I caught up with Detour (1945) today, and must say I think director, Edgar G. Ulmer, is taking us for a a ride. The whole affair is hard to take seriously. The story of a guy so dumb he blames fate for the consequences of his own foolishness. Though fun to watch is Ann Savage, asVera, the street-wise dame, who incredulously falls for the sap. A camp oddity, but hardly serious noir.
I am very ambivalent about Detour. I can see the craft and that it is unlike any other Hollywood film of the period, but the story is so sappy that it irks. The story is based on the pulp novel by Martin M. Goldsmith, and the plot is essentially lifted straight from the book, which is pretty naif and while having a certain charm epitomises cheap pulp.
Ann Savage’s portrayal of Vera is memorable . She is no femme-fatale, she is a dame on the skids and desperate for any scheme to get here out of the hole she is in, and by the way she is dying, and knows it. She is not from hell. She is tough but she is also a woman. She does not ‘make’ Haskell but scrapes the skin off his hands with her fingernails when he gets fresh. She is vulnerable and needs love as much as the next dame. Look at when we see her on the highway hitching for a ride, and then in the scene in the hotel room just before she dies. The woman is tainted yes, but she has an integrity that shines through the cheap bravado. My poem for Vera is here Vera: No Detours.
Another issue. To understand Hollywood noir you have to understand b-movies. I love to quote Jean Renoir on this. In the book, The Early Film Criticism of François Truffaut by Wheeler Dixon (Indiana University 1993), there is an interesting section that deals with the obvious influence on Truffaut of Hollywood b-movies, particularly film noir. According to Dixon, Truffaut and even his mentor, Jean Renoir, preferred b-features over a-productions.
In a 1954 interview, Renoir was quite emphatic:
“I’ll say a few words about Val Lewton, because he was an extremely interesting person; unfortunately he died, it’s already been a few years. He was one of the first, maybe the first, who had the idea to make films that weren’t expensive, with ‘B’ picture budgets, but with certain ambitions, with quality screenplays, telling more refined stories than usual. Don’t go thinking that I despise “B” pictures; in general I like them better than big, pretentious psychological films they’re much more fun. When I happen to go to the movies in America, I go see “B” pictures. First of all, they are an expression of the great technical quality of Hollywood. Because, to make a good western in a week, the way they do at Monogram, starting Monday and finishing Saturday, believe me, that requires extraordinary technical ability; and detective stories are done with the same speed. I also think that “B” pictures are often better than important films because they are made so fast that the filmmaker obviously has total freedom; they don’t have time to watch over him.”
This is where the skill and artistry of Ulmer’s Detour are to be found.