Errol Morris’ favourite film, it turns out, is Edgar Ulmer’s DETOUR, filmed in six days on very limited sets, with a modest, small cast and no money. “There’s big-budget noir, medium-budget noir, and then there’s poverty row noir. And there’s something about despair being enacted on cheap sets…”

Who was it who said, “There’s nothing in that film except genius, because they couldn’t afford anything else”?

Anyhow, after hearing Morris express this preference at his In Person session, I mobbed up to him afterwards and asked if his fascination with the film had something to do with his interest, shown in most of his films, with the elusive nature of truth?

My theory of DETOUR has always been that the hero’s behaviour makes no sense for a good reason. (spoilers!)  First, he is present at a man’s death and assumes, for no good reason, that he’s going to get the blame for it. Then when fleeing from the scene, he stops to pick up a hitchhiker. This strikes most audiences as odd, I think. Then SHE meets an accidental death, which seems rather a coincidence. But it seems closely connected with the film’s funkiness. You don’t wish it made more sense, you revel in it. Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci both cited the film as a favourite, an example of what Argento calls “non-cartesian cinema”. I think they found the film’s nonsensical narrative justified their own lack of concern for motivation, verisimilitude and logic.

But my theory is a bit more rationalist. I propose that maybe the hero is an unreliable narrator, and the misadventures he recounts are really distortions designed to put him in a favourable light. He probably murdered those people. Or at any rate, he’s guiltier than he suggests. It at least seems a possible interpretation.

Anyway, I gushed a bunch of that at Errol Morris, and he kind of blinked and said something about the fate of the actors. Well, I think only one actor had a tragic fate — Tom Neal, the film’s doomed two-time loser, killed his wife and then committed suicide while serving a ten-year sentence for manslaughter. He had, as they say, a history of violence, having beaten the crap out of Franchot Tone when he discovered they were both married to Joan Crawford.

(Erratum 2014: Neal never committed suicide, and died at liberty after doing his time. I have no idea where my misinformation originated. I should probably blame Kenneth Anger.)

(And Tone had a history of having the crap beaten out of him — years later he appeared in a Twilight Zone episode where he’s shot entirely in profile, due to the other side of his face having been beaten to mush.)

But anyway, DETOUR certainly IS a film with a tragic resonance, and a masterpiece of impoverished resources and rich imagination — every creative decision seems to be motivated by speed and economy. Ulmer even abandoned the clapperboard and just clapped his hands in front of the lens to signal the end of one shot, while the camera kept rolling and the actors proceeded directly into the next bit.

The movie also features a very large coffee cup, which I covet.

17 Responses to “Detour”

  1. As I trust you know the amazing Ann Savage is still very much with us, currently tearing up the screen as Guy Maddin’s mother in his latest bit of delicious insanity My Winnipeg.

  2. A great film and I like your unreliable narrator theory of the “he accidentally fell on my knife six times” ilk!

    The deaths do happen at strangely convenient times for the protagonist and usually happen relatively easily!

    By the way, have you heard the news about Tartan going into receivership?

  3. dcairns Says:

    Colin: Which bit of Tartan? All of it?

    David E: yes, but I’d forgotten about the great Ms Savage. Arianne Ulmer has kept in touch with her over the years. It’s great to think of her getting another outing, she’s so magnificently…savage!

  4. Apparently all of it – they closed their US division last month and today it was announced that the UK arm is being wound down.

  5. Oh well, on the plus side, maybe we can pick up all their stuff cheap soon? And then hang onto it until it becomes rare and expensive.

  6. Glad to see you espousing the unreliable narrator theory in relation to Detour, which I absolutely agree with. At least, I’ve always thought that watching the film with that in mind makes it a much richer experience.

    My personal favourite bit of unreliable narration is in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, when Lorelei says, “my gentleman friend, Mr Jennings, became shot”.

  7. Oh, I’d forgotten that line, that’s beautiful.

    Reminds me of another line (which DOESN’T illustrate the unreliable thing) in Broadway Danny Rose.
    “What happened to your last husband?”
    “Some guys shot him in the eyes.”
    “Some — oh my God — then he’s BLIND?”
    “He’s DEAD.”
    “Oh, right, yeah, because the, uh, bullets go right through…”

  8. […] Tone is the Other Man, in the film and in real life: Joan was bigamously engaged to both Tone and Tom Neal, who beat the crap out of Tone when he found out. Ted Healy, he of the Stooges, gives the best […]

  9. David, are not all narratives unrelaible?

  10. Yes, but some are more unreliable that others. Or, some start to make more sense / reveal more shades of meaning, when CONSIDERED as unreliable. I mean, just because Rear Window uses lots of subjective shots, doesn’t mean that considering that what Jeff sees might not be real, will get you very far. Although, considering that what he sees might not signify what he thinks is indeed one of the film’s tropes. Whereas in Blow-Up, the unreliability of Hemmings’ take on reality is a little more significant. So there are shades.

  11. Thanks for the clarification. I agree that it certainly adds to the richness of DETOUR to allow for the possibility of the unreliable narrator. One might also see Detour as a B film version of King Lear. All approaches are valid and enriching. It is a crazy and wonderful film anyway.

    BTW, I recently saw Barnet’s BY THE BLUEST OF SEAS and Roy Andersson’s DU LEVANDE. Great films both.

  12. I don’t quite see the Lear connection, although I’m sure it’d be an entertaining theory.

    I want to see more Barnet, but BTBOS didn’t quite do it for me.

  13. Great post and great blog in general! We’re making a doc about Detour and linked this post on Morris to our Facebook page. Thanks!

  14. Are you in touch with Arianne Ulmer-Cipes? Are you going to speak to Argento? Errol Morris? Sounds great, anyway!

  15. […] Bogart’s affinity with sudden death in DARK PASSAGE suggests both the shifty narrator of DETOUR (people just keep dying around me, honest!) and the fatal pro/antagonists of WALKING DEAD and POINT […]

  16. “He had, as they say, a history of violence, having beaten the crap out of Franchot Tone when he discovered they were both married to Joan Crawford.”

    Tom Neal never married Joan Crawford. Neal beta up Tone because both men had been having relations with Barbara Payton. Payton married Tone but still had hot pants for Neal.

  17. Yes. This is quite an old post, I think, and I’d got my gossip all mixed up. A bigamy charge at that time would have been quite a career-wrecker for Joan!

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