DETOUR (1945, Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

The Austro-Hungarian immigrant Edgar G. Ulmer has built an almost legendary reputation as a low-budget auteur,famed for being able to produce artfully-made genre films quickly and on a miniscule budget. This is especially the case for his two greatest films, the daring 1934 horror masterpiece The Black Cat (starring both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi) and the noir masterpiece Detour (1945). Shot in a few days (reported as 6–14, depending on the source) on a shoestring budget, Detour,in particular, has become a cult classic, especially among fans of film noir. Its vision of a down-and-out protagonist whose difficulties mirror larger problems in American society as a whole captures the absolute essence of the noir spirit, while its visual texture very nicely matches its thematic content.

Detour begins as the protagonist, Al Roberts (Tom Neal), looking seedy and very much the worse for the wear, hitchhikes the back roads of America, stopping off at a roadside diner in Nevada. There, he hears a love song (“I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me,” a popular standard that dates back to 1926) playing on the juke box, which triggers a chain of memories that explains how he got to this point and that provides the actual narrative of the film.[1] This diner setting and this flashback structure are both quintessential noir motifs, just as Roberts will turn out to be a paradigmatic noir protagonist, done in by a seemingly malicious fate, not to mention a venal, malicious woman and an economic system built on exploitation and inequality. But this scene also tips us off that there will be something special about this film. As Roberts begins to sink into memories of his past, the camera focuses in on the coffee cup on the counter in front of him, which suddenly seems absurdly huge, giving the moment a surreal touch. The camera then moves from the round rim of the coffee cup to zoom in on the round record spinning in the jukebox; a cut then takes us to a closeup of the round bass drum of a drum kit, huge and white like the coffee cup, filling the screen with what at first looks like a large moon.

Al Roberts’s giant coffee cup.

The bass drum in the Break O’ Dawn Club.

This sequence of images provides a nice transition from Roberts in the present-day diner to his past in New York. One might argue, of course, that the transition is a bit pretentious, a bit too self-consciously artful in what is, after all, an extremely rough and gritty film. Nevertheless, this sequence does contribute to a certain dreamlike, surreal quality that pervades the entire film. Moreover, this odd mixture of high-art technique and low-art subject matter is a big part of what gives Detour its special power. In addition, this circular imagery provides a kind of visual key to the nature of the film, which is, itself, circular, eventually ending essentially where it began, with Roberts walking along the road. In addition, all of these circles can be taken to suggest the way in which Roberts is trapped in his life, continually moving in circles but never actually getting anywhere. Finally, this sequence of circular images is so obvious and intrusive that it really can’t be missed, begging for interpretation and alerting us to be looking for similar symbolic touches later in the film.

The early moments of the narrative that are set in New York might seem to serve merely to set up the main narrative, which will begin when Roberts leaves New York on a cross-country journey to Los Angeles. However, this set-up is a crucial one. Roberts will experience a number of tough breaks on his journey, but his characterization in these early scenes (aided by his own voice-over narration) will establish that he is already bitter, broken, and cynical, even before his journey begins. The drum belongs to the band that is playing on stage at the somewhat seedy Break O’ Dawn Club back in New York. The flashback narrative begins in the club, another quintessential noir setting, where Roberts works as a piano player. He is, the film makes clear, a gifted pianist, adept at a number of different musical styles, including classical.[2] However, due to events that are not explained in the film, his career has never really gotten off the ground, relegating him to playing in this dingy club.

Roberts is thus established in the very beginning as an artist manqué, a man with considerable talent who has never gotten the opportunity to use it and has thus never gotten the recognition he deserves. In this sense (and in the film’s later treatment of the Hollywood film industry), it is difficult not to see this film as being heavily influenced by Ulmer’s own sense of having never gotten the appreciation he deserved for his talents as a director. If, in fact, Ulmer viewed Roberts as at least partly a version of himself, that might explain the fact that Roberts is treated in the film fairly sympathetically, despite the fact that he is really a rather unpleasant character.

