Last night I was pleased to lead a library virtual discussion of two great film noir titles, Detour (1945) and D.O.A. (1950). The following recounts some of my presentation and what some of the audience members thought of the films. Please note that spoilers will abound!
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Produced by Leon Fromkess
Screenplay by Martin Goldsmith, based on his novel Detour: An Extraordinary Tale
Cinematography by Benjamin H. Kline
Edited by George McGuire
Music by Leo Erdody
Producers Releasing Corporation
(1:08) Criterion Blu-ray
Directed by Rudolph Maté
Produced by Leo C. Popkin
Written by Russell Rouse, Clarence Greene
Cinematography by Ernest Laszlo
Edited by Arthur H. Nadel
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Harry Popkin Productions, Cardinal Pictures
Distributed by United Artists
With Detour we have a film that - at least as legend has it – was completed in six days for anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000. Those numbers are probably more fiction than fact, but even if you tripled them, the result is still quite an achievement. The picture was made by a company called Producers Releasing Corporation, or PRC, a Poverty Row studio. The name Poverty Row says it all. You can actually see every dollar of the low budget right there onscreen! Roger Ebert once said that Detour is so filled with mistakes that its director never would’ve passed film school.
Detour’s director, Edgar G. Ulmer, was an Austrian who fled Nazi Germany, but not before apprenticing with a master filmmaker, F.W. Murnau, who directed Sunrise and a movie our group will look at next month, The Last Laugh (1924). Ulmer began working his way up the chain at Universal Studios when he made an extremely weird (but wonderful) movie called The Black Cat (1934) starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
Ulmer ran into huge problems because the head of Universal, Carl Laemmle, was on vacation during the filming and had no idea how utterly strange The Black Cat was. Laemmle had a fit when he saw the film, and to make matters worse, Ulmer started courting the movie’s continuity girl, who was the ex-wife of Carl Laemmle’s cousin. So Ulmer was ousted and reduced to making public service films, where he learned how to work quickly and cheaply, which served him well when it came to Detour.
People often ask, “What was the audience reaction to Detour at the time?” The answer? There wasn’t any audience reaction because almost nobody saw it in theaters! But Detour became a public domain hit on TV, as did D.O.A., a film Eddie Muller calls the closest film noir every came to being a Warner Bros. cartoon.
In his book Dark City, Muller states that O’Brien gave “a performance more animated than Daffy Duck. He frantically lunges in and out of rooms. You can almost see the animated motion lines poof from the doorframes. O’Brien is so overheated he can’t stand still for a moment, lest he drown in a pool of sweat.”
Due to an oversight, the film’s copyright was never renewed, so it fell into the public domain. Like Detour, D.O.A. also gained fans from playing on late night TV. Most of the San Francisco and Los Angeles location scenes were filmed illegally, which means without permits and without letting anyone know they were shooting a movie. The idea for the story came from a 1931 German film called The Man Who Seeks His Murderer, directed by Robert Siodmak, who directed many important film noir titles such as The Killers, Criss Cross, and Phantom Lady.
Both of these films are about desperate men in desperate situations. They both involve their protagonists trying to “get away” from some normal aspect of life in search of something else. So my first question of the night: Are these protagonists – Detour’s Al Roberts (played by Tom Neal) and D.O.A.’s Frank Bigelow (played by Edmond O’Brien) - are they personally responsible for the messes they’re in? Or are they victims of fate?
Last night’s audience seemed to have more sympathy for D.O.A.’s Frank Bigelow. Maybe this because most of them thought Detour’s Al Roberts was a total loser, and to make matters worse, stupid, especially in trying to pass himself off as Haskell and picking up the hitchhiker from hell, Vera (Ann Savage). Although he figured it out too late, at least Bigelow realized that he really had something good with his girl Paula (Pamela Britton).
But everyone can agree on one thing: Ann Savage’s performance as Vera is unforgettable, especially considering that she doesn’t show up until the second half of the movie. Quoting Eddie Muller on Vera, “Let’s hope there’s not another one like her back home. Vera is, hands down, the shrillest, meanest, bitchiest shrew to ever escape from Dark City.” Just when Al Roberts thinks things can’t get any worse, there she is. We talked about how Savage was made up to have that special “Vera look,” which included Ulmer having her mix cold cream with dirt and massage it into her hair. One audience member commented on how Savage’s sweater in the opening scene had to be secured in the back with clothespins to keep it together. (Apparently the PRC wardrobe department had fallen on tough times.)
We discovered that Vera is more complex than she appears. Comments included that idea that Vera really isn’t a femme fatale in the traditional sense. She doesn’t seek to lure Roberts to his doom, she scripts it! Another audience member said that Vera is all about control, from the moment she steps into the car until she hauls the telephone into the bedroom, her last act on this earth. We seemed somewhat divided on Vera’s attempt to seduce Roberts in the hotel room. With her hand on Roberts’s shoulder, a drunken Vera (for once, not shouting) states in a sultry voice, “I’m going to bed.” Sure, she’s wasted at this point, but this could be a genuine cry for affection or love. Others thought this was just one more way in which Vera attempts to assert control.
The idea that Al isn’t giving us the story of what really happened on this nightmare journey, but is rather giving us the account of what he believed happened, was strong with last night’s audience. Al is a loser, always trying to paint himself as the victim, probably believing that none of this is his fault. He’s just a victim of fate.
We agreed that the convoluted sequence of events that happened to Frank in D.O.A. is largely incidental. (Several of us admitted to not being able to put all this together upon only one viewing of the film.) The details really don’t matter. What does matter is that Frank is trapped in a world of total confusion with no easy answers and few places to turn in order to find them. Welcome to the world of the film noir protagonist.
One viewer stated that if she only had 48 hours to live, she wouldn’t have spent it trying to find her killer. “I think I would’ve spent that time enjoying San Francisco instead!” Others marveled at the amount of energy (and sweat) Frank produced trying to find all these people who might have some answers. By the way, one of our audience members - a physician - stated that, despite the end credits, which state that the medical aspects of the film are based on scientific fact, luminous poisoning (at least as presented in the film) is total fiction. Yet one viewer was disappointed that Edmond O’Brien didn’t start glowing as the movie progressed.
Another viewer stated early in the discussion that he thought Detour was a real clunker, and that he was aghast at Roger Ebert for placing it in his Great Movies list. Another viewer disagreed, stating that the movie was superb and captivating, especially considering how quickly and cheaply it was made. Later in the evening, the first gentleman stated that, “Okay, you’ve convinced me that I need to watch this movie again.” That’s what discussions are all about, presenting, listening to, and responding to differing viewpoints, all with a sense of civility and respect. As always, this is a great group to lead.
We discussed more, much more than I can relate here, including the real lives of Edmond O’Brien and Tom Neal, background information on both films, and recommendations for other film noir titles.
If you’d like to hear more about Detour, I was honored to be a guest on The Movie Palace podcast several months ago to talk about the film with host Carl Sweeney. I hope you’ll check it out.
Next time: Another film noir, and coming soon, a Noirvember bonus feature!