Tuesday, May 15, 2012
The Edgar G. Ulmer Week: Detour (1945)
I can't get it out of my mind how much Detour reflects leading man Tom Neal's own life: a dirty but successful beginning until everything fucks up around him. Yeah, Edgar G. Ulmer's classic film noirs is just not a smart and original thriller, it's a pitch-black comedy. I wonder if Oliver Stone was inspired by this one when he many years later made the underrated U-Turn starring Sean Penn? Shot during four weeks - not six days as the colourful Ulmer claimed later in his life - this is clearly a movie ahead of it's with a couple of stunning performances and dialogue that would make Tarantino jealous.
Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a good and hard-working pianist at a nightclub. He's doing well, but is still poor as few other people. His girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) wants to go to
to try her luck as an actress and does so. Al can't live without her and
decides to quit his job and hitch-hike to LA. After days and days on the road
he finally gets picked up by Charles Haskell Jr (Edmund MacDonald), a friendly
"businessman". But through a weird coincidence an accident happens
and Haskell Jr dies... and because of very bad luck Al has no other way than
taking his identity and continue his travel to LA. But then he meets another
hitcher... and shit hits the fan! Hollywood
Detour was the first noir who was added to the National Film Registry, to be preserved for years to come. And I can understand why. This is a very black and downbeat thriller (but I would say it's very close to a black comedy... VERY black comedy) with it's roots in the classic film noir. The story is basically divided into two sets: in a car in front of a projection and in hotel rooms along the way. The script is sharp as hell, from the dialogue to the twists and turns. This is high class entertainment.
Tom Neal, who twenty years later shot his wife in the back of her head and spent some years in prisons - dying just shortly after his release, makes this is tour-de-force. He gives bitterness the ultimate face, and from his inability to look people in the eyes as a pianist (a very nice touch, instead he holds his eyes above everyone, or on the side) to getting involved in a story that completely destroys his dreams, his life... yeah, everything. And he's just deep inside a nice guy with a nice girlfriend and talent who wants to start a new life. If he just didn't step into that car.
The other highlight of the movie is Ann Savage as Vera, probably the most psychotic and crazy bitch ever to be portrayed in cinema history - and this way long before this kind of characters became more common. She's a living manipulative nightmare, only out to cause disaster. We're not talking about a sexy, elegant femme fatal here, we're talking about a raving psychopath. She's truly stunning in the part.
Detour is another masterpiece from Ulmer, even if I've seen so few of his movies that I can't say that there's better movies he's done. But people I trust claim so, so I have to believe them. I hate nostalgia and I'm the last person looking into the past when it comes to culture - music, movies, art - but I wish that a time like this time will come again, where storytelling is the most important thing - not budget or on which format it's shot.