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We spoke last week of Edgar Ulmer, the Czechoslovakian immigrant who, along with such European artists as Billy Wilder and F.W. Murnau, emigrated to America in late 30’s to escape Hitler’s rise to power. After his American directorial breakthrough, the Universal Studios blockbuster The Black Cat, he embarked on a romantic affair with the wife of the nephew Universal Studios head Carl Laemmle. Not pleased, Laemmle made some calls, and the next thing you know, Ulmer was blackballed at ALL of the major studios.
Undeterred, he went to work at Poverty Row. Not an actual location, Poverty Row was the catch all name for the lower tier film studios in Hollywood, Producer’s Releasing Corporation, Monogram, Republic, et al. These studios churned out low budget serials, Western programmers and B movies. It’s ironic - or maybe fitting – that Ulmer’s biggest success following The Black Cat would be the doomed tale of a man consigned to life on the real poverty row. Based on a novel by Martin Goldsmith called Detour – An Extraordinary Tale, the resulting film, although it did not make much noise when it was first released, would go on to be widely regarded as one of the great American noirs.
Ahoy! There be spoilers ahead, mates!
If you don’t want to know the story of Detour, stop reading now and go watch it. Preferably, the phenomenal restoration the film that was released in 2018. The film, made on a shoe string budget on a purported six day schedule, tells the story of Al Roberts, a hapless and self-destructive nightclub pianist played by the hapless and self-destructive actor Tom Neal (we’ll get to that). Detour begins with Al sitting alone, unshaven, disheveled and forlorn in a roadside bar. In a voice over, he starts to reminisce on how he got there. Al played piano at New York's Break O' Dawn Club and was making just enough to make ends meet. he was in love with Susan, a singer at the club and they had plans to tie the knot.
Sue pulls the rug out from under Al at the last minute and tells him that, before they get married, she’s going to roll the dice, head west, and give Hollywood a try. Al is devastated but helpless to change her mind. As we noted previously, the changing role of women in society after World War Two, established one of the great story pillars of film noir, the morally suspect man brought low by the goading of an even more morally suspect woman. Literally, "She made me do it!" Nowhere was this dynamic played out with more ferocity than in Detour.
It’s not long before Al decides to head across the country to meet back up with Susan. This was the mid 40’s, when hitchhiking was still an acceptable, if unenviable way to travel, so Al sticks his thumb out and heads west.
Several days later, dirty, hungry and disillusioned, Al is debating whether or not to spend his final few dollars on a bus fair when he lucks into a ride. The driver of a the car is a gregarious blowhard named Charles Haskell Jr . Haskell tells Al the good news, his worries are over, he's driving all the way to L.A. He even buys Al a steak dinner. The bad news? Charles is a creep. When Al points out the deep scratches on his hands, he smugly comments that they were from another hitchhiker, a woman who "didn’t know how to show appreciation for his generosity."
Another thing about Charles is he pops heart pills like Tic-Tacs. At one pint, late in the evening, he turns the wheel over to Al and falls dead asleep in the passenger seat. Literally. When Al can't rouse hims when it starts to rain he pulls the car over to put up the convertible’s roof. He opens the passenger door to rouse Haskell and the drops limply out of the car, smashing his head open on a roadside rock in the process.
Here is where Al makes a very bad decision. A really dumb, really bad decision. Okay, you’re hitchhiking. A guy gives you a ride, then dies of a heart attack in the car. When you open his door to try to help him, his body drops from the car and he smashes his head on a rock. What to do, what to do? According to Al, there's only one rational thing to do. Hide his body in the brush just off the road, swap clothes and assume his identity! Easy! At least until you get to Los Angeles when, of course, you’ll have to become... someone else, since you put your old ID on the corpse rendering you dead for all intents and purposes.
Things go along swimmingly for Al for about... three minutes. With his new bankroll, “Charles Haskell Jr’ treats himself to a night’s sleep in a real bed in a roadside motel. He wakes up, cleans up, and hits the road for L.A., fresh and bouncy. He even returns the favor to fate and offers a ride to another hitchhiker, a young woman named Vera.
Al introduces himself to Vera using his newly acquired identity, Charles Haskell Jr. But, if you recall, the real Charles Haskell Jr. had deep scratches on his hands from when he attacked a young female hitchhiker. Guess who that was?
Vera, no dummy, quickly assesses the situation, surmises what happened, turns to "Charles" and asks bluntly. “What did you do with the body?”
The rest if the film, and Al's life for that matter, belongs to Vera, as he becomes hopelessly entwined in her blackmail plot. In terms of innocent guys being keelhauled by femme fatales, none were more fatale than Ann Savage's Vera. She shows up on the highway the way the shark surfaces alongside the Orca. Fun’s over, kids!
In an interview, Ms. Savage noted that director Ulmer wanted her to “bark” her lines at he co-star, Tom Neal. She complied to the point that she actually lost her voice during filming. Wade Williams, writing about Detour in Filmfax magazine, features a quote from the L.A. Times by film critic Kevin Thomas. "Never was an actress better named."
In 1985, as the film began to enjoy its critical re-appraisal, another publication described Savage as, “the most metaphysically grotesque actress ever to grace an American film," (again, thanks to Williams for unearthing the quote). Not sure how the real Ms. Savage felt about that. She attended many of those 1980’s and 1990’s screenings and was, no surprise, physically as well as metaphysically quite lovely.
Savage lived to see Detour’s emergence as a noir classic. In 1992 it was admitted to the American Film Registry, one of the first B movies to do so. In 2018, ten years after Ms. Savage’s passing, Detour underwent a major restoration. A nearly ten year process involving the Frankensteining of various prints taken from such sources as the Academy Film Archive, The Film Foundation, the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Cinémathèque Française. The endeavor was paid for through the generosity of the George Lucas Family Foundation, spending all that Jar Jar Binks money.
Tom Neal, who played poor Al Roberts, went on to a life that rivaled his character's in terms of bad luck and poor decisions. Including... a stint in prison for murder. No foolin! Next time!