It had always seemed that Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, made in 1945 for PRC, was unique in the annals of B film noir … but that was because this Monogram movie, made a year later, was so obscure until recently. It doesn’t even have the auteur frisson of an Ulmer credit, since director Jack Bernhard made few and little-seen films (his most famous credit is probably the dinosaur movie Unknown Island), and the leading lady who gets an ‘introducing Miss Jean Gillie’ credit didn’t follow this extraordinary debut with anything (she’d been in a bunch of minor British films I now want to track down just because she’s in them). It has several standout sequences, but the shot-in-a-week haste does show in some cramped, chatty mid-film scenes (this is a 76 minute movie which would play better at 65) and a few moments which suggest an ambition (a monologue about the mill town the monster is supposed to have come from) that Bernhard probably nurtured for bigger things. However, Gillie’s Margot Shelby is among the most unrepentantly monstrous femmes fatales in noir (because of her British accent, she’s a precedent for Peggy Cummins and Jean Simmons in later roles) and this boasts one of the wildest, strangest scripts (by Nedrick Young, from a story by Stanley Rubin) in the genre.
In a terrific opening shot, we see a dirty sink and foul mirror in a gas station washroom and then a bloody-handed, zombie-eyed man (Herbert Rudley) in a dishevelled suit looms into view. He staggers out and hitches a ride to San Francisco, then goes up to the suite of the glamorous Margot and shoots her even as she kills him (it’s as if he’s already dead but needs killing again, which is a theme in the film). In walks a snappily-dressed, shady character (Sheldon Leonard) we take for a gangster (Leonard seldom played anything else) but turns out to be cop Sergeant JoJo Portugal, who gets the dying woman to recount her story. In Double Indemnity and other noirs, it’s the man ensared by the killer dame who provides the narrative – but here we’re with the monster as she runs through a series of disposable guys in her attempt to get rich. Margot is the girlfriend of Frank Olins (Robert Armstrong), a convicted murderer who is going to the gas chamber without revealing where he’s stashed the loot from a heist, and he’s too smart to tell her where it is, so she’s scored funding from another gangster (Edward Norris) to pull off a daring rescue … by seducing the prison doctor, Craig (Rudley), she gets the corpse smuggled out, fresh from the execution, and revives him with the magic-sounding (but real) drug ‘methyl blue’. Olins draws a map and gets killed permanently, and Margot goes after the loot, leaving dead, broken and damned men in her wake. In an amazing finish, we return to the storytelling and Margot askes the cop to come ‘down to my level for a change’ … perhaps as spellbound as everyone else, JoJo lowers himself (for a kiss?) and she laughs in his face.
In the words (later) of Billy Wilder, ‘I’ve met some hardboiled eggs in my time, but you – you’re twenty minutes’. Like Detour, this makes a virtue of low budget – the sets all seem made of chipboard, and even Margot’s prized furs look ratty. It has a few familiar faces, but no one with a lasting cult – and yet everyone is perfect. Gillie is blankly beautiful, with her hair up or down, and her line readings vary (to suggest her duplicity or just the limits of her acting talent?) but she’s devastating (that laugh is among the most chilling gotchas in the movies). It has its great minor grotesques: the whore’s maid who keeps a wary eye on the parade of stupid men, the prison morgue attendants bickering about big words (the seeming dummy corrects his smarter pal on the pronounciation of ‘dichotomy’). The punchline, inevitably, is that the twice-dead Ollins has the last laugh – he’s given his killers directions to a box containing one single dollar (‘to you who double-crossed me … I leave this dollar for your trouble. The rest of the dough, I leave to the worms’).