This Gun For Hire (1942): The Film Which Won Alan Ladd His Stardom

by Paul Batters

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Gates: “You must have a girl or…friend?” 

Raven: “Why?”

Gates: “Live alone, work alone, hey?”

Hollywood will often cater film around its’ stars – after all, it’s a business wanting to make profits and a sure-fire way of doing so is give audiences what they want. The studio system drove but was also sustained by the system of stars that audiences clambered to see on the silver screen. Hollywood has also faced the criticism of being conservative (and perhaps even more so today!) where films that were safe, focusing on star personas rather than taking risks, were suffered by stars who hated being pigeon-holed. There are many stories of actors such as Humphrey Bogart and actresses like Bette Davis who either felt stifled or even fought the system for better roles.

But there is something else that excites audiences and that is the emergence of a new star, especially when that emergence was unexpected. Alan Ladd was such a star and the war era film noir classic This Gun For Hire (1942) was the film.

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The title of the film itself speaks volumes in terms of the usual tropes to be found in film noir. And if it reflected any of the characters in the film, it without a doubt is both the calling card and epitaph for Phillip Raven (Alan Ladd), a professional hitman who is double-crossed by his employer Willard Gates (the brilliant Laird Cregar). After Gates pays Raven in marked bills, the crooked businessman claims the money as stolen and police detective Michael Crane (Robert Preston) is put on the case. Crane’s beautiful girlfriend Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) is a nightclub performer, who ends up working for Gates in one of his L.A clubs but will discover more than she bargained for.

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As in all things noir, the film develops into a tale driven by fear, mistrust, misunderstanding and the paranoia which was all pervading in the climate of World War Two. Raven not only becomes a man on the run from the law but a man with nowhere to go. His past is one of pain and personal anguish, enduring betrayal and hardening to its’ impacts. Raven is a man seemingly not given to warmth or sentimentality, yet his interactions with a stray cat, which he feels an affinity with, suggests something more. Like a cat, Raven is a loner, not relying on anyone to survive and walking in the shadows. Forever the loner, Raven is not the society type.

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His moments with Ellen are ones where he almost sheds his armour, suggesting a man who is not completely far gone. True, some of the pop psychology a la Freud bleed into the development of Raven’s character – the poor abused boy who is a victim of circumstance at every turn – and there is the danger of cliché. Yet somehow it works, and Ladd has us believing his personal narrative. In essence, Ladd is portraying one of the first anti-heroes, and is a trailblazer for the next generation of actors who would make their name playing the anti-hero. In many ways, it would also be a problem for a Hollywood firmly under the auspices of the Code.

Phillip Raven is also a man who is immersed completely in his dark world as a killer and has no qualms about pulling the trigger. His gun is the only thing that he trusts, and he has found this out the hard way. In this case, the betrayal of his employer will catapult him into a more dangerous world, where espionage will test his mettle. But the audience is under no false pretences of the nature of Phillip Raven. In essence, he is a terrible individual who has killed innocent people as well as those who perhaps ‘deserve’ their fate. Ladd’s portrayal is cold and brutal when we see him carry out his first hit. His eyes are piercing, betraying at hint of triumph just before he dispatches his victim. The cold professional is even more marked when the victim’s mistress enters the room and with a chilling monotone, Raven says “They said he’d be alone”,before he shoots the woman through a door she has found refuge behind.  Even Ellen, the woman with whom he has formed some connection, is only saved from being killed by a timely turning point in the story.

Both Raven and Ellen are drawn together through the element of fate, a powerful trope in film noir, by their association with Gates – Raven as a hired killer for the man, Ellen hired as a singer in one of his clubs. Both are thrown into circumstances neither have asked for and yet their fates are intertwined. He becomes her rescuer and then her captor during the film’s later desperate moments. Yet Ellen still tries to help him, moved by his personal revelations as well as hoping to appeal to something deeper within him.

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Ladd carries the weight of the film from a lower-billed position, way above his tournament ranking. The cliché that he ‘steals the picture’ rings true, with a performance finely tuned into the lone killer, driven by personal fears and mistrust. Despite the knowledge that Raven is a professional killer, the audience is hoping for his eventual escape from his predicament. Indeed, despite Raven being a killer, he is not an anomaly in the world of film noir. He may be an outlaw on the run, but he is betrayed by a so-called respectable businessman and drawn into a world of corruption, espionage and blackmail.

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And despite everything – all the toughness, cold-heartedness and gunplay, Raven shows that he cares for Ellen.

The chemistry between Ladd and the gorgeous Veronica Lake works wonders on the screen. Lake is more than a one-trick pony and this reviewer has seen some unkind remarks about her ability as an actress. She proves those critics wrong, playing the singer with a loving and sympathetic heart, and looking gorgeous all the while. It’s no mistake that the two would be paired again in other film noir classics.

The storyline for This Gun For Hire is slightly preposterous and the coincidences hard to swallow. Yet the audience is content to put that aside, thanks to Ladd and his interactions with Veronica Lake. Director Frank Tuttle does keep the film tight and well-paced, as well as beautifully shot. Robert Preston is solid, as are the supporting cast, although Marc Lawrence as Tommy is perhaps underused.

However, Ladd deserves all the attention he received for his performance. It would be ground-breaking for the young actor and the critics raved about the emergence of this new star. His partnering with Veronica Lake would become the basis for some other great films and one of the hallmark partnerships in the pantheon of film noir. This Gun For Hire will keep you riveted till the very end, thanks to the iconic performance delivered by Alan Ladd.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history. 

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Fatalism and Futility in Film Noir

by Paul Batters

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‘Murder’s never perfect. Always comes apart sooner or later, and when two people are involved it’s usually sooner’ – Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) Double Indemnity (1944)

Film noir was not a specific reaction to the glamour of Hollywood but an organic creation, evolving over time and stemming from a variety of creators. There have been numerous arguments, discussions and essays written about how film noir can be qualified – whether it is a genre, a style or a combination of both. Perhaps the best approach is to see film noir as R. Barton Palmer describes it – as being a ‘transgeneric phenomenon’ as it has existed ‘through a number of related genres whose most important common threads were a concern with criminality . . . and with social breakdown’. Purists suggest that film noir is a classic period from a specific time frame. Others have suggested that film noir is ever present in cinema or the very least, many of the conventions of noir are. (Yes, I appreciate the irony of using the term ‘conventions’).

However, it is beyond dispute that film noir is meant to disorient, challenge and subvert. Our sense of morality, the desire for truth and meaning and especially the very human sense of hope are all on trial in the innermost courtrooms of our minds. It achieves this in numerous ways – all which stir up powerful emotions in the audience, drawn from our own experiences with the characters. The aim of this essay is not to particularly examine how this is done but to consider what is evoked and examined in film noir – in particular the elements of fatalism and futility.

Humanity’s deepest desires are to escape our ultimate fate, find our dreams and realise our greatest hopes. However, as the title suggests film noir does not seek to comfort its’ audience and suggest that dreams can come true. In this dark and non-linear world, cynicism, alienation and despair are dominant. People do good things for the wrong reasons and vice versa. This is a world of insecurity and the people who live in it are not straightforward or recognisable in terms of classic narrative structures. They are broken, twisted and damaged – yet we travel with them on their doomed journeys. Their own hopes are not dissimilar to ours – security, stability, freedom and even love. But they seek it in far different ways – through graft, betrayal, crime and murder. Whilst film noir does not strictly intend to be a morality tale, the very nature of that world results in the protagonists being doomed to failure. As Aeon J. Skoble points out in his essay ‘Moral Clarity and Practical Reason in Film Noir’, ‘killers are killed, cheaters are busted, and thieves go to prison’. Film noir is a world where the grip of fatalism around the protagonists is firm and unrelenting and all pursuits are bound and defined as exercises in futility.

Even the titles of films in the world of noir are highly suggestive of the inherent fatalism that all will not end well for the protagonists. The Killers (1946), The Big Sleep (1946), Born To Kill (1947), Kiss Of Death (1947), Force Of Evil (1948), Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Touch Of Evil (1958) speak for themselves. The Asphalt Jungle (1948) insinuates a hard and harsh world, populated by wild beasts fighting for survival. I Walk Alone (1948) Abandoned (1949) and In A Lonely Place (1950) evokes isolation and alienation from the larger world. Detour (1945) suggests that one’s path is never straight and that bad choices lead to doom – of course the actual story itself is ambiguous when looking at the concept of choice, with the protagonist/narrator stating that fate has determined his path. The Big Steal (1949) evokes the heist film or money chase but also suggests a finality that is ever-present in film noir; that one last job will set the protagonists up for life. Black Angel (1946), Blonde Ice (1948) and Black Widow (1954) are naturals in announcing the femme fatale, as well as the all-pervading motif of darkness and danger. There’s even a hint of sadism and that love and sex bring death – again in some of the aforementioned titles as well as Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Beware, My Lovely (1952).

Fatalism in film noir is particularly evident through the narrative technique of the protagonist as narrator. As they tell their story, the folly of their choices become more than evident in the tone, language and wisdom allowed through the retrospect of the telling. The protagonist often does so whilst facing their eventual demise either through death or a prison sentence, with a total acceptance of their fate and realisation of the futility of their actions. Dying from a bullet wound, Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) in Double Indemnity (1944) sits alone at night in his office recounting his story on a Dictaphone to his boss and friend Keyes, with only a desk light effectively illuminating the scene. The fatalist overtones are clear and frank, with Walter stating his crimes and motivation, in short and simple language:

NEFF: I Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.

As the story is told, the audience watches his slide into the darkness and despite his own initial repulsion and awareness of what is coming, Neff knows he will be seduced by what he should run from. Again, the fatalist overtones are clear and Neff is astute enough to recognize the danger once he is in too deep:

NEFF: Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it’s true, so help me. I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.

The first person narrator channeling fatalism and futility can be found elsewhere in film noir. Frank Chambers (John Garfield) in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) is sitting in a prison cell awaiting execution. In Detour (1945), Al Roberts (Tom Neal) sits at a roadside café, awaiting his fate. In D.O.A (1950), Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) is an accountant dying from being poisoned, telling the police that he’s been ‘murdered’. There are even protagonists who speak from the beyond! Think of the corpse of Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating in a pool at the end of Sunset Boulevard (1950). As an audience, we are prepared for the inevitable but our interest is powerfully aroused and there is always room in our collective curiosity as to whether the protagonist will worm their way out or somehow escape their fate.

Fatalism and futility are perhaps most present in film noir, where the protagonists try to leave past sins behind, start afresh and live a normal life. In Kiss Of Death, former crook and informant Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) seems to find happiness with his wife and two children, living in a modest home and working in a modest job. Yet Nick’s past, personified by the maniacal Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) searches him out for ‘ratting’ on him. Threatening his newfound harmony, Nick must face the challenge if he and his family are ever to find peace. In Act Of Violence (1948), Frank Enley (Van Heflin) is a war veteran and former Nazi collaborator facing a similar dilemma, desperately wanting to leave behind a cowardly past and move forward only to be menaced by Joe Parkson (Robert Ryan), who suffered at the hands of the Nazis after Frank informed on him. In both cases, a price needs to be paid yet as often happens in film noir, the questions emerge – what is that price and how often must one pay? Again, the futility of finding peace and stability is emphasised and escape from one’s sins is extremely rare. As Al Roberts (Tom Neal) prophetically states in Detour, ‘whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you’.

Crime Wave (1954) is a solid example of the former criminal trying to ‘make good’ but Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) is an ex-con who has gone straight, supported by an understanding and loving wife Ellen (Phyllis Kirk) and his parole officer. One fateful night, some former criminal associates seek him out for refuge after pulling a job. He wants no part of them and bitterly ruminates over his life, that no matter how hard he tries, his past will never let him rest. Sure enough, things get worse when a tough cop Detective Lieutenant Sims (Sterling Hayden) hauls him in, despite all the protestations from his wife and parole officer. Sims’ philosophy is ‘once a crook, always a crook’. Steve accepts his fate, despite knowing he’s innocent and even tells his wife to get out of town. Walking a fine line between his criminal past and a more secure and peaceful future, Steve does find his way out of trouble. It is not entirely a rare moment in film noir for the protagonist to find peace but that does not mean he or she will not be sorely tested by fate and be overwhelmed by feelings of despair and the forces of futility.

Despite a world heavily populated by criminals and defined by crime, violence and questionable morality, it would be a mistake to assume that they shape and form the key protagonists in film noir. Indeed, many of the central characters in film noir are ‘average people’; they are by definition the audience themselves – people with families working everyday jobs and often existing in mediocrity and anonymity. The concept of the ‘everyman’ comes to the fore – and even the private detective reflects this. It is this aspect of film noir that is perhaps the most interesting and highlights how fatalism and futility both render their omnipresence. What fascinates us are two fundamental questions – how did they end up in such a bad way and what pushed an average nobody into a darker and dangerous world? In Detour, Al Roberts is a piano player travelling to Los Angeles to meet with his singer girlfriend and accepts a ride on the way from a man named William Haskell (who as in all things noir is not what he appears to be). However, his driver is killed in a freak moment and afraid of the consequences, Al not only covers up Haskell’s death but he also assumes the dead driver’s identity and acquires his car. The hand of fate delivers Al into a terrible situation and his poor choice at that crucial moment will lead him to his doom. At the moment Al imagines he has gotten away with it, the woman he is giving a lift to, Vera (Ann Savage) reveals she knows what he is up to and takes him on a more devastating ride than he would have bargained for. Like a harridan, Vera is vengeance personified but she too will be at the centre of the second freak event, which will seal Al’s doom. As the narrator telling his story in retrospect, fatalism is at the very core of the story from the very beginning of its’ telling and Al recognises the futility in trying to beat the hand that is dealt by fate. Again, Al’s discovered wisdom rings like a death knell as he says ‘Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all’.

Likewise, Sorry Wrong Number (1948), which highlights both elements of fatalism and futility, is a taut crime story peppered with deeper psychological tropes. Henry Stevenson (Burt Lancaster) is married to bedridden heiress Leona (Barbara Stanwyck). Coming from a poor industrial town, with a bleak childhood, Henry’s life has been non-descript and as he points out to Leona after they first meet ‘there’s nothing nice about my life’. There is an edge to Henry that suggests he wants more but sees no way of getting out of his situation. This changes after he marries Leona and a new world opening up for him. Despite his domineering father-in-law making Henry vice-president of the Cotterell pharmaceutical company, Henry wants to be his own man. He makes a number of legitimate attempts to do so but they are all ridiculed and thwarted by his wife and father-in-law. But burning with ambition, he turns to crime and he talks about ‘dreaming big’, finally corrupting one of the company’s employees to assist him in his endeavours. Though not explained explicitly, Henry is dealing in drugs, stepping into a far darker and dangerous world, specifically because he is in business with mobsters. Biting off more than he can chew, Henry even goes so far as to plan his wife’s murder for the insurance payout in order to appease the mobsters he has tried to double-cross in the process of his loftier ambition. Henry’s dreams have pushed him into a nightmare of his own making. Not only have his actions been futile, so too have they drawn others into their own doom, including Leona and the employee he has corrupted.

