Friday, January 1, 2016

Detour (1945) Let's Blow This Trap

A shoestring 67 minute production that effectively distilled 100 proof Noir. Directed masterfully by Edgar G. Ulmer and lensed by Benjamin H. Kline, and some impressive but budget art direction by Edward C. Jewell.  Detour was adapted by Martin Goldsmith from his own novel of the same name, and released by PRC. It stars Tom Neal (Crime, Inc. (1945), ) as Al Roberts,  the unforgettable Ann Savage (The Spider (1945)) as Femme Fatale From Hell, Vera, and Claudia Drake as Tom's club canary girlfriend Sue. Edmund MacDonald (Hangmen Also Die! (1943), is a bookie on his way to LA. Esther Howard (Murder My Sweet (1944), Born to Kill (1947), The Crooked Way (1949), makes a cameo as the frumpy diner waitress Glamour.

Receding landscape

While the credits roll we see the desolate landscape of the desert from a vehicle barreling down a two lane highway, What's unusual about this barren landscape is that we are driving away from it. The scenery is passing us and receding into the distance, we are leaving what we know behind and we don't know what lies ahead. We are on a Detour and speeding towards oblivion, a Detour that's a metaphor for Destiny. The Destiny of one Al the Piano Player, late of the Break o' Dawn Club, Upper West Side Manhattan.

It's night, Al is silhouetted by the headlights of the cars that pass. He is hitching rides thumbing his way back East. He get's dropped off in Reno, at a hole in the wall greasy spoon called The Nevada Diner. Al has that hangdog sad sack look of a loser. While Al is drinking a cup of java at the counter, a long haul trucker drops a nickel in a jukebox and plays "I Can't Believe That You're In Love with Me". Al has a negative reaction.

Al is told to settle down by the diner owner or he'll throw him out.  Listening to the song triggers in Al a flashback right into Noirsville. In a stylistic sequence the lights fade and a small spot highlights just Al's eyes as he begins to narrate in voice over. Our view drops to an extreme closeup on Al's coffee cup then tracks behind him to the lighted glass front of the jukebox, then it zooms into the glass to the needle of the tone arm oscillating along a groove in the turning record.

Al had a steady gig tickling the ivories of the coffin with a bunch of hep cats in a combo, nightly at the Break O' Dawn Club, a smoke choked West side hole in the wall lounge. What made it bearable was Sue the cute peroxide canary, a real looker, and love of his life, as Al put it, he was a healthy American male and she was a healthy American babe and they had a healthy romantic relationship. One night as the club is closing Al, smoking like a Con-Ed stack, is pounding out a classical tune solo while waiting for Sue to change. When she arrives she tells him that" he'll make it to Carnegie Hall someday," he snaps back cynically, "Sure, as a janitor. Maybe I'll make my debut in the basement, Yeah, someday if I don't get arthritis first." He closes the fallboard and with a cigarette sticking to his lower lip declares "Let's blow this trap."

As they walk uptown through the Hudson River fog (a clever low budget sequence that show just the tops of passing street signs sticking up through the dry ice fog) Sue gives Al the brush, she tells him that she wants a shot at the Big Time, Hollywood, Tinseltown.

For Al, life without Sue makes him feel blue and dejected, playing for the cafe society patrons nets him an occasional ten spot tip. After a few months he decides to blow, he calls Sue from the club's phone booth and finds out that she's a waitress slinging hash in a beanery. Al tells her that he'll be right out, but he doesn't tell that he has no bread and will have to hitch.

A nice economical sequence depicts Al thumbing various rides against a map that shows his progress across the country. The further West he gets the more disheveled he looks, his cheap cardboard suitcase is tied together with a rope and he's sporting a permanent five o'clock shadow. In Arizona he gets picked up by a pill popping bookie driving a 41' Lincoln convertible, name of Charlie Haskell, and he's traveling from New Orleans to LA. It's Al's lucky day, or is it?

As they speed across the desert Charlie asks Al to get him the box of pills in the glove box, he does this a few more times apparently Charlie has some ailment.  In the evening after buying Al a meal at a truckstop, Al notices some fresh scars above Charlie's wrist as he drives down the highway. Charlie notices Al looking, and tells him that a crazy broad he picked up gave them to him. A few hours later Charlie asks Al to drive. As Al tools along, in a nice noir stylistic sequence we see Al's eyes through the rearview mirror which segues into what is Al's last happy memory. We see Sue singing "their song" against a backdrop of shadow musicians.

It's late night, Al is beginning to fall asleep at the wheel, we see his head nodding. A few sprinkles soon turns into a downpour. Al pulls over, they have to put up the top, he tries to wake Charlie who is unresponsive. Al gets out, and goes around to the passenger side, he opens the door and Charlie's dead body slumps out of the seat and caves his head in on a boulder. Al just bought a one way ticket to Noirsville.

Al panics in genuine fear and desperation, he reasons that dressed they way he is and with no scratch in his pockets the cops will tag him for Charlie's murder, they'll never believe his story of what actually happened. Al decides to drag Charlie into the bottom of a gully, grab his wallet, assume his identity and toss his own suitcase and wallet down in with Charlie. He'll take the 700 clams and drive the car to LA then sell it.

Al pulls off at the next motel and gets a room, the next morning he's showered, shaved, and dressed in Charlie's clothes. Back on the road to LA, Al stops to add water to the radiator. He sees a woman, Vera, (Ann Savage) standing at the side of the road hitching and yells out to her, even though "she looks like she just got thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world". Deciding to give her a lift, that ticket to Noirsville just got upgraded to express.

Vera looks like she was ridden hard and put away wet, greasy dirty blond hair, rumpled and stained sweater and skirt, a lot of rough miles on her chassis. She's quite at first almost stone like but turns verbally ferocious practically spitting and hissing her razor sharp dialog, your worst nightmare a 24 year old Medusa who will turn your heart to stone. Savage is, quite possibly, the most terrifyingly vicious Femme Fatale of Classic Noir. Vera's arrival brings the film to a whole new level

Vera also brings one of the greatest Noir twists to the plot of Detour, if you thought it couldn't get any worse for Al, your in for a shock. Detour can also be deciphered from a different perspective, Al could be guilty as sin for both murders and all we see is a classic unreliable narrator tale. Its fun to watch whatever your take.

Detour, a "Poverty-Row" production was shot (Hollywood Legend) on a few cheap sets in 6 days, but Savage in an interview has stated that the film was shot in four six-day weeks. But regardless, it was a flare at the end of a dark tunnel showing a way to other cash strapped film-makers to make something out of nothing.  Music by Leo Erdody, Sound engineer  Max Hutchinson. A 9/10.

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