Nostalgia City Mysteries

By Mark S. Bacon

Category Archives: film writing

“Detour” – Worst noir film ever?

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“Did you ever want to forget anything? Did you ever want to cut away a piece of your memory and black it out?”

That’s what nightclub piano player Al Roberts asks viewers in the 1945 film, Detour.  And it’s what you may say after you’ve seen this low-budget noir movie filmed in a week or so with cheap sets, cheesy dialog and shortcuts in staging that make it treasure trove of cinema bloopers.

It’s not quite bad enough to be unintentionally funny—like some campy 1950s sci fi flick—but close. I’ve written about many of the superb noir pictures from the 1930s and ’40s and thought it would be interesting to look an example at the other end of the genre’s quality spectrum.  Is Detour the worst of the worst?  Some critics say no, even praise the film.  Roger Ebert, however, was not one of them.

Detour is a movie so filled with imperfections that it would not earn the director a passing grade in film school,” Ebert wrote.  “This movie from Hollywood’s poverty row, shot in six days, filled with technical errors and ham-handed narrative, starring a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer, should have faded from sight soon after it was released.”

But it hasn’t.

Tom Neal plays Al Roberts, the piano player.  He and his singer girlfriend, Sue, work in the same New York club.  He wants to get married but Sue tells him she wants to go to Hollywood to become a star.  They discuss the future as they stroll down a fog shrouded street. 

A location shot in New York must have been too expensive, so a fog machine clouds the Hollywood back lot so heavily that the scene could be New York. Or Bakersfield. There  aren’t even any establishing shots of Time’s Square or the Empire State Building.

Regardless, Sue heads for California and Roberts stays behind long enough to get lonely and decides to hitch hike across the country to see his girl.

To show Robert’s route, scenes of him thumbing a ride are interspersed with shots of a US roadmap.  The camera naturally pans along the map from right to left—east to west.  And when we see Roberts getting lifts, the cars are traveling right to left too—a cinematic convention to show westward travel.   

The problem, however, is that the vehicles all appear to be right-hand drive, traveling on the left side of the road—English fashion.  Ebert theorized that director Edgar Ulmer flipped the negative when he realized that conventional film grammar would call for right to left travel when moving west.  As a result, in one scene when a truck stops to pick up Roberts, he jumps in on the driver’s side.

Eventually the direction of travel straightens out when Roberts is picked up by a guy named Haskell who tells him he’s a bookie on his way to California to make money so he can make a triumphant return to Florida where he lost everything on one race.

 “One race.  Thirty eight grand. They cleaned out my book,” Haskell tells Roberts.  “How do you like that?”

 “That was tough luck.”

“Yeah and I’m supposed to be the smart guy. You just wait. I’m going back to Florida next season with all kinds of jack.  You watch those stinkers run for cover.”

Ann Savage and Tom Neal on the way to California pouting and sneering.

Roberts doesn’t seem to know what to make of the snappy repartee, but he sticks with Haskell who has been gulping some sort of pills that he keeps in the glove box.  When Roberts spells Haskell at the wheel, he’s forced to pull over during a rain storm to put up the car’s convertible top.  He gets out of the car and goes to the passenger side where Haskell is apparently sleeping.  But when Roberts opens the door, Haskell’s unconscious body falls out, his head hitting a rock. He’s dead.

What is Roberts to do?  Drive the body to the next town and call police?  Flag down another motorist for help?  Wish that cell phones had been invented in 1945?

Inexplicably, he feels trapped and reasons that asking for help and telling the story to police, is a bad idea. “They’d laugh at the truth and I’d have my head in a noose,” he says to himself in the self-pitying tone of his narration that runs throughout the movie.  So what else was there to do except hide the body, steal the man’s money, car and clothes and take over his identity.

Later in his journey Roberts is reluctantly mixed up with Vera (Ann Savage), a scheming young woman with a taste for alcohol and a penchant for tantrums. Nothing good—or interesting—happens to anyone through the second half of the picture.

Poor acting, clichéd writing and threadbare sets aside, Detour has a following. Fans laud the film’s overarching, non-stop bleakness as perfect noir.  But the plot’s wretched, dead-end future is only because Roberts is unbelievably foolish, taking the wrong turn at every crossroads. 

At least one critic—and fan of Detour—deconstructs the plot and theorizes that Roberts is not telling us the truth. In literary terms he’s an unreliable narrator.  Thus when he decides to dump Haskell’s body because the cops will surely blame him for a death that was likely of natural causes, he’s really misleading us.  His motive is strictly greed, but he gives viewers a more sympathetic, less selfish (albeit farfetched) excuse. 

 Whether Roberts is stupid or greedy is immaterial.  He’s still a sap—a name Vera uses on him later—in a plot that has nowhere to go. Deconstruction is not a tool to be applied to Detour.  That would be like analyzing the existential subtext of Gilligan’s Island.