Perhaps most interesting in Sorry Wrong Number is the minor but crucially important character of the corrupted employee, Waldo Evans. Close to retirement, the meek, unassuming and respectable chemist is the model employee who has worked for Cotterell for years. The bespectacled and quiet-spoken Waldo also has his dreams – to finally retire comfortably in his homeland of England, with a small property where he can enjoy some horses. He admits to having tempted fate, speculating savings but failing in the attempt, and accepts that the best way to reach his goal is put a little away each week until he retires. Waldo perhaps represents us as the audience more closely than we imagine. We, too, can be tempted by the occasional gamble in the hope of escaping mundane jobs and achieving financial security for life, as Waldo admits to doing. Yet he also finds himself corrupted and is nudged into the shadows, succumbing to the seduction of serious money. Unlike Henry, however, there is a stoic recognition of the futility of his choices and the finality of what is to come. There is no hysteria or desperation in Waldo and he gives his final address as the ‘city morgue’, knowing full well that death is coming, with a calm and even formal acceptance. As he relays his finals whereabouts on the phone, Waldo is completely enveloped in darkness, indicating the finality of being pushed out of the light and that he is lost to his black fate.

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Al Roberts, Henry Stevenson and Waldo Evans are three very different characters with different motivations. However none of them are crooks, gangsters or conmen who are used to lives of violence and crime. Yet what unites all three is that they are men who have made very poor choices and are going to pay the price.

Likewise, we find ourselves puzzled how intelligent, educated and socially conservative characters find themselves lured into a personal hell. In The Woman In The Window (1944), late middle-aged Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson), who is happily married with a family, finds himself taken by the portrait of a beautiful woman and seeks her out. The combination of sexual allure and romantic idealism draws the Professor into a terrible nightmare, which he desperately seeks to escape. In D.O.A, Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) is an accountant, poisoned by an unknown assailant at a bar. There is no antidote to the poison and Frank races the clock to find his murderer and his motive. Waldo Evans in Sorry Wrong Number is a chemist. In Where Danger Lives (1950), Dr. Jeff Cameron (Robert Mitchum) is a doctor who runs away with a dangerous femme fatale. Even those who should ‘know better’ are not immune from human frailty, and discover that stepping into the shadows will result in failure and eventuate their own downfall.

Yet within film noir there are characters that do embrace the futility of life and accept the fate that life has dealt them – to some degree. There are two narrative conventions, in terms of character, that best embody this. Neither are explicit staple characters in film noir but they certainly are the most recognisable.

The first is the private detective – perhaps the most definitive character in film noir. A ‘knight in tarnished armour’, the private detective is cynicism at its’ best. Life seems to have no meaning or purpose and whilst there is some element of moral code still present within, the private dick’s key drive is to serve his client and get paid. His morality is ambiguous and his decisions are even questionable. In The Maltese Falcon (1941), Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is not the stand up guy we would like him to be – he’s been having an affair with his partner’s wife. Early in the film, he even shrugs off the death of his partner, although he does admit a sense of code that the murder of his partner means that he ‘supposed to do something about it’. He also has no qualms in eventually turning his lover Brigid (Mary Astor) over to the police. Admittedly, he considers all the elements and decides to do the right thing but perhaps more of out of pragmatism and prudence. Spade reasons that Brigid would always ‘have something over him’ and that ultimately she could one day turn on him. Not wanting to play ‘the sap’, as Spade calls it, sees him revealing the sublime understanding that not only is trust an unrewarding virtue but love is an exercise in futility. Indeed, trust is a certain path to betrayal and perhaps even death. Staying alone, guarded and isolated is far safer than ending up as a ‘sap’. The moment he falls in love is the moment that he is doomed. In film noir, the private detective usually escapes this fate but is destined to remain a loner. There may be the occasional and casual sexual liaison, as exhibited when Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) engages with the bookshop attendant in The Big Sleep and he will even partake in romantic involvement with a client. But a loner shall the private detective remain. He even drinks alone, with alcohol acting as both escape and armour, in response to a world he views with a deep cynical guardedness, passing as casual acceptance of life’s futility. For the private detective, there are no pretences or need for social graces and, more importantly he doesn’t care what others think. As Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) states in The Big Sleep, “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. I don’t like them myself. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them long winter evenings”. Sarcasm is part of the armour but far more important is his detachment – a sure-fire example of his isolation. Jerold J. Abrams uses the brilliant analogy of the world of noir being a labyrinth. It’s a maze from which there is no escape, even if the Minotaur is slayed and ‘the hard-boiled detective knows as much—and self-consciously accepts his own isolated fate…’ Futility and fatalism are fused into one powerful entity in this instance.

The second is the femme fatale – the other definitive character in film noir. As the title suggests, this is a woman that is dangerous, poisonous and seductive; indeed, ‘fatal’ to men. All misogyny and feminist interpretation aside, the femme fatale, like the private dick is cynical in the extreme – forgoing love and relationships, outside of using her sexuality to secure stability. Love has long been forgone and she is always looking for the next ride, once she has tired of the one she is on. Trust is something she will never respect or embrace – one, because she, herself, is deeply untrustworthy and two, because she too has often been betrayed and any belief in trust has long soured. Marriage never means long-term security, as husbands are disposed of and new lovers are seduced, usually in the process of doing the disposing. However, unlike the private dick, she keeps looking for ‘happiness’ and there is a futility in this, as the femme fatale is doomed to never find it – mainly because she has no idea what she is looking for. Her road to happiness is strewn with wrecked men and the remnants of her own damaged psyche, and in the end she never finds happiness, as her lies and crimes find her out. The femme fatale is doomed to failure and here the fatalist nature of film noir is particularly evident. Interestingly enough, the femme fatale is also doomed when she falls in love. In Double Indemnity, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) uses manipulation and murder in a long existing pattern that her lover Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) eventually discovers. Not only are both wrapped up in the murder of her husband but also in an investigation by the insurance company that Walter works for. Playing it safe and being cautious, Walter warns Phyllis they need to be careful. Yet Phyllis will have none of it, even warning Walter that ‘nobody is getting off’, paraphrasing an earlier statement by Walter’s boss and friend Keyes (Edward G. Robinson). Phyllis seems to accept that they are doomed, although there are other machinations she has put into play, which will see Walter pay. But for Phyllis, the unthinkable happens during a climactic moment when she shoots Walter. Her mask drops and truth spills from her, admitting to Walter that she’s rotten to the core and that she loves him. It’s a moment of rare honesty and Phyllis exclaims with incredulity that ‘I never thought that could happen’. Not only does this reveal the regularity of her games but more importantly, love has stripped Phyllis of her armour and weaponry. The femme fatale is no more and Phyllis begs Walter to hold her, as he pushes the gun into her and fires.

It is easy to assume that the Production Code would have enforced filmmakers to afford ‘bad endings’ to the protagonists who do ‘bad things’. There is certainly a truth to this and film-makers could simply not escape this reality of the film-making process during the era of the Code. However, this misses the point of what underpins film noir’s dark world. They are not necessarily intended to be strict morality tales, even though an audience may learn as much from film noir. ‘Crime doesn’t pay’ is a cliché that may pervade storylines in film noir but beyond the surface glance of this statement exist depths and nuances that are far more interesting. Fatalism and futility are firmly attached to this concept, as those about to face their demise, often do so with little or no resistance. Escape from retribution may be futile but connected to this is something far graver – the pointlessness of existence. Waldo Evans in Sorry Wrong Number calmly awaits his death. Ole Andersen (Burt Lancaster) in The Killers (1946) hardly bothers to heed the warning of his coming assassins and knows he will be killed. The Maltese Falcon finds this idea permeating at every level – the hard-boiled Sam Spade is never fazed not because he’s a tough guy but because he recognises the futility of all pursuits and is guarded in his choices. The final discovery that the Falcon, which all the key players have been chasing, is a fake, best exemplifies the concept of ‘crime doesn’t pay’ wrapped up in thick layers of fatalism and futility. The chase has all been for nought, with a ridiculously huge price to pay and even Spade chuckles to himself, acknowledging the futility of it all. An inverted world of crime and darkness does seek to find balance not in terms of conventional morality but by its’ own rules and codes. ‘Rats’ and ‘welchers’ need to get what’s coming to them, with vengeance and retribution personified by maniacs (Tommy Udo in Kiss Of Death), hitmen and cold, business-like gangsters (Morano in Sorry Wrong Number). The femme fatale serves justice to those foolish enough to trust her and fall in love with her – and especially those who reject her. That does not mean that conventional morals, values and norms have no place in film noir – of course they do, as is evident in a number of films. But the protagonists usually find doom and death, not because of the Production Code demanding it in the last reel, but because in the world of film noir, nobody escapes the fate of those who step into the darkness.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Raw Noir – A Look At Edgar G Ulmer’s Detour (1945)

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‘Until then I had done things my way, but from then on something stepped in and shunted me off to a different destination than the one I’d picked for myself’. 

Cinema has films that punch way above their weight. They are the antitheses of the blockbusters that fail miserably despite star director and cast, big budget and even bigger promotion. With minimal budget, sometimes an unknown or untested director and accompanying cast, a film can surprise everyone from critics to audiences. They can even endure – even if the film is an anomaly.

Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) is such an anomaly.

As the legend goes, Detour was a ‘Poverty Row’ production riddled with mistakes from PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation), shot in six days with a $20,000 budget.

The truth is a little different. The budget was a little more than the legend has it and it appears that the shooting time was a little longer as well. Another important detail; Detour wasn’t directed by some cowboy with a penchant for guerrilla filming and film-school experimentation. Instead, the man at the helm was Edgar. G. Ulmer, whose experience included working with legendary greats such as F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, as well as directing The Black Cat (1934) at Universal with Karloff and Lugosi. However, Ulmer was a director who worked on the sidelines of the industry; never breaking through and often working on films whose right to exist is arguable.

Yet the fact remains that despite the truth of its’ making being slightly exaggerated, there were huge limitations in terms of budget and time.

So what makes Detour special?

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Running at just under 70 minutes, Detour exudes all the elements of film noir. Its’ themes, characters and raw imagery draws an audience in tight and does not let go, long after the final titles have faded from the screen. It is easy to look at its’ faults, which have been discussed at length many times over elsewhere. In this article, I will focus on what makes Detour a film that should be on everyone’s list of classic film noir. And I will try to do so without spoilers! But of course there are no guarantees…

Detour is the story of Al Roberts, (Tom Neal) a down-and-out pianist, trying to make it to Los Angeles to reunite with his beloved singer girlfriend, Sue. (Claudia Drake). From the start, Detour is from his perspective and narrates his story, with a greater wisdom and understanding for having lived it. As he sits in a truck-stop cafe, he appears as a tortured soul thinking back upon his incredible ordeal and going back over the sordid details. Al represents the everyman in the world of film noir – a guy who either by fate or poor choice finds himself in a dark, nightmarish world from which he is fighting to emerge. The male protagonist seems to find himself out of his depth and facing obstacles he is not equipped to deal with. Here, Ulmer utilises lighting with the aesthetic quality of film noir, highlighting the isolation and loneliness of Roberts in his predicament as he sits in a well-lit noisy cafe. Dark shadow surrounds Roberts like a fog, a darkness only he can feel and see. A light shines on his eyes, accentuating the pain he feels inside revealed through his eyes, as he looks back and tells his story.

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The old adage ‘sink or swim’ comes to the fore and thus the male protagonist needs to be a quick learner, if he wants to survive. Not only does he need to dodge, avoid and get past the obstacles, he needs to learn what they are in the first place. Al Roberts creates his own obstacles, out of fear and frustration. Yet like the quintessential noir anti-hero, Roberts doesn’t blame his choices and places responsibility on the incredulous outcomes of his circumstances. In what is probably one of the greatest lines in film noir, Roberts utters what encapsulates the very essence of what is at the core of the world of noir;

Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you’.

Yet Roberts is not exactly a naïve and innocent man without his own personal frustrations lighting a fire of discontent within his soul. A seemingly talented piano player, he plays in clubs where ‘you could have a sandwich and a few drinks and run interference for your girl on the dance floor’. The bitterness in his tone is more than evident; he’s a man unfulfilled and even when he’s given ‘a ten spot after a request, I couldn’t get very excited. What was it I asked myself? A piece of paper crawling with germs. Couldn’t buy anything I wanted’.

Just what is it that he wants? Here Ulmer employs something better than dialogue. He allows the audience to fill in the blanks, inserting their own shattered dreams, real life frustrations and struggles to get by and projecting them onto Al Roberts. Thus, his journey truly becomes ours. Which is why Al Roberts comprises the many facets of the everyman and the very essence of the male protagonist in film noir. His inability to change his circumstances taunts him but like any fool, he blames everything else around him, refusing to see or deal with his own inadequacies. This personal fault will doom him to the nightmare that will take hold.

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Roberts hitchhikes a lift with William Haskell, who as he later finds out is not all he claims to be. Haskell has money and a nice car and luck seems to be going Roberts’ way. But one fateful moment during the night, Roberts will find himself at a crossroad, which offers no clear, easy or simple way out. On the surface of things, it is fate that has brought him here but it is Al Roberts that bears the weight of his own choice.

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There is some foreshadowing that is well employed and again highlights the impact that fate has on the protagonist. Whilst earlier riding with Haskell, Roberts notices some nasty wounds on Haskell’s hand. Haskell mentions that they were caused by the most dangerous animal of all; a woman. All misogyny aside, Roberts seems at first shocked but then none too surprised when it appears the woman in question was fending off Haskell’s determined advances. In the world of Detour, a woman is either a ‘Sunday school teacher’ or a whore. There is no in-between. Roberts could not in his wildest dreams, imagine how fortuitous Haskell’s vague warning could be.

The only bright spot in Robert’s life is Sue, blonde, beautiful and true to her man (as far as we know – after all we only have his word for it!). From his point of view, Sue is wholesome and sweet, an image to which he constantly returns as narrator when telling parts of the story in retrospect. Sue becomes an even greater contrast to the woman he will become caught up with.

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Of all the dangerous women in film noir, Vera would be arguably the most vicious. Unlike Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944), whose danger and calculation is masked by her sultry seductiveness, Vera hides nothing and her raw emotion seethes and burns. Unlike the typical femme fatale, Vera’s physicality overwhelms and dominates Al Roberts, emasculating him at every turn, with her wild, wide eyes that carve him up every time he even thinks about getting away from her. With a hard voice that betrays nothing, Vera hasn’t the time nor the inclination to resort to seducing Roberts with soft words and sexual undertones. Instead, she tears at him with a ragged-edged tongue that rasps with a harshness that confirms Vera has had a tough time.

After Roberts picks her up in the car he has appropriated, she steps in and looks forward with a gaze of self-loathing, avoiding questions as if she is distracted by what has been behind her. She offers nothing when asked where she’s from other than ‘back there’; her tone indicating that ‘back there’ wasn’t so good and she would rather forget about it. Her self-hatred is almost pitiful when she responds to Roberts making small talk about her looking like a girl from Phoenix, responding with ‘are the girls in Phoenix that bad?’

But there is more to Vera and she knows exactly what Roberts has done and what he is up to. It seems impossible that Roberts could have picked up the one person who could send him to the gas chamber. Despite Roberts’ denials of any wrong doing, Vera attacks him with a harsh dose of reality and a deeper revelation of who she is:

‘…who do you think you’re talking to – a hick? Listen Mister, I been around, and I know a wrong guy when I see one. What’d you do, kiss him with a wrench?’

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There are the rare, occasional moments where Vera softens and reaches out to Roberts. Whilst staying at a hotel, she has a bath and perhaps the ritual significance removes some of the inner pain and anger she holds against life and herself. She even tries to give him some useful advice, ironically offering more than he realizes stating that ‘people knock themselves out trying to buck fate’. A moment later, her hard face falls and she speaks of people dying who would give anything to trade places with him. Her voice also softens as she reaches out and touches his arm, holding it while pleading him to listen, for she ‘knows what I’m talking about’. Rejecting her advice, Vera returns to type with her hard persona returning telling Roberts that his ‘philosophy stinks, pal!’ Later, he mentions to Vera the literary character Camille as her consistent cough returns. She seems touched by his concerns and again that self-loathing and complete lack of self-worth overcomes her as she says what a break it would be if she did die. Roberts states he doesn’t want to see anybody die and she takes a step closer to him, hoping against futility that somebody might actually care about her. She wants to be liked, even loved, yet unable to accept that possibility finds it easier to be hard and vicious. Yet she reaches out again to Roberts, placing her hand on Roberts’ shoulder and indicating quite clearly what she wants when she utters that she’s going to bed. It would be easy to suggest an array of possibilities as to her intentions; a simple hunger for straight sex from a woman from the gutter, a hurt and pained woman needing physical connection to ease her pain, another way of manipulating Roberts or perhaps she feels something for him and wants him. My personal feeling is the latter and the pain and anger she feels after his rejection of her advances certainly bears evidence to that intention. How many times has she been rejected and cast aside? Ulmer reveals more about the characters through what he does not reveal. Certainly one of the greatest strengths of Detour.

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Vera’s darker side prevails and any warmth that she may possess sours rapidly. She intends to use Roberts to the very last. Of all the problems Roberts has, Vera has become the worst and his attempts to unravel himself from her will result in a situation beyond the nightmare that he has found himself in. Again, Ulmer’s use of foreshadowing becomes evident when Vera meets a fate, which Roberts earlier claimed he dreaded and would only make things worse for him. Just how much worse becomes evident in the way Vera’s fate is realized and how Roberts own hand in the process mirrors what happened earlier with Haskell – two unbelievable turning points in the story which stretch incredulity beyond its’ measure. Yet Ulmer draws two impossible occurrences into the realm of believability and they drive the story forward. Detour is a fine test to the necessity of suspension of disbelief.

Ann Savage’s performance deserves to be honored as one of the finest in film; a gritty and powerful portrayal of not just a fallen or dangerous woman but also a damaged human wrought bad by the hard knocks of life.

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Ed Howard in his 2011 piece on Detour for an ‘Only The Cinema’ blogathon perfectly encapsulates Ulmer’s direction as ‘ragged poetry’. There could not be a more fitting description for what the audience experiences on the screen. Ulmer uses film technique in the way a poet employs figurative language and powerful imagery. It would be easy to dismiss the rawness of the film as poor work or a very tight budget approach to the filming process. But that would be missing the point. Detour does not intend to have the glossy, stylized atmosphere of a major studio release. It is supposed to be rough and rugged – befitting the bleak story and damaged people within it. The dark highway, roadhouse cafes inhabited by all kinds of disreputable characters deserve no less.

Ulmer perfectly illustrates Roberts’ confusion and fear during his moments of horror. The mise en scène revealing his first fatal choice is pure classic noir; the use of flashback with Roberts’ panicked narration, as he stands in the pouring rain; his face a mask of torment as his hand runs back over his head. Even as he recounts his story, the audience feels the raw horror of the moment and the dramatic music score heightens the drama. 

