What to Watch When You’re Watching at Home: Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour

Edgar G. Ulmer

You set the paper down, wondering what to do this weekend. The movies at the local Cineplex seem uninspiring, or perhaps the thought of being at a theater, no matter how nice, just doesn’t float your boat. Sometimes, the joy of movies can be found in your own living room, late at night, a few choice intoxicants in your system, with the right DVD from your local shoppe. For your consideration: Detour, by Edgar G. Ulmer, whose birthday we celebrate today.

I’ll be honest: I’ve only seen Ulmer’s Detour, and from what I hear, that could be the only thing of his worth seeing. David Thomson writes that Ulmer was “a rich talent who became hopelessly tangled in the depths of the movie industry.” Perhaps Detour, then, is as much a statement on his career as it is on the cruel nature of life. Maybe Ulmer was as trapped as the characters in his movie.

I like to imagine Detour as a richer, more honest Reservoir Dogs of its day. By this I mean that I’m sure its shocking violence and intensity created legions of devoted fans, young men and women (though I’m guessing mostly men) who hungered for every ‘b’ on the marquee–avoiding the big picture, urgently watching movies like Gun Crazy, Act of Violence, and, yes, Detour again and again. These kids didn’t have video–as soon as the movie vanished, they were forced to hope it came on the local TV station late at night, and hoped they could figure out a way to sneak downstairs and actually watch the late show on a school night.

Unlike Dogs, Detour hits you right in the philosophical solar plexus. “He went searching for love, but FATE forced a DETOUR” was the tagline of the movie, and never has fate been such a, well, femme fatale. Reservoir Dogs, for all its violence, has nothing on this flick.

Tom Neal plays Al Roberts, a guy who hitches a ride West to hook up with his gal, Sue, who found a sweet job in Hollywood. This poor sap is picked up by a gambler, who suddenly dies. Roberts panics, takes the man’s identity (Antonioni must’ve been watching), and drives, hoping to run from fate’s cruel hand.

But fate’s a cat toying with a human mouse. Because Roberts picks up a girl, Vera (played by the aptly named Ann Savage), a mean, vicious woman hell-bent on extracting money from this poor man… who, of course, hasn’t any. Things get twisted–literally, as well as figuratively–and Roberts is doomed. He will not meet his girl in Hollywood, but he will die–by his own hand, or by the electric chair.

Why? Oh, God. Consider movies like Double Indemnity and their ilk–in virtually every noir, the anti-hero is, at least, trying to score some money. The point (thanks to the Hays Code) is that crime does not pay. But Al Roberts is no criminal. In fact, his crime is not even one of ambition. Al Roberts wants to support his girl. He wants to see her. And fate, cruel fate, finds that amusing. It kills one man, and then destroys another. For no reason at all.

Let’s not forget it was 1946. Which means that Al Roberts probably just endured a good few years of war as well.

There are no lessons to learn in Detour, save the chilling fact that we have only so much control over our lives, and when thing go bad it’s not necessarily because of anything we did, good or bad. Fate rules, people, fate, God, the Devil, the Trickster. Detour is truly the ultimate fatalistic film, and it seems to have been written by MacBeth’s witches. It’s starkness is made even more acute by a cast who seemed to have hitchhiked from Nowhere, Nevada, the sets cramped, the photography stark, as if the film were old, used somehow.

So cruel, so gritty. Detour seems almost to come from nowhere. No wonder it was filmed in six days. I don’t think they could’ve taken much more.

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3 Responses to What to Watch When You’re Watching at Home: Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour

  1. James Parrish says:

    Watched “Detour” for the first time earlier this week and was taken by it. Fate, cursed fate! After seeing Ann Savage in Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg,” which we played during the 2009 James River Film Festival, I felt I was overdue in seeing the film that led Maddin to seek out Savage to play his mother. He thought she was dead but a friend told him otherwise. Fate, cursed fate! Peter, thanks for the great post on “Detour.” My two cents for our readers: watch “Detour” and, if you like it, and haven’t seen “My Winnipeg,” make that the next stop on your cinematic detour.

  2. Ward Howarth says:

    A great noir and very re-watchable movie. Tom Neal’s deadpan voiceover kills. Great post, Peter.

  3. Pingback: Shades Of Grey: Bullet Holes | James River Film Journal

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