This review is part of the FOR THE LOVE OF FILM: THE FILM PRESERVATION BLOGATHON to benefit the film noir foundation who work for the restoration of decaying noir films. The blogathon runs from Feb. 14th through Feb. 21st. For more information on how you can help by donating please check out our blogathon hosts, The Self Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films.
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One of the most unusual careers in Hollywood is that of film director Edgar G. Ulmer. His career began in Germany as a stage actor and set designer where he eventually worked for Max Reinhart. Soon after he worked for the great F.W. Murnau on “The Last Laugh” and with Fritz Lang on “Metropolis,” and “Spies.” He also co-directed “People on Sunday,” whose creative behind the scene talent included Robert Siodmak, Curt Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann and Eugen Schufftan. In America, he worked for Carl Laemmle Jr. at Universal, who would loan him to Fox so he could work again with Murnau on the films, “Sunrise,” “Four Devils” and “City Girl.” In his interview with Peter Bogdanovich (“Who The Devil Made It”) Ulmer also stated he began directing two reel silent westerns, most of which seem to no longer exist. Though his directing career would get off to a good start, his fourth feature was the expressionistic horror film, “The Black Cat“ (1934) for Universal, Ulmer would spend most of his career exiled to poverty row partially due to an affair with Shirley Alexander, the then wife of producer Max Alexander who happened to also be the nephew of Universal honcho, Laemmle. Shirley would soon after divorce Alexander and marry Ulmer. As Shirley Ulmer, she would work on many of her husband’s films as script supervisor. Ulmer liked the creative freedom that working for a small studio like P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Company) would give him. His most famous film from this period was “Detour,” a grim, bargain basement tale about a third-rate piano player whose life is going nowhere and only about to get worse.
Al Roberts (Tom Neal) road to hell begins in New York at a dumpy nightclub where he plays piano deep into the night backing up singer/girlfriend, Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake). Sure, he has dreams of one day playing Carnegie Hall but fate has other plans for this born loser. Sue informs him she’s leaving for Los Angeles to pursue a career in Hollywood. Depressed with his career, his girl now three thousand miles away, Roberts hitchhikes his way to L.A. with plans to marry his doll and start a new life.
Hitchhiking in Arizona, Roberts is picked up by Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald) also on his way to L.A. Roberts notices Haskell has some bad scratches on his hand. Haskell confesses it was from a woman he picked up a while back and it got a little rough when he made a pass. After a stop for dinner, Roberts takes the wheel while Haskell seems to have fallen into a deep sleep. Roberts pulls the car over during a rain storm to push up the convertible’s top. He attempts to wake Haskell but to no avail. When he opens the passenger side door, Haskell falls out hitting his head on a rock. Unnerved, certain no one will believe what really happened was an accident, Roberts easily convinces himself the police will accuse him of murder. He hides the body, changes clothes and assumes Haskell’s identity.
Roberts biggest mistake though is yet to come. That happens when he picks up the hitchhiker from hell, a shapely, tough looking dame with an irritating voice named Vera (Ann Savage). “Where’s the owner of the car,” she spits out. “What did you do with the body?” It turns out she’s the dame who tumbled with Haskell earlier. She quickly pegs Roberts as having killed Haskell (“What’d you do, kiss him with a wrench?”) and decides to blackmail him for whatever she can take.
Vera is one of the most immoral, despicable femme fatale’s on celluloid, a coarse portrait of pure evil. If there ever was a good bone in her body, it must have broken off a long time ago. She plans a couple of schemes, first where Roberts, posing as Haskell, attempts to sell the dead man’s car. Then she reads in the paper that Haskell’s rich father lies dying in the hospital and fabricates a scheme for Roberts to pose as Haskell’s long-lost son in order to grab some of the old man’s dough. For Roberts, it is one grim event after another stranded under this devil woman’s thumb. Don’t do what she says and she’ll finger him to the cops for Haskell’s murder. In a cheap hotel room, the two battle it out in a grim game of noir poker. Roberts refusing to go along with her crazy plan calls her bluff to call the cops then backs down. It’s a game in which she holds all the cards. Holding the winning hand she gets drunk taking the phone into the bedroom locking the door behind her. Afraid she’s going to call the cops Roberts bangs on the door then begins to pull the phone cord out from under the door, pulling tighter and tighter. He calls out her name. No answer. He breaks the door down and there she lays, the phone cord wrapped around her neck. Afraid he’ll now be picked up for Vera’s murder also, he takes off heading out of L.A., a hard luck loser resigned to his fate.
Throughout the film’s short 67 minute running time, Al Roberts puts the blame for his disastrous life choices on destiny. He views himself as a helpless victim of luckless misfortune. But it seems most of what happens to Roberts is due to his own bad judgment. He made his own ill-conceived fate when he decided to impersonate Haskell, steal his identity, and added to it when he picked up the venomous Vera, remaining under her thumb for the entire story. At one point she calls him a dope (Kathleen Turner’s character in “Body Heat” would echo a similar line about William Hurt saying , he is not too bright and adding “I like that in a man.”); however, different from many noir anti-heroes, Roberts is not hooked on the dame; he wants out, unlike say, Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity” or Burt Lancaster in “Criss Cross,” two iconic noir saps hooked on scheming dames. In Robert’s case, he is trapped in a prison of his own making; a doomed, pathetic, masochistic loser.
Ulmer shot the film in six days on a miniscule budget (depending on the source the film’s budget ranges between $20,000 and $100,000) cheap even by poverty row standards. Made by PRC, the film is based on a novel by Martin Goldsmith who also wrote the screenplay. Goldsmith also wrote another classic “B” noir, “The Narrow Margin” as well as a lesser known crime film called “Shakedown.” The film is filled with matte screen shots, darkly lit scenes, fog, and stock footage all used to obscure the cheap sets and lack of money Ulmer had available to work with (PRC allowed him only 15,000 feet of film). As Martin Scorsese points out in “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies,” after Roberts accidently strangles Vera, Ulmer allowed a in and out of focus shot to remain in the finished film because he could not afford to reshoot yet, Scorsese continues, the shot reflects the “character’s disoriented mental state.” Ulmer used these restrictions he was faced with to contribute to the dark grim, moody, existential atmosphere that has made this film have such a strong everlasting effect. His use of light, shadow and camera, with the aid of cinematographer Benjamin Kline, created a moody grim tight claustrophobic ambiance that gives the film a visual style lesser talents with much larger budgets could not obtain.
Tom Neal, a former boxer, could have read the script as a sign of things to come in his real life. In the early 1950’s Neal got into a fight with actor Franchot Tone over actress Barbara Payton who Tone was engaged to. Tone and Payton would marry but it was short-lived and she would later move in with Neal. Their relationship would not last either. In 1957, Neal would marry and father a son, Tom Neal Jr., who would recreate the role his father played in a 1992 remake of “Detour.” Neal’s wife passed away from cancer shortly after young Tom Jr. was born. A few years later the older Neal remarried a woman named Gale Bennett who he ended up shooting in the head killing her instantly. Neal claimed it was an accident but he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years in jail. In late 1971 he was released and died the following year of a heart attack. His life was a noir story of all its own.
Sources: Who The Devil Made It – Peter Bogdanovich