A true low-budget “b movie” classic. Made by an indie studio with no-name stars, a rough, dirty-looking film print with short jumps and gaps, shown as part of Emory’s noir series. First Ulmer movie I’ve seen (unless watching The Amazing Transparent Man on Mystery Science Theater counts).
Tom Neal is kind of a pathetic character, a wannabe concert pianist playing a crappy New York restaurant with his sweetheart Sue singing – but she won’t marry him until one of them makes good, so she sets out for Hollywood. Later, Tom has failed to make his fortune, but decides to hitch-hike to L.A. to see his girl. He’s picked up by a slightly dangerous-seeming guy named Charlie, who lets Tom drive while he naps, apparently dying in his sleep. Or maybe he dies when Tom opens the door to see if he’s alright, and Charlie falls out of the car, knocking his head into a rock. Or maybe he’s not dead at all – either way, Tom panics, takes the man’s clothes, wallet and car, and carries on.
But Tom, the dummy, picks up a hitch-hiker who turns out to be severe control freak Ann Savage. She’s onto him, since Charlie had given her a ride in the same car, so she threatens to turn him in, gets him to rent them an apartment and buy her clothes and booze. In perhaps my favorite 40’s-noir death scene so far, one night he grabs the phone cord (I think it was to keep her from calling the cops) leading under her closed bedroom door and pulls with all his might, not knowing that the cord was looped around her neck. Now Tom is a two-time murderer, doesn’t want to bring his fugitive past into sweetie Sue’s life, so he hits the highway, stopping irritably in a diner (where Sturges regular Esther Howard is the waitress) to pause and recount his tale to us via voice-over.
Which leads to The Last Shot of Detour, the subject of a ten-page article by Morgan Fisher in Cinema Scope, which soon lost me when I realized it was a “close reading” of a one-minute piece of film, but after skimming a few pages I got interested again, in his discussion of strangely self-conscious moments in the movie that could only have been inserted on purpose. When watching the movie, the final shot made me laugh – Tom’s narrator voice tells us that one day on the road he’ll catch his final, fateful ride, and at that very moment the state patrol pulls up and takes him away. I hadn’t thought to consider it as a subjective shot, a flash-forward illustrating his thought, but without any cuts or visual cues that we’ve left the present.
Tom Neal, the non-brute lead of The Brute Man, was best known for beating the hell out of Franchot Tone in 1951 and killing his wife in 1965. Ann Savage memorably reappeared sixty-three years later in the great My Winnipeg. Detour was remade in the 1990’s with Tom Neal Jr.
Ulmer is actually taking several American fantasies (“going west,” looking to Hollywood for success and happiness, finding freedom and happiness on the open road) and performing unnatural acts on them, with devastating effects … Each ridiculous plot twist narrows his alternatives, increases his victimization, further emphasizes his lack of free will. In fact, the closest thing to a moment of freedom in the movie (though the character doesn’t perceive it as such) comes in the extraordinary sequence in which, working in the nightclub he professes to despise, he plays a brilliant, disjointed piano improvisation, shown largely through closeups of his crazily moving fingers.