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The MacGuffin: News and Comment (24/Jul/2000)

(c) Ken Mogg (2000)

July 24

At long last, I tonight finally got to watch Edgar G. Ulmer's classic low-budget film noir, Detour (1945). As I already half suspected, a possible influence on Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) was pronounced. And I see that James Naremore, in 'More Than Night: Film Noir In Its Contexts' (1998), has pointed out the connection. Naremore writes: 'Like a great many film noirs about the open road, Detour represents the western frontier as a desert and the quest for individual freedom as a meaningless circle or a trap. It anticipates the imagery of Hitchcock's Psycho by almost thirty years: a barren landscape viewed through an automobile window; a protagonist who drives by day and night, staring into a rear-view mirror and hearing voices from out of the past; a sinister highway patrol officer with dark glasses; a used-car dealership; and a cheap and deadly motel room.' (p. 148) That phrase about the quest for personal freedom being 'a meaningless circle or a trap' may remind some of us of the 'pessimistic' philosophy (or, rather, attempted objective description of a cosmic principle) of Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher whose Romantic world-view (it seems to me) most often resembles Hitchcock's - let's not forget that film noir has an ultimate 'context' that is more than just a visual style or a set of post-War attitudes. Just as importantly, something that Naremore implies as being shared by Ulmer's and Hitchcock's films is how both are essentially subjective presentations: Detour constantly, being narrated throughout by its hapless protagonist Al Roberts (Tom Neal), and Psycho in its first 40 minutes or so, when the audience is swept up in the madness of Marion (Janet Leigh) as she steals $40,000 and drives from Phoenix, Arizona, towards her lover Sam (John Gavin), who lives near Bakersfield, California. Significantly, the second half of Detour, after Al meets the girl Vera (Ann Savage), follows a practically identical route - both Phoenix and Bakersfield are mentioned in that film's dialogue and narration. Like so many other 'borrowings' by Hitchcock, then, the possible indebtedness of parts of Psycho to Ulmer's film reflects Hitchcock's awareness of what will make good 'cinema': subjective effects are invariably cinematic. (The low-budget Detour, much of which is just shots of Al in a car, would have appealed to Hitchcock on both monetary grounds - he wanted to make Psycho as cheaply as possible - and aesthetic ones: cf his view that you could make a film in a telephone-box, if you had to.) Two further observations now. Firstly, I'm reminded of Hitchcock-authority Bill Krohn's point (it's on the Web, in a review of my book) that Hitchcock 'saw everything', and regularly attended a repertory cinema in San Francisco run by Gary Graver who would later work as a cinematographer with Orson Welles. Secondly, other films-noirs that seem to foreshadow parts of Psycho include John Farrow's Where Danger Lives (1950 - script by Hitchcock's longtime associate Charles Bennett), Abner Biberman's The Night Runner (1957), and Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958, starring Janet Leigh).

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