Scarlet Street (1945): Joan Bennett – The Dangerous Femme Fatale

by Paul Batters

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How can a man be so dumb… I’ve been waiting to laugh in your face ever since I met you. You’re old and ugly and I’m sick of you…sick, sick, sick! Kitty March (Joan Bennett)

Film noir has always fascinated me. It’s grip on my imagination and my love for classic film has become intertwined, for a whole combination of reasons. Perhaps one of the most fascinating themes that emerges in film noir is how ordinary, everyday and even boring people are drawn into the web of a darker and more dangerous world. It’s why Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945) is one of film noir’s best examinations of that very theme. And why it is also one of Joan Bennett’s exciting roles as the femme fatale, Kitty March, which this article will specifically focus on.

The master director had used the three principal actors – Bennett Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea – the previous year in the superb The Woman In The Window. Such was its’ success and so effective was the combination of the three that Lang brought them back for his screen adaption of Georges de La Fouchardière’s 1931 novel, La Chienne (The Bitch). What Lang created was a film noir masterpiece, with a delving into darkness that leaves the audience breathless in its’ audacity, despite the Breen Code firmly in place. Jeffrey Anderson has claimed that Scarlet Street is perhaps the darkest of Lang’s American films – and he’s probably right.

The story tells of a quiet, meek and placid cashier, Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) who is also henpecked and bullied by his domineering and difficult wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan). Caught in a loveless marriage and an uneventful life, Christopher dreams of a life where there is some affection, love and excitement to break the dull life that he leads. One of the few escapes and joys that he has is art, particularly painting. 

Fate steps in one afternoon, when he comes across Kitty March (Joan Bennett) being menaced by a hood on the street. Assisting her during this altercation, Christopher then offers to take her home, first stopping somewhere for tea, where he reveals to Kitty his love of painting. Kitty mistakes him for an art dealer of sorts but there is also more than meets the eye to Kitty. Whilst the Code strangles out what she actually is, there is enough left to insinuate that Kitty is a prostitute and the man who had earlier assaulted is her pimp/boyfriend Johnny (Dan Dureya). The two come up with a plan for Kitty to fake romantic feelings for the hapless Christopher, as well as offer her place for him to paint there in peace.

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It doesn’t take long for Christopher to fall in love with Kitty, who leads him along, as they sell his art. But Christopher is also drawn into crime, stealing from his employer as well as his wife. Christopher, drawn in by Kitty’s play, drifts further and further into her plans; even happy enough for her to take credit for his art and not seeing a penny for his troubles.

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But further complications will arise, and Christopher will try to save his relationship with Kitty by asking her to marry him. What follows is one of the most shocking scenes in classic film and still shocks by its’ raw violence, savagery and sheer audacity. And this writer will not divulge anything further.

Kitty March is an interesting femme fatale and one which Lang examines brilliantly through a seasoned performance from Joan Bennett. As already mentioned, there are strong insinuations that she is a prostitute. Yet there is far more going on. Like any relationship based on exploitation and dominance, it becomes hard for the audience to understand what hold Johnny has on Kitty. Interestingly enough, Johnny comes across almost as ineffectual as Christopher and there is nothing physical, ‘manly’ (for want of a better term) or particularly roguish about him. Yet Kitty loves him despite it being a one-sided love, where Johnny’s only interest is to exploit her. She accepts this willingly and takes part in the exploitation of Christopher, where she employs her skills as an ‘actress’ to lead him down the garden path. As Johnny exploits Kitty through her love for him, so too does Kitty exploit Christopher via his weakness for her. Indeed, her own sexuality seems to find expression, only through the language of exploitation, degradation and masochism.

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Bennett is outstanding as the cold-hearted femme fatale and she proves to be just so, as the audience will eventually discover. She weaves through the complexity of being the manipulated and the manipulator, being preyed upon by Johnny whilst preying on poor Christopher’s inadequacy. Her brassy and vulgar ‘writing off’ of the pathetic and hapless man she has been duping, is cruel beyond description. And nothing could be more pathetic than the look on Bennett’s face and the Queen of Sheba posturing as Christopher kneels at her feet doing her toes.

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Of course, what Bennett also brings to the role is a duplicity in which she cons others but is also conned herself. The femme fatale constantly ducks, dives and dodges what fate is ready to give her, as punishment for Kitty’s many and varied sins. Christopher is only one of many men that she has used and exploited, and as the audience discovers, sex is not the only thing she will exploit. But again, there is more to Bennett as the femme fatale and reviewer Wess Haubrich is correct in his assumption that Kitty does not want to be here where she is. She is the classic femme fatale, in that she is looking for a way out but knows no other way. Kitty is also a damaged woman, with dashed dreams and a bleak future. But therein lies the cruel reality of the world of film noir, as Christopher, too, has dashed dreams and tries to rekindle them late in life. Perhaps Kitty understands Christopher better than she realises, with both seeing years pass and their dreams not only unrealised but shattered and lives unfulfilled.

Lang as director exploits his skills as well, with the depth, brilliance and intuition of a man who helped develop the artist’s palette in the first place. The master of Expressionism finds meaning in the subtleties as well, such as the use of mirrors (particularly around the bed) to highlight Kitty’s duplicity and the sordidness of what happens in her bed. The cigar smoke rising around Christopher’s head at the start of the film certainly suggests the start of a descent into the hell defined by Dante. And of course, there is the great irony that there is acting within acting, where the audience is also allowing itself to be manipulated.

It’s easy to compare Joan Bennett’s performance as Kitty with the previous year’s performance alongside E.G Robinson in The Woman In The Window. But that’s missing the point. The nuances of Bennett as the dangerous woman that Christopher falls for remove Kitty from being cliched. She’s dangerous yet vulnerable, cruel yet kind to the man who treats her bad and loving only to a man who doesn’t love her.

Scarlet Street is not only a superb example of a taut film noir masterpiece from Fritz Lang; it’s also a solid performance from Joan Bennett.

The film is available through Public Domain and can be seen via the link below to 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. 

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958): The Art Of Obsession

by Paul Batters

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‘Scottie, I was safe when you found me. There was nothing that you could prove. When I saw you again, I couldn’t run away. I loved you so. I walked into danger, let you change me because I loved you and I wanted you. Oh, Scottie, oh Scottie, please. You love me. Please keep me safe, please…’ Judy Barton (Kim Novak)

The experience of cinema is an intensely personal one, not simply in terms of what we like or dislike but how a film or a performance can touch us and leave a deeply lasting impression. A film can caress us, soothe our emotions or it can jar us with a violent intensity that shakes us to our core and challenge our values and beliefs. Speaking for myself, Vertigo is a film that haunts me – it is has done so since the first time I saw it and does so after every viewing.

Vertigo has had a polarising effect, to some degree. A film that was famously panned on release by The New Yorker and Variety and disliked by Orson Welles, was stilled liked and favourably reviewed by the acerbic Bosley Crowther. The film barely broke even at the box office with fans thus showing their disappointment. Despite eventually removing the film from circulation and outlining his own criticisms, Hitchcock would himself go on record during an interview with Francois Truffaut that Vertigo was a favourite. It would be re-released after Hitchcock’s death and following a restoration and showing in San Francisco in 1996, the film’s reputation has become almost obsessive amongst film critics and cinephiles. Perhaps more than any other event to cement its’ reputation was Sight And Sound leapfrogging Vertigo over Citizen Kane as the most influential and greatest film ever made.

Yet there has been much critiquing over Hitchcock’s depiction of women, most recently and famously by Anne Bilson in The Guardian, which whilst not denigrating the value of the film certainly brings into questions the motivations of its’ director. Additionally, critics in recent times have spoken much about the nature of the ‘male gaze’ and the stylising of Hitchcock’s ‘sexual creepiness’. Whilst tempting to analyse the mis en sceneand how Hitchcock achieves his vision through via his framing of Madeline (Kim Novak), my aim here is to look at what I feel is a key theme of the film and one which Hitchcock addressed in a number of his films: obsession.

Much has been written about Vertigo and I don’t want to spend time simply recounting the storyline. It is far better to watch the film and for those who have seen it, it would be superfluous to detail the plot. However, as a quick reviser, I will attempt a run-through for the purpose of focusing on the discussion point.

The film tells the story of John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stewart), a former cop who has retired due to his developing a combination of acrophobia and vertigo. After a period of recovery following the traumatic end of his career, he is hired by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) who wants Scottie to keep an eye on his wife Madeline (Kim Novak). Initially reluctant to take the job, he accepts it and the seeds to his obsession are planted. 

Scottie relents and begins to follow Madeline, saving her from an attempted suicide and eventually falling in love with her. Tragedy ensues after expressing love for each other whilst visiting the Mission San Juan Bautista, the childhood home of a woman named Carlotta who committed suicide and whom Madeline has become obsessed with. Despite the moment of truth, Madeline breaks away from Scottie, who paralysed by his acrophobia cannot prevent her from running up the bell-tower and plunging to her death.

Her death is deemed a suicide and whilst Scottie receives no blame, he falls into deep depression and catatonic state, leaving him institutionalized. Upon his release, Scottie seeks out the places that Madeline visited and incredibly sees a woman that resembles Madeline. She claims her name is Judy but there is an incredible twist. Madeline and Judy are the same woman, as she had been impersonating Madeline as part of a murder plot. But by the time Scottie discovers this, Judy has fallen for Scottie and continues the pretense, hoping that they can be happy together. But Scottie is still obsessed with ‘Madeline’ and forces Judy to change her appearance to look like the woman he still loves. But whilst they seem to be happy, Scottie will discover the truth and his world is again turned inside out, leading to the incredible climax. 

So how does obsession rear its’ formidable self in Vertigo?

The title itself is multi-layered and suggests more than just Scottie’s medical condition. The nature of vertigo is the inability to maintain balance, perception and focus and certainly Scottie suffers from this. The end of his career sees the beginning of a trauma from which sees him struggle with his own sense of identity and worth, particularly with his ‘failure’ during the rooftop chase at the start of the film. Already, Scottie faces a vulnerability, which of course will open him up to the intimacy of romance and need for the woman he will fall for. But the title also pre-supposes and foreshadows the further depths of confusion and depression that Scottie will fall into much later. More importantly, Scottie’s obsession with Madeline is also a form of vertigo, where the dizzying heights of his desperate fixation cause him to lose sight of his reality. This confusion is also emblematically symbolised in the use of mirrors which allows for a different gaze and the suggestion that all is not what it seems, as well as the concept of voyeurism.

The first time that Scottie sees Madeline is perhaps one of the most complex, highly stylised and brilliant scenes Hitchcock ever framed and shot. It is in Ernie’s Restaurant that Elster has convinced Scottie should come to surreptitiously familiarise himself with Madeline in order to follow her. Again, there has been much detailed analysis regarding this incredible moment, but it needs to be examined with obsession in mind. Here, Scottie’s obsession will be anchored and Hitchcock will play with our perception of what we view as an audience. The scene begins with the camera merging both the viewpoint of Scottie and the audience, with the camera languidly moving through the restaurant, decked out in lavish, rich red tones to see in the background the back of Madeline, resplendent in green. The gaze is Scottie’s but it becomes ours and we are clued in to something special happening, with Bernard Hermann’s haunting and beautiful score underpinning the moment. But Hitchcock’s stylising of the scene, using the physical frames in the restaurant to frame Madeline is symbolic of Scottie’s own fascination. He will later idealise her and attempt to frame Judy in the same way, with an obsession that is all consuming.

As Madeline leaves, she pauses for a moment where a close-up of Madeline establishes her ethereal and ghostly beauty, in a voyeuristic moment for Scottie but also for the audience. His illicit looks betray more than he intends and Hermann’s score lifts the scene into a transcendental moment. Scottie is trying to appear nonchalant but he cannot hide his awoken feelings for Madeline and the truth is that he’s hooked. Indeed, she is so breath-taking that the audience is perhaps also becoming obsessed during the close-up, whilst feeling Scottie’s desire to look at her as the camera inter-cuts between them.  It is an obsession that will consume Scottie and one he will not recover from.

Yet deception also walks arm in arm with obsession, most evident with Madeline’s fixation on Carlotta, the beautiful woman from the past who committed suicide. Gavin Elster believes Madeline is haunted by Carlotta’s spirit and sets the context for why Scottie is supposed to follow her. But this obsession on part of Madeline is false and part of the charade in drawing Scottie in. Or is it? Is Madeline starting to fall for her own deception? Much like the classic femme fatale in film noir, deception is an art by which the femme fatale gets what she wants and/or leads the unwitting fool down the garden path. Scottie starts to see her more and more as a spirit or some kind of phantom, aided and abetted by Madeline’s talk of the past and the strange and mysterious demeanour she channels. And of course, this feeds his obsession to the point where there is no turning back. Director Martin Scorsese makes the point that when first seeing Vertigo as a teenager, he did not fully understand it but he was deeply drawn into the film and was impressed by the camera work showing Scottie follow Madeline around. He makes the point that Hitchcock crafts Scottie’s descent into obsession with subtle poetry.

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Mark T. Conrad in Philosophy Of Noir (2006) raises an interesting point which adds meaning and understanding to Scottie’s obsession; the problem for the protagonist with their own existence and the meaninglessness of life. Scottie is an unmarried man with a career in tatters due to a traumatic past. The woman he has fallen in love with is someone he is watching and following around, and yes there are obvious voyeuristic elements here (which speak deeply to Hitchcock’s own obsessions and psycho-pathology). But the real obsession begins after Madeline’s apparent suicide, where Scottie has lost the woman he loves in an incredibly tragic and appalling manner. Unable to cope, he falls into catatonia and is institutionalised. Hitchcock depicts Scottie’s mental collapse in an alarming yet fascinating way and though eventually released, he begins to frequent the places that he visited with Madeline. There is nothing left for Scottie but to relive the moments he had with her, with all the sad and pathetic reality of a broken man who has nothing left but memories to obsess over. As an audience, it is impossible not to feel incredible pathos for Scottie, desperate to see her again. Perhaps one of the most intriguing moments is Scottie returning to the restaurant where he first saw he. It is the hope of the hopeless and Hitchcock brilliantly frames the scene exactly as he did previously, so that for a fleeting moment the audience believes they will see Madeline as well, only for the spell to be broken by harsh reality.

His chance sighting of Judy, during his desperate search, fuels his obsession and here we see Scottie lose himself completely to his absorption in Madeline. The incredible and uncanny resemblance (sansHitchcockian blonde hair and dress-suit) to his lost love tips him into following her and eventually making contact. At the risk of revelation of the film’s twist, the audience discovers that Judy and Madeline are but one and the same woman, with Judy being paid to impersonate ‘Madeline’ in a murder plot and make the death look like as suicide. The audience knowledge of this, adds a powerful dimension to what will follow. The audience discovers that Judy/Madeline also loves Scottie and her reluctance to see him becomes intertwined with her desire for him. But the complexity of Judy’s position becomes problematic as Scottie’s obsession is relentless in his attempts to turn her into the physical embodiment of Madeline. “Judy, please, it can’t matter to you,”he implores her but the audience realises that it does. There exists the fear that he will discover the truth and any hope of love being realised will become extinguished. Yet for all her concerns and the eventual realisation that Scottie’s obsession blinds him from seeing the truth, Judy will do what he asks, with the hope that he will love her. As she begs him, If I do what you tell me, will you love me? it is impossible not to feel deep sympathy for Judy, despite the subterfuge she has engaged in and still involved in. She is a woman frustrated by a man not loving her for who she is but what his obsessive and idealised vision of her is – imprinting on her being what he desires, using her as a mannequin for his own needs and wants. Yet she continues with the illusion – love has tragically misguided her as well.

Jim Emerson brilliantly channels gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe when he states, ‘Scottie is so obsessed with creating his “work of art,” that he doesn’t even notice that he’s draining the very life from his subject’. And herein lies the tragedy of the story and the damaging aspect of Scottie’s obsession. Unable to deal with his reality, he cannot make the physical connection with any flesh and blood woman, whether it’s his ex-fiancée Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) or Judy. It is a heart-breaking moment when she exclaims, ‘“You can’t even touch me!”; fully aware that he prefers the illusion of Madeline (the character she created) to the actual woman before him.  It will take a complete transformation for Scottie to respond physically as well as emotionally.

The scene where Scottie’s obsession is completely realised is perhaps one of the most beautiful and tragic ever filmed. Finally yielding to Scottie, Judy had dyed her hair. The risk that Scottie may discover the truth is now greater than ever but it is still not enough – Scottie states that her hair isn’t up the way it should be. Judy is afraid yet also hurt that he does not love her for herself. When the final step must be taken, Judy goes into her bathroom and emerges, completely transformed into Madeline. Bernard Herrmann’s haunting and beautiful score reaches its’ powerful crescendo as she stands ghost-like before Scottie; a phantom that takes him back to that moment during the earlier garden sequence, when their love was first realised. The symbolism of green is never more marked in the film than this moment, a symbol of re-birth, as critic Jim Emerson suggests, as well as the constant love that Scottie has felt – and I would suggest his obsession. As they embrace, Scottie’s world now seems complete and the room bathed in green, suggests that romantic renewal.  Yet it also suggests that the illusion has also won over and reality has taken a back-seat to fulfil Scottie’s obsession.

But Judy/Madeline has also bought into the illusion and this is evident as she moves forward from the ghostly stance at the bathroom door into a close-up. Her reluctance morphs into what seems like a look of victory, as she sees Scottie is finally fulfilled and his re-shaping of her realised. Yet watch the moment when she steps closer; her own surrender is obvious and her love for Scottie tragically evident. The look in her eyes and the slight turn of her face betrays her own ‘happiness’ that now Scottie can love her completely and that the two of them can find happiness. Bathed in the symbolic green of love, the camera swirls around the couple as they kiss and embrace. It should be the culmination of everything they have wanted. Even if it is an illusion.

It is an illusion that will come crashing once reality hits their relationship, like a stone smashing a mirror. And therein lies the tragedy of obsession – that Scottie’s fixation on an illusion could never be sustained and when the truth is revealed, it is almost too painful to bear. And yet even at the critical moment during the climax of the film, when Scottie and Judy revisit the scene of the earlier trauma, there is a moment where their love is realised as the illusion is removed. Has Scottie overcome his own psycho-pathological problems?

Much has been recently written about the misogyny of the film, in terms of the male gaze as developed by theorists such as Laura Mulvey, and a somewhat justified feminist perspective of the obsession of men to reshape women according to their standards. Yet recently Anne Billson in The Guardian stated that ‘Vertigo…mercilessly scrutinises romantic love while swooning over it’and ‘it is not an example of misogyny, but an overblown, beautiful and tragic deconstruction of it’. In essence, there is also the interesting allusion that in the arena of love, lies and deception are commonplace.

Scottie is ultimately a man without an identity; one which has been shattered by his traumas resulting in a loss of sense of self. To find meaning in a meaningless world, Scottie becomes a man obsessed and even when the fixation (as far as he knows) is gone, the obsession remains even after complete mental collapse. It is arguable that Judy is the typical femme fatale in film noir who has fooled Scottie and led him on through deceit. Yet Judy is also a victim of the illusion, as much as the creator of it and her sense of identity is also obliterated to meet Scottie’s obsession.  And arguably both Scottie and Judy have been manipulated and been taken advantage of by Gavin Elster, who has used Scottie’s weaknesses to establish his murder plot. Conrad describes Scottie’s vertigo as being ‘spiritual’ as much as psycho-physical and this has also led Scottie into his obsession, as he searches for something deeper to fill the void. Scottie’s love and obsession for Madeline transcends death and her ‘re-birth’ also transcends reality whilst simultaneously bringing the illusion to life.

Obsession is not only a theme instilled in film noir but one long-investigated by Hitchcock and one that has perhaps never been better examined in any of his films. Despite the reluctance of audiences and critics to embrace the film on its’ initial, Vertigo has established itself and held onto its’ lofty place in cinema. It’s a film that is stylistically resplendent but not for its’ own sake and reaches incredible depths of meaning and denotation far beyond what other films which they could achieve. Hitchcock uses very cinematic technique at his disposal, in the way a master painter uses the palate and expands the canvas in a way never done before. If we as an audience are still obsessed with Vertigo, it’s not without good reason.

This article was to have been submitted for the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films – but is ridiculously late! My sincerest apologies to a kind and wonderful host, as well as being a passionate cinema buff and writer! 

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.

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.

The Definitive Performances Of Glenn Ford

by Paul Batters

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It really doesn’t matter whether it’s the villain or the hero. Sometimes the villain is the most colorful. But I prefer a part where you don’t know what he is until the end – Glenn Ford

When I first saw the announcement of the ‘O Canada’ Blogathon, I found myself drawn to it – particularly in light of having visited the wonderful city of Montreal on two memorable occasions. Canada holds a special place in my heart and despite being a very long flight from Australia, there lies within the hope that I will visit there again. There is an incredible amount of talent that hails from Canada, many of which are claimed by their neighbour to the south, who have made a huge impact on classic film. One such talent comes in the form of legendary actor Glenn Ford.

Hailing from Sainte-Christine-d’Auvergne, Quebec, Ford’s family would leave their homeland to start a new life in California, U.S. Obviously, the move would prove fortuitous, with the young Ford attending Santa Monica High School and finding his way into theatre. A film career that began in the 1940s, Ford gave the screen great versatility, making his mark in film noir, comedy, Westerns and war dramas. My aim here is to look at the five performances which I feel are standouts in Ford’s long career. Whilst not expecting a consensus, the hope is that readers are inspired to watch the films listed here.

Gilda (1946) – Johnny Farrell

I imagine there are no surprises here. Gilda ranks high in the pantheon of classic film noir and features Rita Hayworth in her most iconic role as the quintessential femme fatale. But Ford is outstanding as Johnny Farrell, the gambler who despite loyalty to his boss, becomes deeply intertwined with his boss’s wife, Gilda. The powerful love-hate relationship between Farrell and Gilda burns with an intensity and a fury that still steams off the big screen. Ford emotes with a power that matches Hayworth’s smouldering sexuality, and betrays a man who has been burnt and burnt bad.

Trevor Johnston in ‘Time Out’ (2011) points out that Ford gives a performance highlighted by a ‘fight not to let bitterness get the better of decency’. It’s that tension that stretches to almost breaking point, leaving the audience constantly on edge as to what the protagonist will do. Christopher Machell in ‘Cinevue’ (2016) correctly states that ‘Gilda remains a brilliantly dark exploration of the consequences of love soured into loathing’. It achieves this superbly, not only due to the brilliant performance of Rita Hayworth and the layers she brings to the role but also thanks to Ford’s interpretation within the restrictions of the Code, giving a tour de force and an equally memorable turn as Johnny Farrell.

The Big Heat (1953) –  Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion

Directed by the legendary Fritz Lang, The Big Heat is on my list of top film noirs, not least because of Ford’s determined cop and the captivating Gloria Grahame. Unlike his on-screen romance with Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Ford doesn’t engage with the sultry Gloria Grahame. But the moments shared by the two are still powerful and engaging, particularly in the exciting finale.

Ford plays the straight, honest cop, who while investigating the death of a fellow cop, finds himself sliding into a deeper and darker world, as he battles criminals and corruption to seek the truth. There are victims along the way and his family will also be in the firing line. Ford shows a man so obsessed with his own objectives that his actions hurt those around him. The ‘heat’ he generates ironically hurts those he aims to protect. As Roger Ebert points out, The Big Heat ‘as deceptive and two-faced as anything Lang ever made, with its sunny domestic tranquility precariously separated from a world of violence’. To borrow Ebert’s phrasing, Ford is outstanding at playing ‘the perfectly acceptable honest cop’…appearing as ‘quiet and contained and implacable’ yet ‘capable of sudden violence’. Variety stated that Ford’s performance ‘is honest and packs much wallop’. Absolutely.

Not only is The Big Heat a must-see film noir classic, it’s also an opportunity to see Glenn Ford at his hard-boiled best.

