In Blackest Night: Edgar G. Ulmer’s DETOUR (PRC 1945)

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After hearing about DETOUR for years and reading all the critical acclaim, I finally got the chance to  watch it this year, thanks to TCM and the good ol’ DVR. I wondered if it would live up to all the hype, and I was not disappointed. DETOUR is a textbook example of how to make a great film on a shoestring budget. Indie auteurs today could certainly learn a lot from director Edgar G Ulmer’s inventiveness, as he crafts a film noir gem on a six-day schedule and $20,000 budget. Although reports do vary on shooting length and cost, let’s be honest…this is a PRC film, not an MGM prestige production. “Make em fast, make em cheap” was the studio’s mantra!

DETOUR tells the story of Al Roberts, who we meet in an Arizona diner. Al’s a disheveled looking guy who seems to have a chip on his shoulder bigger than the Grand Canyon. When a trucker plays the tune “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me” on the jukebox, Al goes nuts, demanding he turn it off. After the proprietor calms him down, Al begins musing (in voiceover) about how he got where he is today…

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Flashback to New York City, where Al’s a small-time piano player in New York whose singer/girlfriend Sue goes to seek fame and fortune in Hollywood. After a call to Sue, who tells him she’s “working as a hash slinger”, Al decides he’s going to hitchhike across country to be with her. He makes it to Arizona, broke and destitute, when he’s picked up by a guy named Haskell. The talkative Haskell tells Al he’s going all the way to LA. Cruising down the highway, Haskell (who’s taking some kind of medications) has some scratches on his hand, and he tells Al about the last hitcher he picked up, “the most dangerous animal in the world..a woman”. Al takes the wheel while Haskell sleeps, and when a rainstorm begins, he pulls over to put the top up. Haskell won’t wake up, and when Al opens the door, the man falls on the pavement, bumping his head on a rock. Al realizes Haskell’s dead, and in a panic, he dumps the body in the brush, taking Haskell’s money, clothes, and ID.

While going through Haskell’s stuff in a hotel room, Al learns the guy was a chiseler. Not feeling so bad now, Al continues his journey to California in the stolen car under the guise of Haskell. He gasses up, and sees a woman hitching who “looks as if she’d just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world”. Al offers her a lift, and it’s the worst decision he’ll ever make, for this is Vera, the woman who rode with Haskell and gave him the scratches. Vera knows Al is not Haskell, and threatens to expose Al as a murderer if he doesn’t comply with her demands…

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Tom Neal does good work  as the ill-fated Al, caught in a downhill spiral of his own bad decisions, but Ann Savage sizzles as Vera. Ann certainly lives up to her surname, biting off her dialogue in ratatat fashion, with a kisser that looks like she’s been off her meds for a week and a half. Whether barking at Al or drunkenly trying to seduce him, Savage’s Vera is the femme fatale to end them all. It’s a vicious, unsympathetic, no-holds-barred performance, and Ann Savage nails it. She’s the noir bad girl that bad girls aspire to be, and though her film career was largely forgettable, she’ll always be remembered for this once in a lifetime role.

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Edgar G. Ulmer uses all the tricks up his sleeve to cover up the budget limitations. The film is darkly inked in blacks, aiding the mood tremendously. Using tight shots, close-ups, fog shrouded streets, and outdoor locations, Ulmer paints a picture of a man in turmoil, the bleakness of Al’s situation reflected in the bleakness of the film’s settings. Ulmer’s capably assisted by Benjamin Kline’s cinematography. Kline was a veteran of silents, shorts (with lots of early Three Stooges to his credit), and B’s who knew his way around a camera, and DETOUR is his finest work. The screenplay was written by Martin Goldsmith, based on his 1939 novel (I wonder if there’s a copy on Amazon??) Kudos go to all involved with this film, from Ulmer and his crew of artists to the marvelously malevolent Ann Savage. DETOUR is one B-movie you won’t want to miss!

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