Detour (1945): Serious Not

Detour (1945): Serious Not

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.

vera Vera: No Detours

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.

10 thoughts on “Detour (1945): Serious Not”

  1. I can’t find a shooting script for DETOUR. I am putting together a new version and would like to find the shortened shooting script. Anybody know where one may be? I can’t even find one to buy.

    Like

  2. Hi Matt. Sorry I can’t help you directly, but I suggest you contact Wade Williams, who made the 1992 re-make using the original 1942 shooting script. Williams’ contact details should be available from IMDB Pro.

    Like

  3. edward g ulmer is an unsung hero of “low budget” folmmakers. he did over 125 films including MOON OVER HARLEM 1943 made in an astonishing 4 days. MOON OVER HARLEM was a “race film” and ulmer was one of the few directors that treated black actors as equal people with dignity and hubris unlike the studios who gave us mantan moreland and steppin fetchit. as a director, ulmer is a hero of mine because even though he proved again and again he could do well in low budget he was never given a big deal but continue to work and has been considered by many as visionary as WELLES himself

    Like

    1. Hey DeeDee. Thanks for the link to this article. Assuming the writer has accurately reported Professor Pippin’s lecture there are couple issues:

      1. Kathie does not stab Jeff in the groin (!) in Out of the Past. She shoots him and the shot goes down into Jeff’s body. We don’t knew exactly where – the gun is aimed down only after Jeff has pushed Kathie’s hand down in their struggle – she was aiming for his chest.

      2. Professor Pippin has said nothing new. Moreover he has ignored an important dichotomy surrounding fatalism in Hollywood noir. Yes, a chance event can ineluctably determine a protagonist’s fate, but also a choice made by a protagonist can have fatal consequences no matter what he or she does subsequently. This is an important distinction.

      In Detour, Al seals his fate when he steals Haskell’s car and does not report the natural/accidental death to the cops. So my comment re Detour “The story of a guy so dumb he blames fate for the consequences of his own foolishness” stands.

      As for Out of the Past, the fatal consequence is triggered only when Jeff chooses to go off with Kathie in the first reel. The past Jeff cannot escape was triggered by his own action.

      Like

  4. “Tony said,”Kathie does not stab Jeff in the groin (!) in Out of the Past. She shoots him and the shot goes down into Jeff’s body. We don’t know exactly where – the gun is aimed down only after Jeff has pushed Kathie’s hand down in their struggle – she was aiming for his chest.”
    😳
    I must admit that was a “fatal mistake”on the Professor behalf…Because the question now to ask oneself is did he actually watch the film?!?
    (I’am quite sure that he (Professor Pippin) did watch the film Out Of The Past.
    I think that he just made a honest mistake…hopefully!)(By the way, over there on my Ning, I linked back to this post and questioned
    the Professor’s response to the film Out Of The Past.)

    Tony said,”Professor Pippin has said nothing new. Moreover he has ignored an important dichotomy surrounding fatalism in Hollywood noir. Yes, a chance event can ineluctably determine a protagonist’s fate, but also a choice made by a protagonist can have fatal consequences no matter what he or she does subsequently. This is an important distinction.”

    I agree with your quote that I have quoted above wholeheartedly. Now, with that being said…That is the reality, but the “fantasy” of the matter is…

    In Detour, Al seals his fate when he steals Haskell’s car and does not report the natural/accidental death to the cops. So my comment re Detour “The story of a guy so dumb he blames fate for the consequences of his own foolishness” stands.
    As for Out of the Past, the fatal consequence is triggered only when Jeff chooses to go off with Kathie in the first reel. The past Jeff cannot escape was triggered by his own action.

    If both men (and even actress Claire Trevor, in Born To Kill…She could have easily called the police and reported the murders that she stumbled upon, but instead, she hung-up the telephone and went to San Francisco?!?…a “hot lead” could have easily led to actor Lawrence Tierney’s character, but instead, she lead the trail run “cold” until he create havoc in her life.) would have did the right thing there would not have been a reason to continue the story. Therefore, I think that their actions is what set the catalyst in motion.
    (In other words, if all the characters in film noir did the “right” thing the stories would have ended in less than 5 or 10 minutes.

    DeeDee 😉 🙂

    Like

  5. Certainly DeeDee in noir making a wrong or unwise decision has fatal consequences, and this is the point I am making. But remember also that an innocent action can have fatal consequences – take poor Frank Bigelow in DOA for example…

    Like

  6. Hey Tony,

    I’ve always thought of Al as an unreliable narrator (as opposed to simply being a stupid one). What I love about Detour is the ambiguity. You could choose to believe that he kills Haskell, couldn’t you?

    Like

    1. Hi Todd. Thanks for this perspective. I think you have something here, which I must admit I never considered. The more I think about it the more I tend to agree with you. This rethink also leads me to believe my take on the film here is too negative. I have to revisit the film as I haven’t watched it for a few years. Great to have your input! Tony

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: