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.