I Wake Up Dreaming 2015: Detour & Blues in the Night

I Wake Up Dreaming in Berkeley continues tomorrow night, Wednesday, September 9 at the Landmark’s California Theatre with two more gripping noir films, Detour and¬†Blues in the Night.

DETOUR (1945)Detour

DETOUR is the legendary poverty-row film noir (directed by Edgar G. Ulmer in six days, allegedly) that defies rational description and analysis. Coming out of one of the lowliest Hollywood studios of the day (Producers Releasing Corporation), it has outlasted many other bigger budgeted films and continues to fascinate audiences the world over.

My favorite assessment of DETOUR comes from Myron Meisel in a 1972 essay of his which was reprinted in the anthology Kings of the Bs: “Detour employs only three sets, plus a car driving interminably in front of an unceasing back-projection machine. The story is beneath trash: a musician is hitchhiking out to California to marry his girl, only to become inextricably entangled in a web of circumstance and fate. Detour is an exercise in sustained perversity, a consistent demonstration of the absence of free will. Tom Neal carries his five o’clock shadow with him as he worms his way from nightclub to beanery to barren motel room, writhing desperately to free himself, only to ensnare himself even further. It is not even a question of fatalism any longer–the mechanisms of disaster have long overwhelmed any of our own intimations of mortality. Ann Savage gives a performance that defies conventional credibility: ugly, unpleasant, a shrill, unmodulated embodiment of Yeats’s dictum that only the unexplained is irresistible.”

DETOUR is a film not to be trifled with. There are those who condescend to it because of its tawdry appearance and the unsavory backstory involving its star, Tom Neal. In the early 1950s Neal got into a heap of trouble for nearly beating fellow actor Franchot Tone to death as the result of a nasty lover’s triangle involving Hollywood bad girl Barbara Payton. In 1965, Neal began serving time for the “involuntary manslaughter” death of his wife. Released from prison in 1971, he succumbed to a heart attack in 1972.

The bizarre parallels between Neal’s real life and the character he portrays in DETOUR are at once alarming and bizarrely amusing. The film is nothing less than a treatise on the very nature of Fate itself.

Blues in the Night (1941) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Richard Whorf, Betty Field

BLUES IN THE NIGHT (1941)
The very idea of a film noir musical is something of an anomaly, but that is exactly what we have with Anatole Litvak’s 1941 jewel, BLUES IN THE NIGHT.

Largely overlooked for decades it has never been fully acknowledged in the film noir annals — and that is most unfortunate. For here is a film that succeeds on a variety of noir levels: a nearly doomed protagonist, a vicious femme fatale, a beautifully realized expressionistic style and a soaring jazz and blues score.

Richard Whorf stars asa Jigger Pine, a highly talented and temperamental musician with dreams larger than his fragile ego can handle. While languishing in a St. Louis jail cell with his bandmates (Elia Kazan, Billy Halop, Peter Whitney and later, Jack Carson and Priscilla Lane) he assembles a new unit, one that is dedicated to making music “their way.” Along the rocky way to stardom they cross paths with a desperate criminal (Lloyd Nolan) and his high strung girl friend (Betty Field).

BLUES IN THE NIGHT is filled with raucous music (much of which is provided by Jimmie Lunceford’s and Will Osborne’s orchestras) which punctuates the rapid paced action (this is, after all a Warner Bros. picture) to dizzying effect. The cast is first-rate and Litvak’s direction is razor sharp. For those who are still in doubt of its noir credentials, a viewing at the California Theatre in Berkeley this week should put an end to the debate. This is a noir film for the ages.

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