The Noir File: Edgar Ulmer’s ‘Detour’ and Friday Night with Dashiell Hammett

By Film Noir Blonde and Mike Wilmington

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard).

PICK OF THE WEEK

Ann Savage and Tom Neal star in the ultra low-budget “Detour.”

Detour” (1945, Edgar G. Ulmer). Tuesday, June 11: 2:45 p.m. (11:45 a.m.).

Luck so bad it borders on absurd, a story as flimsy as cardboard, a femme fatale who’s downright feral. That would be 1945’s “Detour,” a B classic that director Edgar Ulmer shot in less than a month for about $30,000.

Despite these limitations (or maybe because of them) Ulmer manages to work some visual miracles. Those foggy scenes where you can’t see the street? He didn’t have a street so he filled in with mist. Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Ulmer came to the US in 1923. He brought a high-art, painterly disposition to this tawdry little flick, as he did to most of his work.

You can read the full FNB review here.

Friday, June 7

11:15 a.m. (8:15 a.m.): “Stranger on the Third Floor” (1940, Boris Ingster). With Peter Lorre, Margaret Tallichet and Elisha Cook, Jr. Reviewed on FNB Nov. 3, 2012.

NOIR WRITERS SERIES: DASHIELL HAMMETT

Dashiell Hammett

All this month, on its Friday Night Spotlight screenings, TCM will show a series of classic film noirs – with each Friday devoted to movies based on or written by (or both) one of four top-notch noir authors – Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Cornell Woolrich.

Tonight the spotlight is on the matchless hard-boiled crime writer Dashiell Hammett – who, along with Ernest Hemingway, was probably one of the most influential American writers of the decades after World War I, and since. Terse, lean and brutally direct, empty of flourish, cliché or artifice, Hammett’s style owed a lot to his own years as a Pinkerton detective.

He decisively reveals a world of greed, murder, illicit sex, gangsterism, corruption and treachery among the rich and the crooked, telling it all with a flair and a punch that was copied endlessly but rarely recaptured. (The “Noir Writers” films were curated and will be introduced by film noir expert Eddie Muller.)

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Maltese Falcon” (1931, Roy Del Ruth). The first movie adaptation of Hammett’s classic dark private-eye novel, with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, Bebe Daniels as the femme fatale and Dudley Digges as Gutman – all chasing the priceless black bird. It pales beside John Huston’s great version of course (see below). But it’s not bad, in a raunchy pre-Code way.

9:30 p.m. (6:30 p.m.): “City Streets” (1931, Rouben Mamoulian). Hammett’s only original movie story: an underworld romance stylishly directed by Mamoulian, who was in his most innovative period. With Gary Cooper and Sylvia Sidney as lovers caught in a vicious world of big-city crime, and Paul Lukas and Guy Kibbee as off-type bad guys. [Read more...]

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In ‘Ruthless,’ director Edgar G. Ulmer moves (temporarily) from Poverty Row to Paradise

Ruthless/1948/ Producing Artists/105 min.

“Ruthless” was recently released on Blu-ray by Olive Films.

By Michael Wilmington

The Czech-born émigré film director Edgar G. Ulmer, as noir as they come, was called the King of Poverty Row by some of his cultish admirers.

Pictures like Ulmer’s 1945 low-B film noir “Detour,” his 1939 African-American ultra-indie “Moon Over Harlem,” the 1951 low-fi sci-fi “The Man from Planet X” and the 1955 cheapo Western “The Naked Dawn” stretch the limits of cinematic ingenuity stimulated by minuscule budgets. In Ulmer’s undisputed masterpiece “Detour,” the director shows buildings lost in the night and fog – a spine-chilling effect – because there was no money for a street set.

“Ruthless,” by comparison, is a fairly lush production, with a multitude of richly detailed sets, high production values and a cast that ranks just below A-level. The film has that sense of impending evil and doom that also marked Ulmer’s 1934 Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi horror classic “The Black Cat.” Even when “Ruthless” becomes absurd – as in the fervidly ludicrous climax – it’s always fun to watch.

Zachary Scott, the great film noir lounge lizard, here plays the ruthlessly successful financier Horace Woodruff Vendig.

Zachary Scott, the great film noir lounge lizard, here plays the ruthlessly successful financier Horace Woodruff Vendig who cheats, double-crosses and sleeps his way to the top, then shrugs it off when a one-time ally commits suicide. Louis Hayward is his often-abused and appropriately named best friend Vic Lambdin.

Sydney Greenstreet is Buck Mansfield, a fellow businessman and rival who’s not quite ruthless enough. Diana Lynn, double-cast, is the love (or loves) of Horace’s life. And that ace noir heavy of heavies Raymond Burr pops up as well. All this for a director who usually counted himself lucky if he got actors like Tom Neal and Ann Savage, the doomed couple in “Detour.”

