If you know absolutely nothing about film noir, Detour and Scarlet Street are prime examples of what noir is all about. Both films were released in 1945, both are in the public domain (which means you can find them on-the-cheap), and both films are devastating in their treatment of the human condition.
Yet in some respects, the two films are miles apart. Detour was an extremely low-budget affair, costing by some estimates as little as $20,000 (David J. Hogan in his book Film Noir FAQ cites $80,000 as a more reasonable guess) and directed by one of the all-time masters of the low-budget B picture, Edgar G. Ulmer. Scarlet Street, on the other hand, was directed by one of the true masters, Fritz Lang, and cost over $1,000,000 to make. Lang’s film starred Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea, all of whom were bankable stars. Detour starred Tom Neal, who people remember as much for his off-screen behavior (Neal was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 1961 and served six years in prison) as for his acting, and Ann Savage, who delivers one of the finest, nastiest roles in the entire noir canon. Let’s take a closer look at Detour today and Scarlet Street next time.
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Produced by Leon Fromkess, Martin Mooney
Written by Martin Goldsmith
Cinematography by Benjamin H. Kline
Editing by George McGuire
Producers Releasing Corporation
Mill Creek Crime Wave box set DVD (1:07) (2x)
Shot in just six days*, Detour was produced at Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), the most poverty-stricken of the Poverty Row studios, although it’s not noticeably that obvious when compared to other Poverty Row pictures of the era.
Neal (left foreground) plays Al, a New York nightclub piano player whose girl Sue (Claudia Drake, right) has decided to head out to Los Angeles to make it as a singer. Tired of waiting until he has enough money to get there, Al decides to thumb it all the way to LA. (What follows isn’t that much of a spoiler, but if you’re concerned, skip to the next paragraph now.) He gets picked up by a man named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), who soon has a heart attack and dies. Panicked, Al decides to assume Haskell’s identity (and his money) and drive on out to LA, which probably would’ve worked if he hadn’t picked up a female hitchhiker named Vera (Savage, below left). As soon as she’s in the car and they’ve traveled a few miles, Al remembers Haskell telling him about a woman he’d picked up earlier who was nothing but trouble. Guess who? That’s right: Vera proceeds to blackmail Al for the murder of Haskell and make his life a living hell.
What happens next is an unavoidable descent into the lowest depths of noir. No one who has seen Detour can ever forget it, largely due to Savage’s performance. Vera is hellish, bullying, relentlessly vile, pathetically abusive, and just plain bad. What makes the character so vivid is that, under other circumstances, Vera could’ve been a smart, resourceful and stunningly beautiful woman. But fate had other plans. You’d think this would be one of those breakout performances that studio executives would’ve seen, a role that would’ve led Savage to a long-term contract with a major studio, but apparently nobody saw it. Savage kept working in movies (mostly bad ones) and TV through the 50s, then abandoned show business to become the owner of a tool company, a secretary at a law firm, and a licensed pilot. She returned to acting in 1986 with Fire with Fire and the TV show Saved by the Bell (1991). Her final performance was in the Guy Maddin quasi-documentary My Winnipeg (2007). She died in 2008.
The concept of fate plays a huge role in Detour, as it often does in all of noir, but so does the inevitability of being true to your own character. Let’s face it, Al is a loser. Even when things are going well, he sees only the worst. When he’s playing piano at a nightclub, Al gets a $10 tip. How does he react? “I couldn’t get very excited. What was it? A piece of paper crawling with germs.”
Al also sticks around when Vera has him in her grasp of blackmail. It would be risky, but Al could’ve ditched her, but either he’s not resourceful enough, not brave enough, or maybe – in true noir fashion – losing is all he knows. He puts up with Vera’s taunts as if deep down he enjoys it. Maybe he does. Perhaps losing is a way of life for Al. Near the end of the film, Al blames all the bad things in his life on fate, but maybe the fault is all (or mostly) his own.
Perhaps more interesting is how we identify with the characters and possibly see ourselves in the film. Hopefully we don’t share many similarities with the venomous Vera. (If you do, maybe it’s time for some therapy or counseling or both.) That leaves Al. What do we do when bad things happen to us? If we identify with Al, we might believe that fate or God or something else is out to get us. Perhaps Al’s thought processes, worldview, his past, or all of the above have shaped him into the type of guy that thinks nothing’s going to work out for him, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe we all need something to believe in beyond ourselves. I think we do.
You can see Detour just about anywhere (including Amazon Prime) and in various DVD editions and collections, but as far as I know, no one has yet restored the film, which is a real shame. The Mill Creek Crime Wave DVD of Detour isn’t the worst I’ve seen and maybe there’s not a great print out there, but I hold out hope that a restoration is in the works, even if it’s on the back burner. In the meantime, enjoy it wherever you can find it, hopefully at a Noir City festival near you.
* Update: One reader pointed out that there is a discrepancy as to the precise length of the shoot. Ulmer’s daughter Arianne stated that the shooting script she has notes the production running “June 14, 1945-June 29. Camera days 14.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detour_(1945_film)#cite_note-morton-3 According to Ann Savage, in her biography Savage Detours: The Life and Work of Ann Savage (2009) by Lisa Morton and Kent Adamson, the film was shot in four six-day work weeks in addition to four days of desert location shooting. We may never know the whole truth.