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Additionally, the use of music in the film successfully underpins Roberts’ journey, not only appropriate to the moment but adding a greater quality. Often a foreshadowing to what will come, Ulmer also uses music to amplify Roberts’ dirty conscience. During a dream sequence after that fateful night, Ulmer’s supposed limitations in terms of technique are more than overcome, as images of what has occurred torment Roberts’ tortured mind, while the musical score reinforces his distress. Alternatively, at one point after picking up Vera, Roberts begins to rationalize that his problems will work out and he will be in the clear. The music matches his optimism, as he imagines himself reunited with his girlfriend Sue in L.A believing his ‘nightmare will be over’. Yet the music snaps us back into the nightmare, when Vera starts questioning Roberts, knowing he’s up to something and the truth to who he is pretending to be. At the climax of the film, Roberts’ guilty and tortured conscience is further tormented by the sound of a saxophone playing, which he points out is ‘not a love song, it was a dirge’.

Roberts’ recounting of his story, as first person narrator, is all classic noir. The fatalistic tone of his first person narration during the flashbacks drives the story forward and colors the dark, grittiness with deeper greys and layers of confusion. Moreover, as he recounts his story, Roberts relives the emotion of that moment because it is as real as the moment it happened, perhaps even moreso as the full weight of the consequences he must face comes down on him. Roberts is consumed by his predicament and he thinks and re-thinks, trying to make sense of the whole situation. He seems to be doubly incredulous as he recounts his journey, especially the turning points of the tale. During the climax, Roberts finds himself in the worst position possible after Vera’s drunkenness brings out the worst in her and she intends to follow through with her threats of giving him up. Roberts dwells on the moment stating that the ‘world is full of sceptics, I know – I’m one myself’ highlighting his earlier fear that no-one will believe him in a courtroom. Ulmer’s camera goes in and out of focus, representing Roberts’ confusion as it focuses on objects that tell the story – Vera’s still face, the phone, her hair brush, a bottle of alcohol – and all while Roberts’ voice over gallops with wild panic. Roger Ebert describes Tom Neal as being able to do little else than pout yet Neal is compelling and his narration brings a raw and unsettling discomfort as we stumble along with him.

Detour is a blueprint for the dialogue of film noir. At every turn, the language is razor sharp and it cracks like a whip, against the bleak, dreary backdrop. Vera, especially, tears Roberts down and kicks him while he’s prone with harsh put-downs, dripping with malice. She even mocks the pseudo- domestic situation they find themselves in with incredible ferocity, telling Roberts at one point as he argues: ‘Shut-up, yer makin’ noises like a husband’. It’s a line of dialogue that speaks volumes. However, Roberts is no slouch when it comes to the fast-talk either. As he argues with Vera over their plans, he fights back at her greediness claiming ‘a couple of day ago you didn’t have a dime. Why you were so broke, you couldn’t pay cash for a postage stamp. But the harshness also gives way for a poetic beauty that haunts the audience with its’ honesty and emotion. As narrator, Roberts states ‘As I drove off, it was still raining and the drops streaked down the windshield like tears’. There are moments when the talk runs close to cliché – yet the overwhelming power of the story drowns any such suggestion. As dialogue should do, the story is paramount and it drives the story but there are layers of emotion that run deep in Detour.

Detour is a classic noir story. Where a man’s mistake will see punishment chase him down and retribution come in the form of a dangerous woman. The turning points drive the story forward yet as the audience we also hit the brakes hard – stunned as we try to contemplate what has just occurred and experiencing the surrealism of Roberts’ mad journey. It is a story told with the language of desperation and shaped by a rough authenticity that gives Detour its’ unique quality. Along with Roberts, we are thrown into a dark, seedy world of highways, truckers’ cafes and two-faced people. We stumble along with him, reminded by his haunting words that fate keeps trying to trip him up.

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As the story reaches its’ ending, it allows for some ambiguity and we are left guessing what Al Roberts’ fate will be, as we return with him to the present. Will he get a dose of ‘that perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers.’?  Will he walk away, when we discover that perhaps he has found a way out, with a touch of irony that I won’t reveal to you here. The Hays Code made very clear that crime could not go unanswered without law and justice. Yet Ulmer wraps it up by leaving us hanging or perhaps leaving the option open for the audience to choose what it wants to believe. After all, Roberts has played that game his whole life, deciding that the mistakes haven’t been his and ‘Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all’.

It is possible to look at any deficiencies in terms of ‘rough film-making’ in Detour but that misses the point. Film noir is feeling and atmosphere more than the strict tenets of genre. It is a powerful mood of pained emotion and fatal passion. A polished and technically Grade A picture may suit the demands of some. But the world of film noir is not polished. Dangerous and doomed characters walk there and they seek redemption in the shadows, unable to find the light they need to guide them out. Al and Vera are such characters – scarred and damaged by the world and simply seeking an out. Detour is a triumph in bringing to life that very world and we are haunted by it, long after we have stepped out of it. It’s managed to do that for the last 71 years.

You can watch the film on the Silver Screen Classics You Tube Channel

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.