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Sunday, September 16, 2012

DETOUR (1945)

Everybody’s favorite Grade Z noir seems more important than ever when set against the modern landscape of ultra-low budget digital productions & ‘mumblecore’ disposables. Finding inspiration rather than restrictions on an absurd six-day/six-set sched, helmer Edgar G. Ulmer conjures up a foreboding atmosphere with smoke, mirrors & some wicked piano playing. (The music score is credited to Erdody, but Ulmer had a rare feel for the classics, tossing in some Chopin & ragged-up Brahms to gain breathing room & add a bit of false hope to the noir claustrophobia.*) The story starts at its end, flashing back from a roadside diner (at the end of all roads) where Tom Neal waits for fate to close in. A cross-country trek has saddled this everyman with unintentional robberies, a couple of dead bodies, and no way out. A life sabotaged by the aptly named Ann Savage, a vicious cohort Neal picked up off the road. We’re so deep into the classic film noir universe, only a handful of people seem to exist. How can you not bump into the one soul on earth you most want to avoid. DETOUR doesn’t show us a downward spiral, but a pitiless drop. Ulmer finds just the right tone from his cast of also-rans, simultaneously flat & vivid. And what memorable atmosphere he coaxes out of journeyman lenser Benjamin Kline. It’s part of what raises the convenient narrative coincidences of noir into something nearer inexorable fate. And better production values might well have brought down the whole house of cards. (BUYER BEWARE! Lots of bad DVD editions out there. IMAGE has the best currently available on this essential title.)

DOUBLE-BILL/SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Ulmer rode the UFA bandwagon from Berlin to Hollywood as art director and found himself directing Grade A Universal Horror by the early ‘30s. Rumor has it that he screwed himself out of first-class work, shtupping the wife of a big producer and getting blackballed down to Poverty Row Productions. Well . . . maybe. If all the creative types who fooled around with the boss’s wife were permanently drummed off the lot, Hollywood who have closed up shop. It’s more likely that Ulmer wasn’t permanently banned, but chose to stay in the ultra-low budget world. For creative freedom? For less financial pressure? You can see what he was shooting for in GREEN FIELDS/’37, one of the Yiddish pics he made in New Jersey(!). Or, at least, you should be able to see it since the film has been restored, showing a gentle side of Ulmer rarely encountered, but no DVD, alas. *This being the case, you might dare the utterly ridiculous CARNEGIE HALL/’47 simply for Ulmer’s expert handling of his All-Star line-up of classical musicians. (Who knew dour conductor Fritz Reiner was a natural character comedian?)

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