But it’s not all bad.  One scene in Detour introduces a plot twist that’s so ingenious, so unexpected, it belongs in a different movie.  Hitchcock could have built an entire film around this twist.  In Detour, it’s quickly swamped by Vera’s hysterics, Roberts’ bad choices and the film’s general sloppiness.

Late in the movie Vera tells Roberts, “Your philosophy stinks pal. We all know we’re going to kick off some day. It’s only a question of when.”

And a question of whether or not you will have spent 67 minutes of your life on Detour.

Novel or screenplay: Film writer / novelist explains the challenges

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You’ve seen the movie, now read the book.  Or vice versa.  What’s the difference? Guest writer Nina Sadowsky, author of the new novel, JUST FALL, explains how her career in film and television prepared her to write the book.  Her background taught her what she knew, what she didn’t and where she was willing to take risks.

Writing for film and writing a novel are profoundly different experiences, while also markedly the same.  For both, one needs a compelling story, strong characters, a powerful conflict, and ultimately, a satisfying resolution.

But the two disciplines also differ in significant ways.  One is the collaborative nature of creating filmed content, versus the relative solitude of writing a novel.

Writing a novel is a far more solitary process than writing for media. Not entirely, of course, as every writer gets input from his or her inner circle of readers as well as their editor. But making filmed content is entirely Just-Fall---Sadowskydependent on collaboration. From the very beginning of the process, the writer is asked to factor in the perspectives and opinions of agents, producers and development executives, and as the project moves forward into production, the clamorous voices of a director, production designer, cinematographer, costume designer, composer, editor, sound team, etc., all chime in to the narrative mix. 

When functioning at its ideal, this is the beauty of filmmaking—all these creative people working toward the same goal can be quite glorious. On the other hand, the writer knows she or he not only has to satisfy many other voices in the script development process, but also knows that the finished script is not an end in itself, but only a road map for others to follow and contribute to in pursuit to the ultimate product.

Another crucial difference between writing a novel and writing for film and TV is the import and impact of structure.

Film and TV scripts usually conform to fairly rigid, codified rules of structure. There are good reasons for these structures, based on a combination of creative, psychological and business factors.  Studies have shown that audiences instinctively respond to the rhythm of a three-act structure in film, for example. And advertising-driven TV requires breaks to allow for ads (while creating cliffhangers to encourage viewers to return to the show after the commercial breaks).

If one is writing for film, one is trained to think about three acts. Act One is exposition, the set up of the world and characters, establishment of the protagonist’s objective, and the event that propels the protagonist’s story forward. Act Two is devoted to “rising action,” in which the protagonist is thwarted in achieving his or her goal and acquires the skills needed to achieve their desire. Act Three is the story’s climax and resolution. While there are proponents of a five-act structure, most films contain three. In television, a writer may find herself conforming to different structural requirements at every network.

There are certainly guidelines that apply to novel structure, but when I embarked on my first novel, JUST FALL, I decided I wanted to throw all structural rules out the window.  I began the book as a purely personal exercise. I’d felt my love of writing eroding and wanted to reinvigorate that love outside of an “assignment” or a job.  My sole goal when I started the book was to finish it, so I figured why not play with structure?

The book is told in alternating chapters, entitled NOW and THEN.  The NOW chapters are all linear. 

Author Nina Sadowsky

Author Nina Sadowsky

The THEN chapters are completely non-linear and are juxtaposed against the NOW chapters in order to best illuminate character.  This worked creatively on multiple levels, (not the least of which is that we meet my protagonist, Ellie Larrabee, in an island hotel room with a dead man in her bed.  The structure I settled on allowed me to then contrast that grisly opening with Ellie on the day of her wedding, a moment filled with hope, beauty, optimism and cultural and social resonance).

I wrote the forward story and the backstories separately and then index carded every chapter.  For months we had to eat dinner around the cards that lived in constant rotation on our dining room table.  I threw structure out the window and then created a new one all my own.  It was liberating and thrilling to do so.

My take away? There are always rules to writing. And also rules just waiting to be broken.

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Nina Sadowsky has worked in film and television in various capacities virtually her entire career.  She was a  producer, an executive, a director, a film professor and a screenwriter. As a result, she looked at creating filmed content from a variety of perspectives. Those experiences were part of her preparation for writing her first novel,  JUST FALL. 

She is the author of many original screenplays and adaptations, was executive producer for “The Wedding Planner,” starring Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey,  and produced “Desert Saints,” an independent film starring Kiefer Sutherland.  She has worked for The Walt Disney Company, Working Title Films, Signpost Films and Lifetime Television.  She is a member of the adjunct faculty at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.

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