Viewed in this way, the various artistic flourishes that punctuate Detour take on an additional significance. If the intrusive artfulness of some of the film’s imagery seems a bit out of place in such a rough-hewn, low-budget film, this disjunction might be interpreted as a suggestion of the mismatch between the high-art films that Ulmer might have made if given the chance, and the B-grade films he was actually allowed to make. And this interpretation holds whether or not Ulmer had intentionally created this effect, because, in any case, it clearly indicates the way in which Ulmer insisted on striving for artistry despite the conditions under which he was forced to work and the lack of appreciation he received.[3] As Roberts himself says in the film, “Those guys out in Hollywood don’t know the real thing when it’s right in front of them.”

Roberts’s fiancée, Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), works in the Break O’ Dawn Club as a singer (as do so many women in noir) but dreams of bigger and better things. One of the songs that she performs most frequently is “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me,” explaining why it might have a special significance for Roberts. She attempts to be supportive of Roberts, as when she suggests, on hearing him play, that he will “make Carnegie Hall.” “Yeah,” he says bitterly. “As a janitor. I’ll make my debut in the basement.” Meanwhile, convinced that she will never be able to fulfill her own dreams in New York, Sue decides to go away to Hollywood to try to become a star, even though she and Al are apparently on the verge of marriage. Indeed, both Sue and Al seem oddly uncommitted to pursuing a life together, suggesting the way in which characters in this film seem to be oddly bereft of emotion, perhaps too beaten down and disappointed by life to have any expectation of real happiness. Roberts, skeptical of the whole Hollywood idea, decides to stay behind, which not only raises the question of how committed he really is to being with Sue but also serves as evidence of just how cynical he is. His dreams having already been crushed in New York, he can’t imagine Sue’s dreams faring much better in Hollywood. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, Sue finds that stardom is not so easy to come by and ends up working as a waitress. Learning of this in a long-distance phone call that is presented in the film as a sort of technological miracle, Roberts decides to travel across the country to marry her: if they are both going to have to struggle to get by, they might as well do it together, though Roberts’s exact train of thought here doesn’t necessarily make sense. Lots of things in this film don’t make sense, in fact, sometimes tilting it almost into the realm of absurdism.

Sue’s dream of making it big in Hollywood can be taken as commentary on the function of Hollywood in the American popular imagination, suggesting that the film industry serves as a sort of metonymic stand-in for the whole American culture of upward mobility.[4] At the same time, her subsequent failure to achieve her dreams suggests just how misleading this culture—with its suggestion that anyone can be a success if they simply work hard enough—can be. Hollywood, of course, is the perfect illustration of this point, given that so many young people (especially young women) have in fact gone there with hopes of becoming stars, only to have those hopes dashed on the rocks of reality. At the same time, it is also tempting to see this use of Hollywood as another somewhat bitter commentary on Ulmer’s own career.

Ulmer’s early history in the film industry is a bit murky, but it seems that he was a promising young director who came to Hollywood with the legendary F. W. Murnau in 1926, then worked as an assistant art director on Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), widely considered to be the greatest silent film ever made. Ulmer then moved into sound film and, with The Black Cat, only his second feature, was able to produce what many regard as a horror masterpiece, working with the two biggest stars of the genre. The film was a hit for Universal Pictures, though the studio was apparently not pleased by its avant-garde inclinations. Still, Ulmer’s future seemed bright indeed—until he became embroiled (during the making of The Black Cat) in an affair with the wife of the nephew of Universal’s founder, Carl Laemmle, Sr. This affair led to the woman’s divorce from the nephew and subsequent marriage to Ulmer. That marriage lasted until the end of Ulmer’s life in 1972; it also led to his exile to the fringes of the movie business, an exile from which he would never emerge, relegated thereafter to marginal, low-budget films, mostly for the Poverty Row studio Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC).[5] The vision we see in Detour of Hollywood as a place of broken dreams might, then, have at least some connection to Ulmer’s disappointing personal experience, though it is also the case, retrospectively, that few directors have ever made two films as interesting or as important as The Black Cat and Detour.[6]

Despite making such films, though, Ulmer remained an outsider in Hollywood throughout his career. Isenberg notes that, for Ulmer, Hollywood was a sort of in-between place, “a place precariously situated between the vast, largely uninhabitable Mojave Desert and the lush, alluring, and affluent California coastline” (31). This literal geography is traversed by Roberts in the film, but for Ulmer the geography of Hollywood is also symbolic, and he clearly sometimes thought of it as a sort of cultural wasteland, bereft of the high-art traditions that had been so important to him during his formative years in Europe, his work there leaving him suspended between his high-art origins in Europe and his low-art assignments in Hollywood.