Scott, a sometimes underrated actor (he was tremendous in both “Mildred Pierce” and in Jean Renoir’s “The Southerner”), manages to show the warmer, more seductive qualities beneath the ruthlessness of Vendig. Greenstreet seems miscast playing a guy named Buck. But he has a good time as the vengeful ex-tycoon, as does Diana Lynn (twice) and Burr, who can occasionally, though not here, seem like a second-string Greenstreet.

Sydney Greenstreet plays Vendig’s rival who’s not quite ruthless enough.

The subject of “Ruthless” is wealth, its hypocrisies and the price it ultimately exacts from the soul of the taker. The obvious inspiration for “Ruthless,” which was based on a novel by Dayton Stoddart (I know, I’ve never heard of him either), is the film of films, Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” From Kane, Ulmer and his screenwriters borrow the multiple flashback structure, the deep-focus camera virtuosity, the theme of the sins behind great fortunes, the foil of the humanistic best friend (Hayward) and the main character with three names.

Edgar G. Ulmer

As for Ulmer – the low-rent auteur who persevered through often threadbare productions, including “Damaged Lives,” a low-budget 1933 cautionary drama about venereal disease – “Ruthless” must have made him feel as if he’d migrated temporarily from Poverty Row to Paradise. While “Ruthless” is not as good as “Detour,” it does show that Ulmer could have functioned very well, if the powers that be let him move more often to the right side of the tracks. (The rumor is that the director was banished to the likes of Producers Releasing Corp. and Eagle Lion because he’d seduced the wife of a major studio bigwig.)

But almost anybody can be better with better stuff and the one big advantage of working on Poverty Row is that you’re left alone if you can get it done on time and on (you’ll excuse the word) budget. Ulmer and his charmingly disreputable and penny-wise films will always be special treats to devotees of black and white Hollywood.

Now let’s go watch 1960’s “The Amazing Transparent Man.” I hear the reason the Man was transparent is that there was no money for another actor.

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Jean Gillie in ‘Decoy’ is classic noir’s hardest, greediest and most daring femme fatale

Decoy/1946/Monogram Pictures/76 min.

Jean Gillie as Margot is tougher than any American femme fatale of the era.

Talk about raw deals. The hardest, greediest, most daring femme fatale in all of classic film noir – England’s Jean Gillie in “Decoy” – is not widely known today, beyond a fervent cult following.

But rest easy, fatale fans, I am joining the charge to get the word out on Ms. Gillie. I may even become motivated to get off my famously comfy sofa and take to the streets to spread the word. Though that seems a tad drastic, especially since I’ve just achieved the perfect arrangement for my pillows …

Well, let me start by telling you about it. Made in 1946 by director Jack Bernhard, who also directed “Blonde Ice,” this is another hard-core noir story with a totally heartless seductress, a wildly improbable plot and a grimly pessimistic take on human nature.

First, the dame: Dainty, devious and always dressed to a T, Margot Shelby (Gillie) wants the $400,000 that her jailed boyfriend, an old codger named Frank (Robert Armstrong of “King Kong”), has hidden in a buried suitcase. But Frank is awaiting execution and he’s squirreled away the map to the treasure.

Gangster Jim (Edward Norris), Margot and prison doctor Lloyd (Herbert Rudley) band together to find the $400,000 in cash that Frank has buried.

Hmm, that’s a drag. What to do? Margot figures, after he gets the lethal gas, my pals and I will just bring him back to life. Then, he can lead us to the cash. Margot’s helpers are gangster Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) and prison doctor Lloyd Craig (Herbert Rudley), both of whom are crazy about her. So is nosy police sergeant Joe Portugal (Sheldon Leonard) or Jo-Jo as Margot calls him when she’s flirting with him.

Like any good ringleader, Margot keeps abreast of all kinds of news, and she learns about a chemical called methylene blue, which can be used as an antidote to gas poisoning. So, all they have to do is grab Frank after the execution, pop another body in the hearse and hightail it to the doctor.

Selling Jim, a fully oozing sleaze-atron, on her absurd plan is easy. Earnest and upright Dr. Lloyd is a bit trickier. “I had to smash that shield of ideals,” says Margot. Helping people, healing the sick and making the world a better place? Puhleeze. As she points out, how could they possibly be happy on Lloyd’s paltry $75/week salary when one bottle of Margot’s fave perfume costs $75?

By the time Margot is digging for dollars under the moonlight, her motley gang has dwindled to one, ie Margot. Nothing makes Margot laugh more than bumping somebody off. Her gleeful chortling punctuates the action throughout, but it’s most memorable as a defiant final gesture toward Jo-Jo the cop. She may get what’s coming to her but she also gets the last laugh. Sorry? Penitent? Remorseful? Not a chance!

As the take-no-prisoners Margot, Jean Gillie is amazing to watch – tougher than Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Greer, Joan Bennett or even snarling Ann Savage in “Detour.” In neo noir, her closest equivalent is diabolical Linda Fiorentino in “The Last Seduction.”

“There are very few femmes fatales who don’t have a little time for love and seduction, and she really doesn’t,” says critic Molly Haskell in the Warner Bros. DVD featurette. “Not to any man who comes across her path is she loyal. The only thing she wants is the money.”

Writer/producer Stanley Rubin

In the DVD commentary, historian Glenn Erickson and writer Stanley Rubin note that as an English actress, Gillie was new to Hollywood and didn’t have to worry that by being a total bitch she would lose favor with her fan base. So, she’s a total bitch and then some. (Rubin conceived the “Decoy” story; Ned Young wrote the script.)

Gillie’s is the standout performance, but the guys certainly hold their own, especially Sheldon Leonard as the conflicted cop. (Leonard also played Nick the bartender in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”) I love the part in “Decoy” when Leonard’s Jo-Jo sits on a bar stool munching a snack – not a burger or fries, but a hard-boiled egg. Mmm, what could be better than a beer and a yolk? Another great moment is when he bums a “stay-awake” pill  from Dr. Lloyd.

Like most B-movies, “Decoy” was cheap and churned out quickly, yet director and co-producer Jack Bernhard’s artistic style distinguishes this film from run-of-the-mill, mediocre B-fare. “Decoy” was out of commission for several decades after its release; a screening at the American Cinematheque about 10 years ago earned fresh appreciation for the film and director.

Bernhard discovered Gillie in England while he was serving in World War Two. They married, made this film and split up. Sadly, Gillie died of pneumonia in 1949, at age 33. Bernhard disappeared from the Hollywood scene shortly after and little is known about the rest of his life.

So, have I convinced you – are you going to give Jean Gillie a chance? If I haven’t, guess I’ll have to pry myself off the sofa and hit the pavement. Just as soon as I finish my nap and book my massage.

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Ann Savage in ‘Detour’ is the ultimate ‘dame with claws’

Detour/1945/PRC/67 min.

Edgar Ulmer

Luck so bad it borders on absurd, a story as flimsy as cardboard, a femme fatale who’s downright feral. That would be 1945’s “Detour,” a B classic that director Edgar Ulmer shot in less than a month for about $30,000.

Despite these limitations (or maybe because of them) Ulmer manages to work some visual miracles. Those foggy scenes where you can’t see the street? He didn’t have a street so he filled in with mist. Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Ulmer came to the US in 1923. He brought a high-art, painterly disposition to this tawdry little flick, as he did to most of his work. (Ulmer’s “The Black Cat” from 1934 is a must-see.)

With a screenplay by Martin Goldsmith (he also wrote the source story), you might say “Detour” is Ulmer’s meditation on Fate. As the film’s doomed hero puts it: “Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” And later: “Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

The doomed hero Al Roberts is memorably played by rugged, slightly boyish Tom Neal. Al plays piano in a New York nightclub; his girlfriend Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake) sings. Sue is the most wholesome nightclub singer you can imagine and maybe that’s the rub – they find it hard to make ends meet. She decides to leave New York and try her luck in Hollywood, only to end up slinging hash. (Look out for Esther Howard as a diner waitress; Howard played the haggard Jesse Florian in “Murder My Sweet” from 1944.)

To reunite with Sue, Al heads to California, hitching a ride with smug and chatty Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), whose hands are mysteriously scratched. “There oughtta be a law against dames with claws,” says Haskell.

Ann Savage

When Haskell suddenly dies during Al’s turn at the wheel, Al panics and takes off with the car. Next, Al meets the striking but cheap Vera (Ann Savage), also thumbing rides and in need of a shower. (The hairdresser slathered her hair with cold cream to make it look dirty and stringy.)

Vera happens to know Haskell and she knows a good chance for blackmail when she sees one. She works one angle after another, including a scheme to steal Haskell’s inheritance money.

She. Runs. The. Show. As director Wim Wenders says in Michael Palm’s “Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen” documentary: “she’s 30 years ahead of her time … a revolutionary female character.” In the same documentary, actress Savage (who made five films with Neal) says of Vera: “She’s mean to the extent that she wants to be boss. She’s a real b-i-t-c-h.”

