ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

"A man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer"

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Thomas Duke


Roger Eberts piece on Edgar G. Ulmers Detour in his book The Great Movies presents the most common defense of the movie; that it is "so filled with imperfections that it would not earn the director a passing grade in film school, but overcomes these technical flaws and a low budget to become a great noir."' However, I would argue that several of the "technical flaws" that Ebert cites seem to be intentional choices by Ulmer that serve the story and aesthetic of the film.



For the scene where Al and Sue leave the New York nightclub, Ebert notes that "Ulmer uses thick fog to substitute for New York streets." While it might be true that Ulmer may have had trouble convincing an audience that the unadorned PRC sets were actually New York City, the use of fog goes way beyond simply covering up a background drop or the point at which a set ends. The fog is thick and getting thicker as the couple walks along, until it finally engulfs them as Sue reveals to Al that she doesnt want to marry him, but instead wants to move to Hollywood to pursue a singing career.

This is clearly an artistic choice. Fog is a common noir ingredient, but very rarely to this extreme, and it is usually used to create atmosphere or suggest danger. However, the fog here visually "ruins" Al's romantic walk with his one true love at the point where Sue reveals that she plans to leave him. The use of fog in this scene goes beyond background atmosphere and becomes a self-conscious intrusion on Al's life. After all, he is always complaining about his life being ruined by outside forces he cant control, and the fog becomes a visual representation of that.


Al momentarily regains hope in life when he has the idea to move out to Hollywood and marry Sue. He calls her and there are intercut shots of phone operators and phone lines. These two shots are seemingly unnecessary in narrative terms, so Ebert assumes that "Ulmer pads his running time by editing in stock footage of telephone wires and switchboard." However, the movie runs 67 and a half minutes, ample for a PRC programmer at the time (believe it or not). Ulmers PRC musical shot the same year, Club Havana, ran only 62 minutes. The footage only runs about 20 seconds, so it hardly seems plausible that it was intended as padding thrown in at the last minute as a necessity to increase the run time.

Ebert adds that Ulmer "can't spring for any footage of Sue actually speaking into the phone." However, there is a shot of her with the receiver to her ear, so its not like it would have been cost prohibitive at that point to simply record her speaking. There is no response from her, verbal or otherwise, and this is a conscious decision by Ulmer. For once, Al is overjoyed with the idea of reuniting with Sue. However, this enthusiasm is met with cold indifference, both by the technical process of how his phone call is being transmitted and by Sues complete aloofness from the conversation. It's as if his happiness is a momentary delusion not shared by the outside world. The scene also calls into question Al's side of the story, considering there is no confirmation or even an indicator that Sue wants to actually marry him.


Al decides to hitch-hike from New York to Hollywood, and the shots of his first two rides are flipped. The drivers side on both vehicles is on the right side instead of the left. Ebert theorized that "Ulmer possibly shot the scenes with the cars going from left to right, then reflected that for a journey from the east to the west coasts, right to left would be more conventional film grammar." However, Ulmer would have been aware the entire time during shooting that the cars were supposed to be traveling westward.

Looking closer, Al's face becomes the focal point in both shots. He is in the foreground, staring forward and ignoring the driver while we hear his voice over as he complains about being forced to hitch-hike because he is broke. These shots would not have been possible if Al was sitting on the right side, as the driver would then be the focus of the shot. On the other hand, filming the vehicles driving left to right would have been jarring in terms of film grammar, as it would imply that they were driving eastward, especially since these shots are included in a montage that shows the progress of Al's trip on a map of America. Flipping the shots was an inexpensive solution that nevertheless sacrificed realism.


As Ebert puts it, Detour stars "a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer." While this could be legitimately argued, the point is that the two lead performances are intentionally extreme. Tom Neal plays Al as a droopy sad sack, helpless in the face of Vera, an acidic femme fatale (played by the appropriately named Ann Savage). This is another case of realism forsaken for style. The movie is completely from Al's point-of-view, and it reflects his world view at every turn. He keeps lamenting that fate is playing tricks on him and that he is helpless in the face of bad luck. Vera keeps him captive by blackmailing him, and she becomes the embodiment of the unfair forces that control his life. She isn't a three-dimensional character because he only sees her in a two-dimensional way, and the same goes for himself. Al sees himself as a helpless victim, and Tom Neals performance reflects this.


The supposed implausibility of some of the plot developments could also be chalked up to Al being an unreliable narrator. The deaths of Mr. Haskell and Vera can both be seen as wildly coincidental, and in both cases Al presents them as accidental deaths that incriminate him through sheer bad luck. However, both deaths are framed by Al in their immediate aftermath, as he laments about his unfortunate situation to the audience, trying to convince the viewer that he would surely be charged with murder if he went to the police and reported the deaths as accidental. The movie also has a flashback framing device where Al, sitting in a diner, is making his case to the audience that he is in fact innocent. It is his account of these events, and the implausibility of the deaths (particularly Veras) calls into question Al's honesty of these accounts. The truth is not clear either way, and this gives the film a haunting ambiguity that is intentionally crafted by Ulmer.


If Detour was higher budgeted and more realistic (to the extent that noir films of the period could be said to be realistic), it would harm what Ulmer set out to do with the film. There isnt a "right way" to make a film, and the unglamorous and cheap-looking settings suit a story of a sad sack fumbling through the gutter of film noir. The movie also reflects the distortion of being from Al's point-of-view, both in visual terms and in terms of the facts of his innocence, and these distortions are often misrepresented as technical gaffes or script holes. The end result is unique and arguably post-modern. Here is a noir story that seems to be manipulated by the main character's own psyche, and he even spends much of the film speaking to the audience, framing what we have just seen and pleading his innocence. It's as if he is molding his own memory to fit the form of an extreme noir film, where the streets are completely covered in fog, the sad sacks are only sad and the femme fatales are only fatal, and bleak fatalism rules over everyone.


Roger Ebert - The Great Movies, Three Rivers Press 2003.

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