Reviewing Edgar G Ulmer‘s Detour (1945), critic Dennis Schwartz wrote: “For some, being outside the system is as natural as walking in the fog.” That about sums up Ulmer. It also sums his Detour star, Tom Neal. Ulmer was an aesthetic outsider who made poor choices in his personal life but tried, sometimes in vain, to bring an artistic sensibility to everything he worked on. Neal was an outsider of a different sort. Despite having received a law degree from Havard, Neal turned to amateur boxing, which only partly satisfied his extremely violent temper. In 1951, that temper and jealousy got the better of him with in a tussle with actor Franchot Tone over the affections of actress Barbara Payton. Tone received a brain concussion, and Neal was permanently blacklisted by Hollywood. The actor was reduced to restaurant work and eventual bankruptcy. In 1965, Neal took a gun to the back of his wife’s head and shot her to death. Incredibly, he received a mere six-year sentence, but he died within a few months of his release from prison in 1971. His son, Tom Neal, Jr. attempted to follow in his father’s thespian footsteps, appearing in a remake of Detour (1991) that no one seems to have seen.
Shot on the quick and cheaply, Detour defies the rules of Poverty Row aesthetics. In his review of Ulmer’s Detour, critic Roger Ebert acknowledges the film’s flaws: “Detour is a film so filled with imperfections that it would not earn the director a passing grade in film school.” And yet it is greater than the sum of it’s parts, defying the “aesthetics only” art school rule. Ebert adds, ” Yet, Detour lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir.”
The pessimism of Detour drips into the nitrate of Ulmer’s bubblegum Shakespearean saga. Al (Neal) is a pianist who prostitutes his art in dives. Ulmer symbolizes this in idiosyncratic fashion by Al’s transformation of a Brahms piano piece into a grotesque, possessed, populist parody. Picasso once said that all art, regardless of subject, is self-portrait. Al eerily mirrors Ulmer in the portrait of a highly cultured artist who is reduced to a career gutter through his own missteps. It is little wonder that Detour was Ulmer’s favorite of his own films.
Fate is an ambivalent, malevolent force relentlessly and unjustly dogging Al. He responds with self-pity tightly wrapped in ten cent philosophy. Al, like Bluebeard, is waxing bitter over a woman. His curse is to be in love with the ambitious Sue (Claudia Drake). Sue’s dreams of a successful Hollywood career provoke jealousy within Al and serves as a biting reminder of his own failed career. She departs and settles, albeit uncomfortably, in the land of opportunity. Although destitute, Al vows reconciliation and embarks upon a thumbed journey to his Sue. Through flashbacks and crackerjack narration, we learn of Fate’s plans for Al. Al, already convinced of his own failure, goes out of the way to accommodate his self-willed, doomed destiny.
A guardian angel named Haskell (Edmund McDonald) drops down like heavenly manna. Alas, the devil triumphs through deception. Haskell, desiring company, offers to take Al all the way to Santa Anita. However, Haskell unexpectedly dies of a heart attack. In a memorably surreal scene, Haskell’s death sends Al into a state of panic and leads to a bizarre, poor choice. Rather than call the police, Al hides Haskell’s body and steals his car, money, and identity.
Al picks up Fate herself in the guise of a ferociously crass femme fatale with the perfectly trashy name of Vera (Ann Savage). Vera unleashes a noir apocalypse upon Al’s fragile world. Savage’s performance is unprecedented in the annuls of film noir. Comparatively, Angelina Jolie is a spayed kitten. It is relatively easy to sympathize with Al’s masochistic impotence.
Yet, the tragic twist of fate and desolate finale are projected fantasies. Detour received little notice upon its release, but within five years, it started to attain cult status. The old maxim of life imitating art holds true to much regarding Detour. Like Al, Neal became stained with the mark of Cain. Savage died in obscurity. And despite the relatively quick cult status awarded Detour, it did nothing to help Ulmer’s career. It simply wasn’t in the deck of cards Fate dealt this Poverty Row director.