations over aesthetics, must have been major factors.
Ulmer may have been bitter about his change of fortune, but his extreme productivity from the mid-1930s to the early 1960s speaks of an artistic temperament engaged with even the most improbable projects. Most of these projects were made for tiny PRC, one of Hollywood’s least luxurious studios. There was never enough money from studio head Leon Fromkess to produce the kinds of first-rate effects he would have liked (Ulmer was a visual artist and music aficionado as well as a filmmaker), but at least he had creative freedom and the talent to implement whatever ideas he could afford. (For a good example of what he could do with very little, check out the gorgeous forced-perspective sets of Paris he devised for Bluebeard.) In the case of his unquestioned masterpiece, Detour, the lack of resources Ulmer suffered at PRC is reflected in the film itself and in the lives of his shabby, desperate characters.
Detour has one of the more convoluted plots in noir, packing a flashback structure, an extended voiceover, a cross-country trek, a mysterious death, an “accidental” murder, an identity exchange, an unforgettable femme fatale, and one of the most pathetic, masochistic antiheroes ever into its 67-minute running time. The film opens in the present, with Al Roberts (Neal) an unhinged hitchhiker trying to score a ride “east.” At a diner, he starts a fight with a customer who plays a jukebox tune that gives him the jitters. The song, the standard “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me,” was once a favorite. Its reappearance triggers a flood of memories that explain how the once respectable Roberts has become a pitiful bum and psychological wreck wandering along the dark highways of postwar America.
Roberts, it seems, was once a classically trained pianist working in a dive, New York’s “Break o’ Dawn” club, where his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) was a singer. Evidence that Roberts is not exactly a regular guy is hinted at early by a string of complaints and self-pitying comments he makes. Even getting a tip means nothing to Roberts. When he receives a ten-dollar bill from a pleased customer, his reaction skirts the psychotic: “What was it? A piece of paper, crawling with germs.” Sue’s plan to seek her fortune in Hollywood further unbalances him, and when she leaves, he decides to follow her by the only method available to a guy with no money: hitchhiking.
Ulmer, like the “fate” that Roberts blames for everything wrong in his life, closes in on his hero from the beginning; even a romantic twilight stroll is played as a low-key nightmare, with Sue saying the two have “struck out” as a thick, threatening fog swirls around them. Critic John Belton wrote in his profile of the director in The Hollywood Professionals that Ulmer’s world “has no fixity and is incomprehensible, ” and this supposedly romantic sequence shows that is indeed the case. The comforting details of mise-en-scene are missing entirely from much of the film, with Roberts wandering through a desolate, fog-drenched world that offers neither comfort nor even reassuring reality.
Roberts goes by fits and starts from New York to California, finally getting a boost in Arizona, where he’s picked up by the flashy Charlie Haskell, a man going “all the way.” But something’s amiss: Haskell has claw marks on his hand from, as he explains, “tussling with the most dangerous animal in the world – a woman!” Roberts is almost masochistically sympathetic to this blowhard, fretting over hitchhiker “etiquette” and nearly drooling with gratitude when Haskell pays for his meal. Their scenes together highlight some of the film’s typical hard-boiled dialogue: “There oughta be a law against dames with claws!”
Adding to Roberts’ bad luck, Haskell dies mysteriously during the ride in a heavy rainstorm. Roberts has stopped to put up the convertible top when the supposedly sleeping Haskell falls out of the car, bumping his head. Was he dead before he fell, or did Roberts “accidentally” kill him by opening the door? The film leaves the viewer with several possible scenarios, including that Roberts may in fact be lying about what happened. Things spiral heavily downward from here as Roberts foolishly decides that no one would believe he didn’t kill Haskell. He then exchanges identities with the dead man, putting his I.D. in Haskell’s pocket in an act that symbolically redefines himself as a dead man. That way, as he says while rolling Haskell into the bushes, it will seem that Al Roberts is dead, not Charlie Haskell. Meanwhile Roberts, no longer protected by his own name, assumes Haskell’s identity long enough to ditch the car and find Sue.
In a monumental miscalculation, Roberts then picks up a hitchchiker who happens to be the “dame with claws” who attacked Haskell. Roberts’ attraction to the netherworld represented by Vera is evident quickly in his voiceover, as he recalls that she had “a beauty that’s almost homely because it’s so real.” Whatever his other failings, Roberts is no slouch with words; author of the novel and screenplay Martin Goldsmith gives him some of the film’s most vivid lines, for example, when he says Vera looked like she was “thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world.” Vera too turns out to be a noir wordsmith second to none. She instantly divines both the situation and his weakness. Quickly assuming the role of hectoring conscience, she makes blatant threats (“If you act wise, well, mister, you’ll pop into jail so fast it’ll give you the bends!”) and offers mock sympathy (“I’d hate to see a fellow as young as you wind up sniffin’ that perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers!”)
