Goin’ down that dark road: Ulmer’s Detour & Lynch’s Lost Highway.
The “Hollywood B-Picture” often gets a bad rap in the annals of cinematic history — a all too often unjustly bad wrap, as necessity can be and often is the mother of some daring creative invention, especially in B Movies. Such was the case in Edgar G. Ulmer’s frenetic little noir B Picture from 1945 titled Detour, essential viewing for all fans of a great B Movie and fans of David Lynch’s Lost Highway.
The “Hollywood B-Picture” often gets a bad rap in the annals of cinematic history.
The lighting is usually poor, the acting stilted, the sets falling apart and getting close to abandoning the realms of what is believable in mise-en-scéne, all because budgets on B-Pictures are, well, sub-par. We all know that score. Yet, most of us do not realize that it sometimes isn’t justified in a B-Picture because this kind of pressure can force incredibly creative solutions out of the right kind of determined, dogged, persevering artist. As they say, “necessity is the mother of invention.”
Edgar G. Ulmer’s frenetic, tightly woven, film noir Detour (1945) is one such case where the bad rap of the B-Movie simply is not justified at all. The film also has some interesting parallels with David Lynch’s Lost Highway(1997), undoubtedly influencing Lynch’s film in ways explained below. My analysis of Lynch’s equally frenetic tale of a down-and-out musician can be found here. A free print of Detour can be watched below:
Ulmer began his work in film in Austria, doing set design under director Max Reinhardt. He came with Reinhardt to the United States in 1923 with the Broadway play The Miracle, ultimately landing in Hollywood with the German expat artist wave that happened under the creeping shadow of the Third Reich in Europe when art that did not praise the state was either blackballed, destroyed, driven underground, and the artists themselves usually persecuted in a variety of ways.
This, and his artistic acumen, puts Ulmer in a category with other great German directors like Fritz Lang, of Scarlet Street (1945), M (1931), and Metropolis(1927); Billy Wilder, of Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Lost Weekend (1945), and Witness for the Prosecution (1957); and Otto Preminger of Laura (1944) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), who found work in Hollywood, and an easy home in film noir, ultimately influencing it with the German Expressionism that dominated the art in their homeland before the rise of Nazism.
These directors brought with them a number of aesthetic artifacts of the most popular art form in their homeland during the era of Weimar Republic (the era when German cinema really blossomed); namely, the rigid, obtuse, odd angles of their native German Expressionism. These aesthetic artifacts are probably best seen in the sets and odd shot angles of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1919), a free print of which can be watched below — it really is esssential viewing for everyone who loves great cinema with a powerful twist to boot. They elements are seen all over Ulmer’s cinematic canon too, and very much in Detour.
Detour tells the story of down-and-out club pianist Al Roberts (Tom Neal), who hitchhikes his way from Manhattan to Los Angeles to meet his girlfriend Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake) after she moves out west to seek greater opportunities. Bill Pullman played down and out jazz saxophonist Fred Madison in Lost Highway, both films also start out with a long, rapid shot of the dividing lines on a highway as well.
One bit of cinematography that illustrates just how truly “B-Picture” Detour is in its budget, is the shot that is literally just of Al’s route along a map of the United States of America that is meant as a simple device to carry the film forward. When Al begins to hitchhike back east after the events of the film, Ulmer merely had that bit of film played and printed in reverse to show his route back to New York, as a keen, money-saving measure on an already very tight picture.
Al barely has enough money to eat even though he is saving all he can by not paying for bus fare, when a chance meeting with a rich stranger named Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald) puts events on a completely different arc for Al. Haskell treats Al to a good meal somewhere in Arizona, letting on that he is a bookie, and carrying a pretty large wad of cash. The two then get to driving closer to their ultimate destination of Los Angeles. Haskell shows Al a scar on his arm. Al asks if he got it from an animal attack as it is very deep. Haskell replies that he got it from “the most vicious animal of all”, a woman that he picked up near Shreveport, Louisiana.
We then see Al driving Haskell’s vehicle through an Arizona rainstorm, somewhere near the California border while Haskell sleeps in the front seat. As it is raining, and the vehicle is a convertible, Al tries to wake him, to no avail. Al then pulls over, trying to rouse Haskell more vigorously and to put the car’s top up. When he opens the passenger side door, Haskell slumps out and Al realises he is dead.
As Al reasons that no one would believe him if he told the truth, he ultimately decides to take Haskell’s car, cash, and clothes, leaving the cadaver in an Arizona gully. This is when the frenetic pace of Detour sets in even more as Al never gets any peace from what had happened. We see a parallel in Lost Highway when the first anonymous videotape arrives at Fred Madison’s (Bill Pullman) residence and Fred receives a very ominous phone call.
When Al picks up an extremely attractive hitchhiker by chance named Vera (Ann Savage), Al’s story arc changes yet again. Ann Savage as the mysterious and shrewd Vera is probably the single iciest femme fatale ever in the history of film noir or cinema, period. She is completely amoral, ruthless, and just out for herself.
We find out that she knew Haskell’s car because she is the woman that gave him his nasty scar in the first place. As a consequence of all this, she does not care at all about what really happened to Haskell — yet, she does not believe Al’s story at all. This does not stop her from trying to get her claws into Al and scooping away everything she can get from him materially and psychologically. Will Al be able to escape her clutches unscathed and get to his beloved Sue? As in all noir, the answer tends to be mucky.
Lost Highway has a less icy, yet no less interesting femme fatale, in the dual character dynamic of Rene Madison and Alice Wakefield, played brilliantly by Patricia Arquette. I get deeper into this dynamic Lost Highway in my piece here. Hitchcock would have certainly approved of that dynamic in Lost Highway. Rene / Alice also have their claws in their respective men: Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty).
That femme fatale dynamic will ultimately undo both men in different ways in these two, frenetically beautiful films noir. I highly recommend Detour for any fan of Lynch and any fan of slick, stylish, frenetically creative art. It is a great pairing with Lost Highway, both to see where Lynch likely drew some of his inspiration from and for the pure, frenetic, beautiful, psychodrama of it all.
Wess A. Haubrich is the contributing editor of the film section of The Nu Romantics and London’s award-winning culture website The 405. He is also a “top writer” in “movies”, “mental health” and “culture” on Medium.com. He can be reached on Twitter or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org as he is always looking for cutting edge undiscovered cinema especially and innovative forms of all kinds of art to bring to his readers by probing the minds of their creators in interviews and features.