In any case, Hollywood quickly fades into the background as Detour shifts into a focus on Roberts’s attempts to get across the country to join Sue in California, placing the film within the great American genre of the road narrative. However, he has no cash for the trip, triggering a speech about the evils of money—or at least of the lack of it—that forms a crucial gloss on the film as a whole:

“Money: you know what that is. It’s the stuff you never have enough of. Little green things with George Washington’s picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for. It’s the stuff that has caused more trouble in the world than anything else we ever invented, simply because there’s too little of it. At least I had too little of it.”

This declaration, at first glance, seems to resemble the traditional Christian notion (especially strong in medieval Catholicism, but less so in the later Protestant era) that the love of money is the root of all evil. However, this notion itself derives from a deep-seated suspicion toward money and commerce in general, and is built on the notion that there might be something morally problematic (if not downright evil) about making or having money. Roberts, though, sees the lack of money as the real problem and would presumably see having money as a good thing indeed—much as Ulmer’s filmmaking career was always haunted by a lack of financial resources. Roberts’s statement about money, then, is not a rejection of wealth, but a rejection of economic inequality of the kind that reigns in capitalist America, when guys like himself remain mired in poverty, while the more fortunate (though no more deserving) might be rolling in wealth. Roberts, though, is no socialist, and one gets the impression that he has no objection to wealth in general—he just feels that he is deserving of wealth and that there must be something fundamentally wrong with a system in which he has none.[7]

Lacking the cash to travel any other way, Roberts decides to hitchhike to California. He complains that the going is slow, though he actually makes it all the way to Arizona in just a few seconds of screen time. Then, things look up when he is picked up by the seemingly prosperous Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), who is driving to Los Angeles and offers Roberts a ride the rest of the way. With rejoining Sue now suddenly within his grasp, Roberts cheers up momentarily, envisioning a future “which couldn’t have been brighter if I had embroidered it in neon lights.” In this upbeat mood, he imagines Sue as a star in Hollywood, performing a glitzy version of “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me.” His vision, shown on the screen, is skewed from the perpendicular, though, giving it a dreamlike quality and perhaps suggesting that it is unrealistic.

Roberts’s fantasy vision of Sue as a star in Hollywood.

In the case of Roberts’s fantasies about Sue as a star, reality immediately intrudes, however, as a sudden outburst of rain begins to drench the open car—almost as if the gods can’t stand the idea of Roberts being happy, even for a moment. Haskell, who has been popping pills the entire trip, is asleep (or unconscious, or dead) in the passenger seat, and Roberts, driving, is unable to awaken him. He stops the car to put the top up and opens the passenger-side door to try to get to Haskell to wake him up. Instead, Haskell falls from the car, hits his head on a rock, and is at this point definitely dead. In this film, Roberts’s luck is almost comically bad, and some viewers have felt that the misadventures that befall him are a bit too unlikely to be believable. The manner of Haskell’s death, however, is not physically impossible (just highly improbable), and it is clear that it is meant to be extreme, to emphasize the cruelty of fate. Roberts himself suggests in his voiceover that people would probably laugh in disbelief when he explained how Haskell died; it is, in fact, the very unbelievability of the story that causes Roberts to panic and to assume that he will be accused of killing Haskell.[8] He decides to hide the body and continue on in the car. Realizing that he cannot get far without money, he reluctantly takes Haskell’s wallet, which contains $768 and identification that will allow him to pose as Haskell.