True, Vera is not the most complex character – she’s short on nuance and dimension. But then, Vera herself would sneer at the mention of nuance and complexity, and snipe something like, “Do I look like a dictionary to you?” And as a ruthless, conniving, raw femme fatale, Savage’s Vera is hard to match.

Ulmer amazes with his deft and daring handling of the material. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t get to unleash his imagination and talent on higher-level projects. Though he worked with directors such as Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Max Reinhardt, Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. DeMille, Erich von Stroheim, Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinneman and Billy Wilder, he was never part of the Hollywood elite.

Ulmer has said he would’ve been unhappy with the constraints of mainstream, commercial productions, but it’s likely he still craved the recognition and respect that A-list status confers. Also, Ulmer was ostracized from the in-crowd when he fell in love with the wife of an independent producer. She left her husband, Max Alexander, the nephew of Universal president Carl Laemmle.

Barbara Payton

Still, it seems Ulmer fared a bit better than his leading man Tom Neal (1914-1972) whose off-screen life would be good fodder for a noir. Neal was born into a wealthy family in Evanston, Ill., and attended Northwestern University and Harvard Law.

In 1951, he attacked fellow actor Franchot Tone in a jealous fit over actress Barbara Payton, inflicting broken bones and a concussion, and damaging his own reputation to the point of ending his career. In 1965, he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of his third wife; he was paroled after serving six years of a 10-year sentence.

“Detour” was remade in 1992, starring Tom Neal Jr.

The original is recognized as corner stone of the noir genre. Filmmaker Errol Morris counts it as a favorite film, noting that: “It has an unparalleled quality of despair, totally unrelieved by hope.”

Ann Savage photo from AP/Ann Savage Archive

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‘Detour’ quick hit

Detour/1945/PRC/67 min.

Hard as nails Ann Savage is hell on wheels, literally. As a hitchhiker with a taste for fraud, she pulls unlucky traveler Tom Neal into her sticky web of treachery and deceit.

A searing, seminal noir from often-unappreciated director Edgar Ulmer, known for performing minor miracles on a shoestring budget.

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Bribes, brawls and bullets, and sultry Marie Windsor

The Narrow Margin/ 1952/RKO/71 min.

“She haunts my dreams and some of my nightmares as well,” says an ardent fan of actress Marie Windsor in 1952’s “The Narrow Margin,” directed by Richard Fleischer.

Billy Friedkin

The fan in question is Chicago-born Billy Friedkin – director of “The French Connection” (1971), “The Exorcist” (1973) and “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985), among many others – and his comments come in the form of DVD commentary for “The Narrow Margin,” a definitive film noir. Maybe Windsor had that mysterious-older-woman vibe going on too, since Friedkin was only 17 when this B-movie came out.

In it, she plays Mrs. Frankie Neall, a gangster’s wife. She’s a bribable beauty with a sharp tongue. The story takes place almost entirely on a train from Chicago to LA, where Mrs. Neall is scheduled to testify against the mob. Making sure she doesn’t bail on the way is her police escort Walter Brown (Charles McGraw).

Charles McGraw

One snag is that the mob is less than thrilled about the prospect of her naming names when she takes the stand. So two heavies board the train hoping to rub her out; their earlier attempt resulted in the death of Brown’s partner (Don Beddoe). They’ve got their work cut out for them, though – they don’t know what she looks like. And they’re up against Charles McGraw.

It’s a great yarn, fast and lean, where every second counts. The visuals are richly lurid – the stark shadows of Mrs. Neall’s apartment building when the cops come to get her are standouts. As Friedkin puts it: “Lighting is a character in these films.”

Fleischer also manages to convey a sense of realism despite the fact that “The Narrow Margin” was primarily shot on a train set. One way he accomplished that was by employing a hand-held camera, using it to simulate a sense of motion. Cramped compositions and claustrophobic camera angles heighten the mood of entrapment. Shot in less than a month, the film was a big hit at the box office.

We also meet some memorable fellow passengers such as the curious and tubby Jennings (Paul Maxey) who declares: “Nobody loves a fat man except his grocer and his tailor.”

And of course Windsor exudes streetwise strength every time she makes one of her barbed comments or acidic rejoinders. When Brown tells her, “You make me sick to my stomach,” she barks: “Well use your own sink.” Upon seeing him put on his gun one morning, she asks: “What’re you gonna do, go out and shoot us some breakfast?”

“The Narrow Margin” garnered an Oscar nomination (rare for noirs) for the story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard. Earl Felton wrote the screenplay. Goldsmith also wrote the story and screenplay for another famous noir: “Detour,” made in 1945 by director Edgar G. Ulmer and starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage. [Read more...]

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