Much of their interaction plays like a bizarre burlesque of marriage, with Vera the ultimate shrew and Roberts the quintessential henpecked husband. Vera – true to her name – is aware of this and refers to it openly. She’s attracted to Roberts and makes no bones about it: “Do I rate a whistle?” she says after dolling herself up. “Stop makin’ noises like a husband.” This is the dark mirror image of Roberts’ fantasies about domestic bliss with Sue. Vera plays him like a puppet, taking all of Haskell’s “dough” and eventually concocting a plan for more riches that further strips away Roberts’ identity. She tries to force him to play the masquerade to the end, to pretend to be Haskell to gain the estate of the real Haskell’s wealthy dying father. This precipitates the film’s, and Robert’s, end in a literal twist that must have shocked audiences of the time.
What happens in Detour is rendered entirely through Roberts’ eyes, the action of the flashback consistently interrupted by creepy close-ups of him giving his version of the events. Like many a noir narrator, his reliability is constantly questioned by the film. He’s undercut by both his suspicious behavior in the death of Haskell (if he was really so innocent, why did he take Haskell’s money?) and his constant self-pity and blaming of “fate, or some other force” for what happens. And his attraction to the darkness and nihilism of Vera – why would he pick her (or anyone!) up after his own experience hitchchiking? – undermines his cries of victimhood.
Detour cost anywhere from $20, 000 to $60, 000, depending on which account you believe. It was shot in either four or six days, a typical schedule for many of Ulmer’s low-budget films. But it bears his distinctive stamp throughout. For the famous penultimate scene of Vera’s “accidental” murder, the camera seems to crawl inside Roberts’ head as he surveys the room where this happened, with the lens alternately focusing and defocusing on various objects. Even a simple scene like Sue singing is rendered with poverty-row panache with a low dutch angle of Sue backed up by three musicians seen only in shadow. Forced perspectives and expressionist motifs appear throughout, reinforcing the script’s vision of an unpredictable, ultimately terrifying world.
Actor Tom Neal’s career, like Ulmer’s, was restricted mostly to B films, but unlike Ulmer, Neal wound up in similar straits to Roberts. In an eerie life-imitates-art episode, he went to prison in 1965 for six years for killing his third wife. (Like Roberts, he claimed the killing was accidental.) Neal’s knockabout charm, his air of wounded virility, and his skill at rendering screenwriter Goldsmith’s stylized, rapid-fire dialogue make him one of noir’s most memorable beleaguered males, even if he does appear duplicitous or delusional in the end. Ulmer has spoken fondly of Al Roberts (“I was always in love with … the main character, a boy who plays piano in Greenwich Village and really wants to be a decent pianist, ” he told Bogdanovich), and no wonder. Roberts is easily read as a double for Ulmer himself – both men artists living a marginalized existence in straitened circumstances (Ulmer in B films, Roberts as a classical pianist in a dive). The great Ann Savage only appears in the second half of the film, but as Vera she dominates every scene, controlling Roberts and mesmerizing the viewer with her commanding stare and hard, sharp words. Savage also manages to give this harpy a human side when she makes it clear that she’s dying of tuberculosis. Savage appeared only sporadically in film in the 1940s and early ‘50s, but her reputation is secure on the basis of the unforgettable Vera.
For years Detour was available only in battered 16mm prints and grainy or overexposed public-domain videos. The 35mm negative was long believed lost, along with any 35mm prints. Happily, this was not the case. Image’s DVD was transferred from the 35mm negative in the Wade Williams collection. While it unfortunately lacks any extras, the DVD is refreshingly sharp and detailed, with the best sound of any video version heard by this reviewer. It is not, however, a perfect print, and some viewers may find the transfer problematic enough to hesitate to buy it. There are several splicy sequences where the dialogue is truncated and in one case missing entirely. In one scene, the image appears to wobble for several seconds due to negative shrinkage or damage. One of the reel changes is riddled with artifacts, and a vertical line occasionally appears. All that said, this is still the best version around, and probably the closest we’ll get to experiencing this classic (outside a rep house revival) the way Ulmer meant it to be in 1945 in its first release.