detour into terror


detour poster

This was my second viewing of Detour (1945, USA, Ulmer), yet I was still taken by surprise when confronted once again with how truly vicious the film is. It takes a bit too long to get going, and everything feels like endless exposition as if waiting for the moment petulant, ever-scowling Ann Savage saunters into the film, causing what had been Tom Neal’s innocent-man-on-the-lam story to make a final–and fatal–narrative detour. Savage’s exercise in bitter, sadistic emotional manipulation (“Shutup! I don’t like you! I’m not getting sore… but just remember who’s boss around here”) is a performance that still feels unlike anything else that came out of 1940’s cinema, and, for me, the way she goes from peacefully sleeping in the seat of the car to a saucer-eyed, shrieking Gorgon in the span of several seconds is one of the greatest and most terrifying moments in all of noir (and it’s all the more potent when encountered on the big screen).

Ulmer’s tight, endlessly creative direction creates an ever-tightening noose around the viewer’s emotions in the same way that the film’s plot slowly entwines itself around the neck of hapless, lugheaded Neal as he pines for perky (and meagerly talented) Claudia Drake detourinstead of confronting the destructive force of nature he has inadvertently crossed paths with. The overt stylistic flourishes derived wholesale from German Expressionism should come off as familiar and tired clichés, but somehow Ulmer always manages to make it seem like nothing less than an exercise in inspired aesthetic improvisation. In his hands the threadbare aspects of the story, sets, and performances are transformed into assets, and the hackneyed gradually takes on the quality of a surrealistic nightmare state. The film absolutely deserves its reputation as the crown jewel of the Poverty Row B-film cycle, and it is without a doubt one of the great noirs (Digital Project of a 35mm print, which unfortunately had a lot of technical glitches).

pretending on a precipice

[This film played in the Roxie Theater‘s film noir festival “I Wake Up Dreaming: The French Have a Name for It.”  It played in a triple bill with Detour and Une si jolie petite plage.]

The Pretender (USA, 1947), directed by W. Lee Wilder–Billy’s older brother–is a rather nasty piece of work, as thematically uncomfortable as it is visually ravishing. The film involves a slimy financier (Albert Dekker) who embezzles money from a beautiful heiress (Catherine Craig) who trusts him unquestioningly; as personal financial losses quickly pile up for Dekker’s character he scrambles to cover his tracks with a desperation that becomes closer and closer to outright hysteria.  Along the way he implicates himself in a series of shady underworld dealings and, most insidiously, attempts to marry the unsuspecting Craig for her money.

When a mafia deal goes awry, Dekker finds himself inadvertently caught up in a potentially deadly trap of his own devising, and the film embarks on a perilous balancing act,
negotiating the audience’s desire to have him get his comeuppance for his generally villainous actions with the impulse of wanting him to escape punishment for a crime he didn’t actually commit.  Once again, what distinguishes this Republic production is the gorgeous and complex lighting schemes and visual effects provided by John Alton; the score also heavily features the theramin–apparently among the first to do so–which is used to creepy, nightmarish effect.  Another nifty demonstration of what can be accomplished on a tight budget and a bit (a lot?) of creativity.

shadowy terrors on a budget

[Shadow of Terror played in the Roxie Theater‘s film noir festival “I Wake Up Dreaming: The French Have a Name for It.”  It played in a double bill with Storm Over Lisbon (1944).]

Affable enough and at a briskly-paced 60 minutes not long enough to ever outstay its welcome, Shadow of Terror (Lew Landers, USA, 1945) is an ultra-cheapie PRC production clearly made on a non-existent budget, and features a convoluted mess of a plot that involves amnesia (that old chestnut), government secrets, a tortured romance, and mistaken identities.  Once again, this isn’t really noir per se, but rather a gritty little black and white production that fits unobtrusively into a larger overview of the historical and stylistic movement.  However, rather contrary to traditional noir associations it prominently features Emmett Lynn as a folksy, knee-slapping prospector type (he plays a rancher here), and, more memorably, the action largely takes place in expansive rural spaces, and a sweltering, desolate desert is effectively used as a tool for physical and emotional torture by the main villain and his sadistic henchmen.

But the film primarily remains notable today for one reason: because of its quick filming schedule–a mere seven days or so–it was able to insert at the very last minute government footage of atomic test blasts in New Mexico was spliced into the ending, and get the film into theaters just days after the bombing of Japan which brought World War II to a swift close.  It must have seemed ultra prescient at the time of its release with its “ripped from the headlines!”quality, but today this otherwise generic little espionage flick boasts of a climax that brings to mind both the harrowing implications of the last moments of Kiss Me Deadly and–because it is so abruptly and strangely integrated into the overall film–the darkly surrealistic humor of Dr. Strangelove.

tempest in a portuguese teacup

[Storm Over Lisbon played in the Roxie Theater‘s film noir festival “I Wake Up Dreaming: The French Have a Name for It.”  It played in a double bill with Shadow of Terror (1945).]

Storm Over Lisbon (1944, USA, George Sherman) is often billed as Poverty Row’s remake of Casablanca, and it’s an apt characterization.  This time around the wide array of desperate individuals attempting to procure papers to escape World War are stranded in neutral Portugal, but if the iconic Curtiz film was indeed the original point of reference, its tendency is towards the film’s melodramatic impulses rather than the Epstein Brothers’s elegant wit.  Eric von Stroheim imperiously presides over a labyrinthine Art Deco-ish hotel/nightclub that also covertly functions as a broker house for international war secrets and negotiations, setting the stage the criss-crossing fates of such “colorful” eccentrics such as Richard Arlen, Robert Livingston, Otto Kruger, and, most memorably,
the film’s spectacularly awkward leading lady, former champion ice skater Vera Hruba Ralston.  Her ice queen character is supposed to be one of the best dancers in Europe,  which is supposed to justify a lengthy nightclub dance sequence where she performs a routine featuring bizarrely spastic Orientalism-meets-Martha-Graham choreography, and as it goes on and on and on–it must have been some ten minutes or so–it starts to become rather entrancing in its surrealistic awfulness (when the routine threatens to occur yet again at the end of the film the entire theater simultaneously erupted in laughter, the most inadvertently memorable moment of the screening).

The film’s chief attribute, as the Roxie’s series proved again and again, is John Alton’s characteristically lovely and expressive black and white photography, and it is Alton’s noir credentials that merited its inclusion in this festival at all–otherwise there’s hardly a noir-ish thing about it.  Also of note is the striking set, which is very shrewdly utilized–the chaotic plots entanglements involving an overwhelmingly dense array of minor characters creates a series of complex spacial arrangements that brought to mind the (vastly superior, of course) La Règle de jeu, with its constantly shifting planes of physical and social interaction in cavernous hallways and on staircases; Storm also includes a hidden elevator, which is strikingly utilized at several key moments of the film. But in the end it unfortunately doesn’t amount to a whole lot–the actors playing the “good guys” aren’t nearly good enough to compensate for thinly written characters, and it’s impossible not to react to the big reveal and send-off at the end with more than an indifferent shrug.  “Merely a tempest in a teacup” the The New York Times‘s anonymous reviewer claimed at the time of its release, and that about sums everything up, even if it quite fails to convey the minor pleasures the film offers along the way.