Edgar Ulmer’s Detour is a film that, at times, blatantly rejects classical Hollywood style

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After a casual viewing of Edgar Ulmer’s Detour, the viewer might conclude that the film follows a fairly conventional narrative arc, one in line with the classic Hollywood narrative form. For example, the beginning of the film stages an obvious travel/journey narrative as Al sets off form New York to California for a reunion with his lover, Sue. Al possesses a desire, “an important trait that functions to get the narrative moving” (Film Art: an Introduction, 89). He desires to marry Sue, and Sue’s recent move to Hollywood necessitates a cross-country journey for Al.

As Al’s journey progresses, however, obtainment of his initial goal, once seemingly simple, is rendered increasingly difficult after one of Al’s traveling mates dies. Detour challenges an important element of the classical Hollywood narrative, the “assumption that the action will spring primarily from individual characters as causal agents” (Film Art: an Introduction, 89). There is a distinct point in the film where Al moves from being a “causal agent” to a passive character, merely trying to save his own hide rather than achieve his initial goal.

This break occurs after Al, behind the wheel while his most recent ride, Charles Haskell Jr. is taking a break to sleep. Al discovers that Haskell is not merely asleep, but has actually died of unknown cause(s). Instead of staying calm, Al convinces himself that the police would accuse him of murder and that no matter how hard he tried to impress upon them his innocence, he would be jailed undoubtedly. Thus, Al decides to ditch Haskell’s body and purports to be Haskell for the remainder of the journey to Hollywood; just in case he is confronted (Al also takes Haskell’s wallet and trades his suit for Haskell’s to convey legitimacy).

Later on, while Al is stopped to refuel, he offers a ride to a woman waiting by the side of the road. This woman, Vera, happened to have had an encounter with Charles Haskell that had been related to Al during his time in Haskell’s car. As such, Vera realizes that Al has taken over Haskell’s belongings and automobile; logically, she accuses him of murder and theft. Vera’s presence alters the course of Al’s journey: he cannot easily dismiss her because she knows of his connection to Haskell. Since Vera too has reason to stay off the police’s radar, she employs Al in devious moneymaking schemes and Al resigns himself to cooperation.

Al is inextricably linked to Haskell, who he conceivably murdered, and to Vera. The classic Hollywood narrative is disrupted by the presence of fate, which appears to remove Al’s causal agency. The link between Al, Vera, and fated is explicated via dialogue, and in a rather direct way. Prior to Al picking up Vera along the side of the road, Al narrates: “Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you. ” That statement forebodingly predicts what is to come. Later, during a quarrel typical of Al and Vera’s relationship in the film, Vera warns Al: “People knock themselves out trying to buck fate.

By stripping Al of his agency and introducing a narrative driven by “fate,” Detour toys with the classic Hollywood narrative form. The ending of Detour cements the film as one that is enjoyable because of the processes involved in the narrative, along with the unique and perfectly played characters. To elaborate, the final scene, that of Al being picked up by the police as he walks along the highway (back to New York), disrupts the satisfaction the rest of the film had delivered. It seems tacked on, and it does not further the interesting ideas employed earlier in the film.

The bulk of the film highlighted the arbitrary, devilishly cruel work of so-called “fate. ” There was no need for the filmmakers to have Al picked up by the police at the end. If anything, the filmmakers should have showed the beginning of another coincidental, horrible pitfall for Al and then rolled the credits. The ending could be viewed as an attempt by the filmmakers to achieve closure with an ideological message. If this is the case, the message could be that no bad deed goes unpunished by the law (assuming that the deaths of Haskell and Vera were not as accidental as they appeared).

Possibly, the ending was a metaphor for the desire of an ordered society, one in which mystery and ambiguity is nonexistent. There is, though, an obvious drawback to this conclusion. Knowing that this film was made in 1945, one can conclude that the ending was appended unnecessarily because of the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code). One needs to look no further than the first “General Principle” promulgated in the MPPC: “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin. Evidently, there might have been some pressure from the censors that caused the tacky ending. The arbitrary turns in the narrative point to another way in which Detour eschews the standards of classical Hollywood cinema: in this film, material is not dominated by content. Again, it seems that way in the beginning, as it appears that a straightforward journey narrative is forthcoming. The derailment of Al’s journey by mysterious, illogical forces, however, takes Detour out of the classical Hollywood ideal of a dominant, logical narrative construct.

The makers of Detour acknowledged that the medium of film can be better served by offering interesting ideas, meditations on the nature of reality and the world we live in, without privileging content over the possibilities of filmmaking. There is yet another way in which Detour averts its focus from the classical Hollywood style, at least some of the time: the means of production – or the “Being” – of cinema is not hidden in certain places. In one of the opening scenes, Al’s fingers are not even touching the keys as he plays a ditty on the piano. In classical Hollywood’s attempt at realistic portrayal, this gaff would never have happened.

Conversely, at different points throughout the film, there is a saxophone being played. Initially, it can be dismissed as simply part of the soundtrack. Later, however, while Al and Vera are cooped up in their rented apartment in Hollywood, Al begs for the saxophonist to cease playing because the music is bothering him. Thus, the saxophone music is presented to be part of the “real” happenings in the film. Even as a “B” movie, Detour is an immensely likable film. The film is traditional, yet contoured in all the right ways. This implores the viewer to consider fate, as well as to laugh about it.

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