Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Edgar Ulmer's 'Detour' remains a fascinating film

By Doug Gibson

I watched Edgar Ulmer's 1945 Producers Releasing Corporation film Detour. I've seen it often but it never fails to provide a punch-in-the-gut tribute to great film noir. What director Edgar Ulmer was able to capture on a shoestring budget with PRC is better than 99 percent of the major studios' efforts. Detour, by the way, would be a great double feature with Gun Crazy.

The casting of the two leads helps make the film so successful. Tom Neal, as Al Roberts, luckless pianist whose life is destroyed crossing the country to hook up with his girlfriend, is a good-lucking luckless anti-Humphrey Bogart. His fatality, fear and hesitance makes him, for most of the film, an easy foil to abuse for Vera, played by Ann Savage -- what an appropriate name!. Savage's performance is even more critical to the film than Neal's. She is pure hostility and real anger. Observing her, one can imagine Vera as being able to chew barbed wire to a cud and spit it out as masticated metal.

Yet there is a vulnerability to Vera. Observe the scene where she oh so subtly tries to seduce Neal's Al. It's a subtle moment of vulnerability from an ice woman. When Neal, in whiny fashion, appropriately rejects her overture, anger results so quickly that the initial hurt is barely observed.

The ending of Detour will always be debated. Did Al turn himself into the cop he abruptly meets? Did the cop arrest him, or is the cop just approaching what looks like a beaten down drunk? Or is the whole saga of Al's Detour a fantasy of a deeply disturbed man?

I am reading a biography of Barbara Payton, and it's sad that both Neal, and Payton, ruined their lives through violence and substance abuse. Neal eventually went to prison for manslaughter, long after he had split with the volatile Payton and died not long after he was released. A sad end to a once-promising actor whose dysfunctions and mercurial temperament badly damaged his career.

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