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1944. PRC. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, written by Martin Goldsmith. With Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund Mcdonald
Inspired by our recent discussion of intentionally bad process work, I decided to go back and take another look at Detour. In my memory, this was a borderline-ludicrous cheapie that only a devoted auteurist could tolerate.
Guess times and sensibilities have changed. First, the clerk at my video store not only had heard of it, he said, "Yeah, I think one or two of our copies is in at the moment." Second, my family found it perfectly respectable and entertaining, if depressing. And third, it looked far less crummy than I remembered.
The back projection (much of Detour takes place in a moving car) is recognizable as such, but it's quite acceptable. The hero is a pianist, and I've seen far worse phony piano-playing. The sets are minimalist but convincing. The action takes place in actual open-air locations much of the time, and these exterior shorts are matched nicely with the studio work. As for the actors, they're not long on star quality, but they're absolutely convincing. Detour is far from the example of intentionally alienating process shots and expressive use of bad acting that I'd hoped for.
But still, I think we can see some reflexivity in it. It's a B movie about B-ness, about being stuck in Hollywood's lower tier and having long since given up hopes of making it big.
All of Detour's open-road rear projection, I'd forgotten, takes us ("inexorably," one is tempted to say) from New York to Hollywood. Our protagonist is hitch-hiking west to marry his girl, Sue, who had gone to LA to become a star but ended up "slinging hash." Though Al does make it to Hollywood, he never gets to see or even talk to Sue, who just disappears from the film. This gives the movie an unsettlingly odd shape; it seems at first like incompetent plotting.
But a great deal that seems incompetent about Detour actually works well. Hollywood is here the end of the roada cheap apartment, a used car lot, and some grainy through-the-windshield footage of Hollywood Boulevard; no romance, no illusions. Detour doesn't just portray this world, it embodies it. It's an unglamorous, frustrating, bottom- of-the-bill movie about bottom-of-the-bill people in an unglamorous town. The actors say lines like "Those producers don't know a good thing when it's right under their noses" with true resignation.
So often in going-to-Hollywood movies, you have stars like Janet Gaynor or Constance Bennett pretending to be nobodies; in Detour you have Tom Neal and Ann Savage, just talented enough to let us see what a real Hollywood nobody looks like. Tom Neal in fact soon slid into alcoholism, brawling, bankruptcy and manslaughter (he maintained, perhaps recalling Al's refrain in Detour, that killing his wife was an accident). And Ann Savage is a remarkable presence. We get no "leading lady" cues, either from her performance or from the way she is lit and shot. She makes no attempt to likeable or attractive, nor does she give out those "It's a character part; watch me act!" signals. She is simply horrifying.
Toward the end of the movie, Al's voiceover tells us, "If this were fiction, I'd fall in love with Vera..." and he spins out a plot that would make a much more conventional and satisfying movie that the one we're trapped in at the moment. Then there's an intimation of a big plot development where Al will pass himself off as the son of a dying millionaireah, the sort of thing we're used to seeing in movies! But nothing ever comes of it, and soon the film just kind of ends. There's a murder, unexpected, absurd, off-camera. The main man-woman relationship never resolves into anything categorizable. And as I said above, the impetus behind the whole plot, Sue, just gets forgotten about.
So I think we can make a case that Detour is designed to foil expectations. It reminds us that not every motion picture is an adventure or a romance. It breaks the bad news that Hollywood is nothing more than a crummy town that you wind up in when you miss the turnoff for San Bernadino. It's not trying to be a hit, or even a small success.
I think that people have vivid memories of the rear projection in Detour not because it's bad or blatant, but because it's so expressively appropriate to both the story and the means of presentation. How better to underscore Al's hard-won realization: "You can change the scenery, but sooner or later..." than by projecting a bunch of fast-moving scenery behind him while he stays in one place.
This is Hollywood on the cheap; why pretend otherwise? Ulmer is unflinching here about a side of the movie industry that usually tried to gussy itself up. Detour may be heavily into stock footage and lab-created effects, but it has a lot of integrity.
copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein