Commentary Track

Detour (1945)

This week on The Spectator Film Podcast…

Detour (1945) 11.22.19
Featuring: Austin, Maxx

Commentary track begins at 16:35

— Notes —

  • We watched the Criterion Collection release of Detour for our show this week. It’s a wonderful version of the film, and it’s got lots of fun bonus supplemental features as usual. As of the posting of this episode (11.26.19), Detour is also available on The Criterion Channel.
  • “Some Detours to Detour” by Robert Polito from The Current
  • “Ulmer, Edgar G.” by Erik Ulman from Senses of Cinema
  • Detour by Noah Isenberg — The BFI Film Classics book on Detour is as insightful and useful as you’d expect. Isenberg manages to pack in a lot of information and lead introduce lots of additional criticism on the film.
  • “Perennial Detour: The Cinema of Edgar G. Ulmer and the Experience of Exile” by Noah Isenberg from Cinema Journal — Here’s the link a PDF file of this essay. Isenberg discusses Ulmer’s entire career and his life as an Austrian-born émigré in the US, highlighting the ways in which Ulmer’s work can be seen as exploring concepts of exile. It’s a wonderful read.
  • Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton by Andrew Britton, Ed. Barry Keith Grant — Here’s the link to a published collection of Andrew Britton’s film criticism. This was the first time we’ve relied on Britton’s writing in our preparation for the show, and the precision of his insights are genuinely remarkable. Britton avoids over-reliance on structuralist language, and the clarity of his arguments make his writing very enjoyable. We’ll include some of the relevant passages from his essay ‘Detour’ below:
    • “The whole meaning of Detour depends on the fact that Al is incapable of providing the impartial account of the action which convention leads us to expect in first-person narratives… O’Hara and Marlowe [other male noir narrators] are to be thought of simply as speaking the truth, both about themselves and about the narrative world in general. They may be mistaken, but they never equivocate, and their impersonality is never questioned for a moment. Al’s commentary, however, though it is not hypocritical – he plainly believes every word of it – is profoundly self-deceived and systematically unreliable… In fact, Al’s memory of the past is in itself a means of blotting it out, and his commentary, far from serving as the clue which leads us infallibly to the meaning of the narrative action, is like a palimpsest beneath which we may glimpse the traces of the history he has felt comepelled to rewrite” (195).

    • “[Al] has simply concluded this is the way life must be, and the willed (if unconscious) defeatism implicit in his attitude to his blighted career is the first sign of his habitual tendency to attribute his own choices, and their disastrous consequences, to forces external to himself… Ulmer uses these brief, and extraordinarily elliptical, expository sequences to define his hero as a man who lacks all sense of aim and purpose, who is essentially indifferent to everything but what he takes, at a given moment, to be his own interests, and who, above all, instinctively rationalizes his convenience on all occasions, either by absolving himself of responsibility for his actions completely or by providing himself with a spurious but flattering account of his motives” (195-96).

    • “[Vera] clearly sets out to ‘rook’ Al in exactly the way he rooked Haskell, who was in turn preparing to rook his own father, but her spontaneous rapaciousness is actually quite different in kind from that of her male antagonists. The most obvious indication of this difference is the hectoring aggressiveness of her manner. Vera is not a trickster like Al and Haskell, and she does not try to deceive, disarm, or win the confidence of her chosen victim. On the contrary, she goes straight for the jugular in order to dispel any illusion that her womanhood makes her susceptible either to physical violence or to seduction. It is not enough for her to present herself as Al’s (or any man’s) equal… Vera needs to establish that the inequality of the sexes has been reversed, not eliminated, and her every word and action is designed to convince Al that she can do exactly what she likes with him… and to rub his nose in the humiliating fact of his complete subordination to her… Ulmer unmistakably invites us to take pleasure in the comeuppance of this obtuse pusillanimous egotist at the hands of a woman of such formidable wit, energy, and intelligence” (200).

    • “Ulmer embodies the contradictory concept of the savage, or nonsocial, society in his use of the metaphor of the road. This metaphor recurs frequently in American narratives, and it is almost invariably used to celebrate individual resistance to the constraints of an intolerably oppressive, conservative, and regimented culture. Actually existing American society is seen as an insuperable impediment to the full self-realization of the individual, and the road becomes the last sanctuary of the true American spirit, which can survive only by taking flight from the social world constructed in its name. This use of the road metaphor turns the mythic American ideals on their head. It employs exactly the same terms of reference – heroic individualism and democratic society – but takes the irreversible debasement of the latter for granted and goes on to affirm the former through characters whose refusal to participate in social life comes to signify a rebellious vindication of America in spite of itself. By contrast, Ulmer preserves the connection between individualism and American social institutions established by the original myth, and he uses the metaphor of the road to argue that this connection manifests itself in practice, not as a democracy of heroes but as an exceptionally inhumane and brutal capitalism. Ulmer’s road is not a refuge for exiles from a culture in which America’s ideals have been degraded; it is a place where the real logic of advanced capitalist civil society is acted out by characters who have completely internalized its values, and whose interaction exemplifies the grotesque deformation of human relationships by the principles of the market. Al, Vera, and Haskell are isolated vagabonds whose lives are dedicated to the pursuit of private goals which they set themselves ad hoc, in the light of their own immediate interests, and who collide with one another in a moral vacuum where human contacts are purely contingent, practical social ties have ceased to exist, and other people appear as mere values to be exploited at will” (204).

  • “All Lost in Wonder: Edgar G. Ulmer” by Tag Gallagher from Screening the Past
  • More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts by James Naremore — One of my favorite books discussing the noir genre. Naremore only spends a few pages discussing Detour specifically, but the book is an wonderful examination of the genre at large.
  • “Film Theory’s Detour” by Tania Modleski from Screen — We didn’t bring it up much during our conversation, but Modleski’s writing brings a psychoanalytic angle to our discussion of the femme fatale archetype. Recommended reading for anyone who takes interest in psychoanalytic criticism.

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