Roberts manages to reach California, where he picks up an attractive, but embittered and bedraggled, woman hitchhiker, who tells him to call her Vera (played by Ann Savage). Vera soon becomes Roberts’s worst nightmare, attempting to exploit him in her own effort to achieve the American dream. As luck would have it, she had earlier hitched a ride with Haskell (and given him some of his scars). She accuses Roberts of murdering Haskell, then threatens to tell the police if Roberts does not do as she says. He then becomes her virtual prisoner as they make their way to Los Angeles, where they learn that Haskell’s wealthy father is nearing death. Vera at this point has completely taken over the film (and Roberts’s life), and Roberts has become a sort of zombie-like figure, staggering forward under Vera’s control. For her part, Vera is one of the meanest, nastiest, and most poorly groomed femmes fatales in all of film noir. As Dickos puts it, she is “one of the most unrelenting and frightening females in noir cinema,” a character who “comes into focus more and more as the unsuppressed animus that Al Roberts himself harbors but keeps in check” (186). Filled with hate, Vera not only exploits Roberts mercilessly but seems to take great pleasure in inflicting suffering on him, as if seeking revenge on all the men (including Haskell) who have previously wronged her. When she talks to him, her words are like weapons. She is almost like a force from another world, so malignant as to seem more at home in a horror film than in a noir film.[9] Unlike the typical femme fatale, meanwhile, she makes no effort to use her sexual charms to maneuver Roberts into doing what she wants; instead she employs a combination of bullying and threats, while Roberts accepts her domination rather meekly, resulting in a sort of reversal of typical 1940s gender roles. At the same time, Vera seems sexually experienced (she clearly has the aura of a prostitute around her), even predatory[10]; if anything she seems willing to use Roberts for her own sexual pleasure more than she is inclined to offer him favors as a way of inducing his cooperation. In any case, without giving any details, the film portrays Vera in such a way that one suspects that some very bad things have happened to her, making her at least a partly sympathetic figure.

Roberts and Vera seem at odds from the very beginning.

Knowing that Haskell had been estranged from his family for more than fifteen years, Vera concocts a plan for Roberts to go on pretending to be Haskell (hoping they won’t notice the switch) so that he can claim the inheritance when the father dies. When Roberts finally balks and refuses to cooperate, a drunken Vera decides to call the police. Roberts then accidentally strangles her with the phone cord (through a closed and locked door) in the subsequent altercation—in a scene even more improbable than the one in which Haskell has been killed. When I show this film in classes, many students typically laugh at this moment, finding it ridiculous. For Coursen, however, “it is the very implausibility of the action, juxtaposed with the ordinariness of the milieu—a nightclub, an apartment, a used car lot, and, of course, the road—that gives the film much of its force,” emphasizing that sense that Roberts is doomed by forces beyond his power to resist, or even understand, forces that are “irrational, relentless, malevolent” (19). Roberts, of course, is once again convinced that he will be blamed for the killing (this time with a bit more justification), but it is also clear that Vera’s death is almost a relief, seeming at the time almost a divine intervention, allowing Roberts to escape her domination.

This death also triggers one of the film’s most famous moments, as the camera moves about the room, going in and out of focus, suggesting Roberts’s confusion and panic and again giving the scene a dreamlike quality. The oneiric quality that appears so often in film noir is, in fact, on full display in Detour, which features a number of such scenes, many of them in actual dreams, which are conveyed as such through a variety of simple (inexpensive) techniques, such as superimposed images. There are also other genuinely strange moments in the film that seem designed to reflect Roberts’s psychological state. On two different occasions, for example, he complains about the saxophone music that is driving him crazy.[11] Saxophone music can indeed be heard on the soundtrack at both these moments, but it does not appear to be diegetic—that is, it does not appear to be coming from the world of the film, but is instead part of the soundtrack. One possibility, of course, is that the film’s low budget simply did not allow for the kind of sound editing that could make this music appear to be literally coming from outside Roberts’s hotel and that the filmmakers just had to make do with the resources at their command. Another interpretation might be that Roberts, becoming increasingly divorced from reality, is merely imagining the music. A more postmodern interpretation, meanwhile, would suggest that Roberts is jumping from one ontological level to another, and that he is actually hearing the film’s soundtrack, with which he then enters into a dialogue.