Blackboard Jungle (1955) – Richard Dadier

As a teacher, The Blackboard Jungle touches a raw nerve for me. Such a dark, cynical film depicting school students – and it’s the mid 1950s. Not only do we see belligerent and disrespectful students refusing the benefits of education but burnt-out and contemptuous teachers, violence between students and against teachers and the attempted rape of a teacher by a student, with a shocking and violent result. Into this mix, comes Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) a new teacher at an inner-city Trades School. He combats the students, the teachers and the system in his attempt to educate his students.

Dadier’s desperation to reach his student is brilliantly portrayed by Ford, who exudes the desperation and controlled fear that a new teacher will feel coupled with a passion and controlled frustration that is also felt and shown through raw emotion. Dadier calls himself a ‘bumbler’ and the honesty and accuracy as he finds his way to reach his students feels real, as exemplified by Variety’s review, unlike the usual clichéd ‘teacher/saviour’ film.

Blackboard Jungle had an incredible impact during its’ time and still holds its’ audiences attention, as we engage with Dadier and the building tension and battle of wills, reaching its’ powerful climax.

The Fastest Gun Alive (1956) – George Temple

 Ford’s versatility saw him star in some fine Westerns and for my money, his performance, as ex-gunfighter George Temple is one of his best. The son of a famous quick-draw sheriff, George and his wife Dora (Jeanne Crain) start a new life with new names in a small town, living an unassuming life though with little respect or consideration from the townspeople. However, that situation is going to change, more a result of Temple’s doing than outside forces. Ford walks a psychological tightrope between the desire for a peaceful, mediocre and quiet life and the truth behind who he is.

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Again, Ford brings an incredible sensitivity to the role of Temple, and the inner turmoil as his past taunts his yearning for peace is brilliantly played out as the story plays out. Ford also offers us an examination of human frailty, as he succumbs to ego and fatigue of being seen as a nobody, and finds himself doubly frustrated at doing so. Director Russell Rouse drives the story beyond the standard Western with a deeper psychological examination of the gunfighter but also a powerful aspect of the human condition – escaping past sins and seeking a new start. Ford is superb in this examination and the ending is as action-packed with drama and gunplay as any Western made. What truly makes Ford’s performance all the more powerful is his ability to draw the audience into the story through deeper understanding of our own humanity rather than the classic, though clichéd, concept of wanting the good guy to win.

3:10 to Yuma (1957) – Ben Wade

 Set in the Arizona Territory during the 1880s, Ford plays Ben Wade, the leader of a gang of robbers who hold up a stagecoach, witnessed by rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and his sons. Eventually Wade is captured but the gang escapes and the town fears the retribution, which will follow. The decision is made to get Wade out of town and Dan steps forward to do so. What follows is a tense ride into a violent and surprising ending, which sets the film aside as a classic western.

Ford brings depth and paradox to the role of Ben Wade, again displaying sensitivity to the role, which is initially unsympathetic. From the opening where we see a ruthless and violent man, it is hard for the audience to find any humanity in Wade. Yet his attempt to impress barmaid Emmy (Felecia Farr) reveals a gentleness and kindness that doesn’t equate with the violent man the audience sees earlier on. Again, Ford weaves the complexity of his character with balance and purpose, ably supported by a strong cast and well-written story. Critics praised Ford also recognized the importance of a role in what it had to offer, even if the part itself may appear unsympathetic or even villainous. This belief is more than evident in his forceful portrayal of Ben Wade.

 Glenn Ford was not a matinee idol and came up through a time when realism and more complex characters became de rigueur. A deeper and more psychological approach to understanding human action and emotion allowed for greater expansion in story which more than matched the technological demands for wider screens. Ford was an actor who used time effectively to draw his characters out, allow audiences to absorb his reaction and believe in the story. He famously said:

‘If they try to rush me, I always say, I’ve only got one other speed and it’s slower’.

It certainly illustrates the talent of the consummate actor – making the difficult appear simple by claiming it’s actually simple. Glenn Ford is certainly a Hollywood icon, whose Canadian heritage should list him as a worthy candidate in the ‘O Canada’ Blogathon. 

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.