Thursday, April 15, 2010


“Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” So says Al Roberts, the doomed protagonist of Edgar G. Ulmer’s classic of film noir, “Detour”. Now legendary for its style and technique achieved on a “Poverty Row” budget, Ulmer reportedly shot the film in just several days on a miniscule budget. It manages to pack more punch into its lean, 65 minute running time than most Hollywood films before or since.

Tom Neal stars as Al Roberts, a born loser who plays piano in the Break O’ Dawn Club in New York for the nightly crowds. His girlfriend, Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake) sings with the club’s band, and performs the film’s haunting musical theme, “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me”. One night, Sue announces that she’s leaving to try to her luck in Hollywood. Al decides to hitch-hike out West to be with her, but he’s picked up by a traveling salesman, Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), who-lucky for Al-is heading all the way to Los Angeles. But Haskell dies under mysterious circumstances in the car that night during a rainstorm. Al panics and, fearing the police will accuse him of murder, assumes the dead man’s identity. Just when Al thinks he’s gotten past that obstacle, he picks up a young woman he finds hitch-hiking near a gas station, who turns out to be Vera (Ann Savage), who just happened to ride with Haskell several days earlier, and who immediately spots Al as an impostor. Blackmailing him for a murder he didn’t commit, Al surrenders whatever control he has left over his own life, and takes a detour onto a one-way road to Hell.

Ulmer frames this story in flashback, with Al sitting in a seedy Nevada diner where the jukebox plays “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me”, almost taunting him about the life and love he has lost forever. What really sells “Detour” is its incredible visual style, all the more remarkable considering the rushed, low-budget production history of the film. Ulmer had been trained at the UFA Studio in Germany during the 1920s, where he worked as an art director for directors such as Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. He brings his Expressionist style to this film with memorable results. When Al begins telling his story, for instance, the background of the scene falls dark while a loan spotlight hovers around his eyes, perfectly capturing his sense of isolation from the world. Perhaps the most striking stylistic moment is in the final scene, in which the camera pans around the hotel room, racking in and out of focus on various objects lying around the room. Shot in a continuous take, the shot is a marvel of camera technique, and must have surely taken a considerable amount of time to execute, all the more remarkable when considering the extremely tight shooting schedule of the film. The story of “Detour” came from a novel by Martin Goldsmith, and the extensive use of voice-over in the film, while no doubt also an effective cost-saving measure, gives it a powerful “stream-of-consciousness” style to its storytelling. The film was produced and distributed by Producers’ Releasing Corp., one of the smallest of the “Poverty Row” studios that could be found in the underbelly of Hollywood, co-existing with the major studios during the studio era. The gritty, cheap and low-rent atmosphere suits the film perfectly.

“Detour” is perhaps the most engulfing cinematic nightmare ever captured on film. From the film’s opening titles, which roll over a long tracking shot of a lonely, deserted highway at night, to the film’s end, its protagonist is a lost soul, doomed to wander the lonely highways of the Southwest for all eternity.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Joy and Wonder of Melies

At the 7th Orphan Films Symposium, held at the School of Visual Arts Theatre, audiences had a rare treat to experience a Melies film the way it was meant to be seen.

The film was introduced by Matthew Solomon. The print was a gorgeous hand-colored one, although slightly incomplete at the beginning. Donald Sosin provided a splendid piano score, and Solomon read the film's narration, written by Melies himself.

There was nothing like the thrill as the lights went down, the piano music filling the theatre, and the storyteller's voice inviting the audience to get completely wrapped up in the exciting narrative. This is the way Melies was meant to be experienced. Listening to it this way, one could almost imagine themselves stepping into a dark auditorium at a carnival or fair at the turn of the last century, and being taken to new worlds of escapism, fantasy and excitement.

The film itself was the perfect combination of Melies' emphases on narrative and spectacle, integrated into an unforgettable whole. The story of Rip Van Winkle, familiar to viewers, provides a backdrop for the wonderful effects Melies creates, which are theatrical in nature but wholly unique to the cinematic form. The colors in the print recall the influence of the kind of heightened spectacle that audiences would have been familiar with from stage traditions of the time, recalling Charles Musser's points about the "intertextuality" of early cinema (and it was exciting to see the film with Musser in the audience, whose work has probably done more to influence my own writing on early film than any other).

Even though the film was more than 100 years old, it felt as fresh, magical and delightful as ever. It makes the viewer appreciate what a truly magical film can feel like. Recent efforts into the fantasy or spectacle forms have been abysmal failures at every level-lacking the wit, energy, ingenuity and pure joy of the worlds Melies takes viewers to again and again. I'm sure the old master would be delighted to know that his unique blend of comedy and magic, and narrative and spectacle, still hold the power to totally enchant and entrance audiences, as if they were still children listening with rapt attention to the fairy tales told by their parents. Indeed, that's about the only experience I can liken the viewing of a Melies film to. His films contain the ability to "entertain", in the truest sense of that word, more than any other artist in the medium.

The magic of Melies will never pass. His work is timeless, never dated, quaint or old-fashioned. As long as there is a capacity for joy and wonder in the world, Melies will never be irrelevant.