Whatever the source or the intended effect of these saxophone references, the real effect is to introduce a moment of strangeness into the film that is very similar to the effect that occurs during an earlier scene in which Roberts is hitchhiking and the negatives seem to have been flipped, so that cars are suddenly shown driving on the left side of the road. There are, in fact, a number of minor continuity errors in the film, most of which were no doubt a result of the hurried, low-budget production schedule. There are, however, enough intentional artistic flourishes introduced into the film to make it clear that it would not have been inconsistent with the overall texture of the film for these “errors” to have been introduced intentionally, so that seeing them as enhancing the texture of the film, however inadvertently, is not inappropriate.

Nevertheless, this second death forces Roberts to give up his dream of marrying Sue and he instead goes on the lam, hitchhiking back eastward across America (and thus into the opening scene of the film), waiting for the moment when he will be picked up by police. He is seemingly doomed to wander endlessly until that moment, the open road so often figured as an emblem of emancipation in American culture serving in his case as a sort of prison, or even death row[12]. This takes us back to the beginning of the film, though it then proceeds one step further, in a scene narrated by Roberts in future tense, suggesting that it is merely occurring in his imagination as a construction in advance of what he expects will eventually happen. In this imagined scene, Roberts is stopped by police, then arrested and loaded into their cop car, the implication clearly being that he is headed for a conviction for murder.

Roberts, meanwhile, puts a philosophical spin on this imagined final scene, presenting it as an illustration of the fact that, at any moment, “fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” This mysterious force has, in fact, already put its finger on Roberts multiple times—little wonder that he expects the future to be no different. At the same time, the film seems to want to present Roberts as a sort of Everyman whose sequence of misfortunes stands as a reminder of the sorts of misfortunes that could befall any of us at any moment. However, his true nemesis might not be fate so much as the Hollywood Production Code. Just before this final scene, Roberts has made it clear that Haskell’s body has been mistaken for Roberts’s and that Vera has been assumed killed by Haskell. The final scene thus represents a final cruel turn, just when Roberts seemed headed for an escape from any charge of murder, even if he has lost his identity and everything that means anything to him. Isenberg, however, speculates that this last scene was probably added because the Code censors at the Breen Office were adamant that Roberts could not be seen to be escaping from the consequence of his deeds in any sense (185).

At the same time, this sudden swerve in the narrative is perfectly consistent with the cobbled-together nature of the whole film, and Roberts demise at the end seems very much in keeping with the pessimism of the rest of the film. R. Barton Palmer calls Detour “undoubtedly the finest example of a purely noir thriller, “noting that in it “the ordinary social optimism of the Hollywood film is entirely overthrown in favor of a despairing view of American life” (108). The contrast between the film’s bleak vision and the typically bright view of America presented by Hollywood is indeed striking, and in ways with numerous social and political implications. For example, Roberts seems to regard himself as the victim of blind fate and pure bad luck, but it is also clear that his main misfortune is simply a lack of cash, thus suggesting that the American dream, which so thoroughly fails to materialize in this film, is only available to those who can make the payments. The emphasis on luck and fate, in turn, suggests that those who can make these payments can do so more by chance than because of their own hard work or ability, except perhaps their ability to exploit others.

This message is a very subversive one, especially for American film in 1945. It is probably a wonder that Ulmer never went on the black list given the presence of such messages in his films, but it is likely that his low budget films were considered so insignificant that the powers-that-be simply took no notice of them. This lowly status probably also explains the fact that Ulmer was able to get away with so much even at the time he was making Detour. As Naremore notes, “Detour is so far down on the economic and cultural scale of things that it virtually escapes commodification, and it can be viewed as a kind of subversive or vanguard art” (148). Indeed, for Naremore, Detour “provides justification for the idea that down-market thrillers are more authentic, less compromised by bourgeois-liberal sentiment or totalitarian spectacle, than the usual Hollywood product” (149). In any case, Detour is one of the oddest and shabbiest masterpieces in all of world culture. But it is a masterpiece, nevertheless.

WORKS CITED

Coursen, David. “Closing Down the Open Road: Detour.” Movietone News 48 (1976): 16–19.

Herzogenrath, Bernd, ed. The Films of Edgar G. Ulmer. Scarecrow Press, 2009.

Isenberg, Noah. Edgar G. Ulmer. University of California Press, 2014.

Naremore, James. More than Night: Film Noir and Its Contexts. University of California Press, 1998.

Palmer, R. Barton. Hollywood’s Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir. Twayne, 1994.

Polito, Robert. “Some Detours to Detour.” LIT 13 (Fall 2007): 144–61.

Schwaab, Herbert. “On the Graveyards of Europe: The Horror of Modernism in The Black Cat.” The Films of Edgar G. Ulmer. Ed. Bernd Herzogenrath. Scarecrow Press, 2009. 39–52.

NOTES


[1] Roberts’s violent negative reaction to this seemingly upbeat love song might be understandable, given the context. Still, it might be noted that there is already a potential double meaning built into this song and its title—which could be taken to suggest skepticism and cynicism about the person who claims to love the singer. Similarly, strains of the old Vaudeville song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” (first published in 1917) occasionally drift into the soundtrack. This song again seems to be an optimistic one, suggesting the way in which the singer never gives up on their dreams; but it could just s easily be read as a commentary on the unrealizable nature of those dreams.

[2] Roberts’s piano playing (including closeup shots of his fingers moving about the keyboard) was supplied by Erdody, the European-trained Hungarian American composer who scored the film.

[3] This situation was an aspect of Ulmer’s work even from the beginning. One of the reasons why The Black Cat is such a legendary horror film is the extent to which Ulmer employed European modernist techniques (largely derived from German Expressionism) in making the film. Universal head Carl Laemmle, Jr., was reportedly appalled by the extent to which Ulmer used such techniques in making the film, which was made while Laemmle was away in Europe and not able to apply his usual level of supervision to the production. Laemmle felt that such artistry was inappropriate in a horror film. Many early critics agreed, but later critics have generally been lavish in their praise of this film. On the film’s modernist aesthetic aspirations, see Schwaab.

[4] David Coursen notes that, in Detour “Ulmer is actually taking several American fantasies (‘going West,’ looking to Hollywood for success and happiness, finding freedom and happiness on the open road … ) and performing unnatural acts on them, with devastating effects” (19).

[5] One exception was the interesting noir film The Strange Woman (1946), starring Hedy Lamarr and made by the independent film production company that Lamarr had founded in an attempt to overcome her own exile from the Hollywood mainstream. Set in New England, roughly in the 1830s, the film stars Lamarr as a femme fatale who ruthlessly manipulates men to get what she wants, but also has a more positive side.

[6] Ulmer’s critical reputation has, in fact, been steadily on the rise in recent years. See Isenbreg and the collection of essays edited by Herzogenrath for examples of recent general criticism.

[7] In this and other ways, the economic texture of the world of the film actually seems more reminiscent of the Depression years than of 1945, and it might be noted that the film was adapted (by screenwriter Martin Goldsmith) from his own 1939 novel.

[8] We should, of course, be wary of the fact that Roberts is the film’s narrator and point-of-view character. The film leaves open the possibility that he is an unreliable narrator and that he is not telling the truth about the unlikely events he narrates.

[9] It is probably worth recalling that the Fates, in Greek mythology, were women.

[10] The very fact that Roberts picks Vera up while she is hitch-hiking would suggest to a 1940s audience that she is a woman of loose morals. To emphasize this fact, Ulmer had her sweater pinned together in the back to make it fit more tightly in the front, thus making her appear more sexually provocative. When she gets into the car, the pins can briefly be seen going up her back. Those involved have testified that this was an error, though it would also, of course, be quite in character for Vera herself to have come up with this idea.

[11] Ulmer seems to have despised saxophones as an emblem of the vulgarity of much American music. In his film St. Benny the Dip (1951), for example, a European immigrant musician bemoans the “too many terrible saxophones” that permeate American music.

[12] In the original novel, the “Roberts” character (there called “Alexander Roth”) is overtly Jewish, suggesting that this final predicament might be glossed by the myth of the Wandering Jew. Alternatively, Robert Polito has suggested that “Goldsmith injected such a consistent Jewish ambience into the novel, that it’s tempting to read the Alex-Sue saga as an ethnic allegory about Jews in America” (148). Ulmer himself was Jewish, so he must have had an affinity for such stories.