One of the things we often overlook when we get nostalgic about classic film noir is how shockingly cheap the genre was, at least the bulk of it. Slicker, major studio noir films like The Maltese Falcon packed the screen with gruffly handsome leading men & gorgeous femme fatales, but most noir pictures were from low-budget studios desperate to turn crime world sensationalism into tidy profits. Most classic noir is low-grade genre schlock that elevates its meager production values with an overbearing sense of style, especially in its adoption of German Expressionist lighting & cinematography. Edward G. Ulmer (who had once directed the German Expressionist-inspired horror classic The Black Cat for Universal) may have made the most quintessential example of this genre schlock alchemy. Ulmer’s Detour is the sweatiest, most explosively nervous noir I can ever remember seeing. Its limitations as a Poverty Row cheapie are apparent in every frame, and yet its overbearing sense of style & desperation achieve an overwhelming, nerve-racking effect throughout. It carries none of the suave, macho cool that major-studio noir is fondly remembered for; it’s cheap, sweaty, unglamorous, and incredibly exciting from start to end.
If you believe his dodgy, exponentially suspicious narration track, Detour‘s antihero protagonist isn’t even the hard-drinking criminal type we’re used to following as a noir lead. He’s merely a nightclub pianist hitch-hiking across the country to visit his out-of-town girlfriend. The way he tells it, he stumbles into his on-the-run outlaw status through no fault of his own, explaining, “That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” Through a truly unhinged internal monologue he recounts how his hitch-hiking travels were derailed when he befriended a wealthy gangster and “accidentally” killed him, having to assume the dangerous, sought-after man’s identity in order to keep up the appearance he was still alive. The narration is frantically, deliriously overwritten. He never simply says “diner waitress” when descriptive slang like “hash-slinger” will do. “Hitch-hiking” is too glamorous of a term, so he opts for “thumbing rides.” Money is “little green things with George Washington’s picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for […] pieces of paper crawling with germs.” Given its limited budget for staging legitimate set pieces or action-thriller payoffs, the movie is essentially an hour-long rant about a shitty vacation delivered at a machine-gun pace. It’s like listening to someone recite the screenplay for Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-hiker from memory at the crescendo of a gnarly coke binge.
As with a lot of low-budget genre fare, every character in Detour is explosively, inexplicably angry with little to no provocation. This is especially true of our lead’s main foil, Vera (Ann Savage), the only stranger who instantly sees through his false identity to expose the fraud underneath. Just when you start to feel like Detour is missing the tough, dangerous women that make noir classics so enjoyable despite their overwhelming, hard-drinking machismo, Savage crashes into the frame full force like an 18-wheeler plowing through the walls of an all-night diner. If the nervous tension of the picture is already unbearable before she arrives, it’s outright lethal once she takes over the sketchy hitch-hiker’s life and pushes him further down his aimless path of petty crime. She’s chaotic & unglamorous in a way that would never be allowed in a mainstream picture – more feral animal than femme fatale. The movie builds its tension entirely off the narrator’s deliriously overwritten dialogue and the anarchic propulsion of Savage’s performance. The expressionistic touches of Ulmer’s eye are only set-dressing, contextualizing those core sources of nervous-energy as the hallmarks of a bad dream that only gets worse the longer it spirals out.
Detour is one of those select films that’s so cheap it was allowed to slip into the public domain but was still afforded the Criterion Collection restoration treatment. That better-late-than-never acclaim is totally understandable even without the cineaste prestige of Ulmer’s name in the credits. This is the exact kind of low-budget, high-tension noir filmmaking that inspired the chaotic, handheld immediacy of the French New Wave (among other devotees who loved noir as the nasty, forsaken schlock it truly was). It’s wildly, discomfortingly cheap, to the point where it feels as if it’s barely under Ulmer’s control even though nothing especially intricate or extravagant happens onscreen. It’s pure noir in that way, even though we nostalgically remember the genre being a little more polished & better-funded than it was in its Poverty Row majority.
When looking back to the heights of Old Hollywood, what we’re really getting nostalgic for is the glut & extravagance of the old studio system. The high production values & workman sense of craft that went into each studio production in that era are missing from modern cinema’s more routine, mundane releases. For a brief, glorious time, even horror had its day in the sun during that studio era, particularly thanks to Universal’s Famous Monsters brand. This, of course, birthed the iconic career if Bela Lugosi, who starred in prestigious horror productions like The Black Cat & Todd Browning’s Dracula early in his career. Horror was treated as a flash-in-the-pan trend by the Hollywood studio system, however, and Lugosi’s leading man work eventually dried up. Shortly after putting in his final top-bill performance for a major studio in Columbia Pictures’ Return of the Vampire (which is widely considered to be an unofficial sequel to Dracula), Lugosi was nudged out of the major studio system and into B-picture work in the less nostalgia-worthy territory of Old Hollywood’s so-called “poverty row” studios, purveyors of schlock. The step down from Universal horror to poverty row B-pictures was exactly as drastic as it sounds and Lugosi’s first work for Monogram Pictures, The Ape Man, was clearly the actor’s first major “Oh, how the mighty have fallen” moment.
Although far from the worst, The Ape Man may be the first major embarrassment of Bela Lugosi’s career. It was also one of the few instances of his earlier works where he wasn’t asked to play a vampire. Instead, the Hungarian-born icon plays the titular ape man, the monstrous result of a failed experiment by the other horror movie staple he was often typecast as: a mad scientist. Weirdly enough, the film begins after the scientist has already transformed to his hideous ape man visage (which just looks like an especially hairy member of The Monkees). In later works like Alligator People or The Fly, that kind of introduction would mean that his failed experiment downfall would then be portrayed in a longform flashback. Instead, we’re simply told that he was once fully human and are asked to watch in horror as he hunts down innocent victims for their spinal fluid, which he shoots directly into his arm like heroin as a makeshift, temporary cure for his ape-ificiation (an image that would be just as shocking in the 40s as it is now, given heroin addiction’s prominence at the time). The ape man scientist dresses like a typical gangster when venturing out for these kills, equipped with a fedora and a cape. The difference is that instead of using a gun to slay his spinal fluid-providing victims, he uses his accomplice, an actual ape. The film’s main conflict is in following two news reporters as they get to the bottom of these mysterious killings, increasingly getting hot on the ape & ape man’s metaphorical tails. (Apes don’t have tails.)
The basic plot of The Ape Man has promise to it as a Bela Lugosi cheapie, but the film itself is a total embarrassment. The score is punishingly repetitive; Lugosi’s given nothing interesting to do outside donning the ape make-up; his primate accomplice is clearly just a dude in a costume shop gorilla suit; and the two reporters who chase them down cynically poke fun at the frivolity of the film’s premise, since horror had become something of a derided fad by the time of the film’s production. It probably doesn’t help that Monogram Pictures allowed The Ape Man to fall into public domain status, so the only commercially available prints are horrifically shoddy DVD transfers with nearly incomprehensible visual & aural clarity. I might’ve been better off streaming the film from YouTube than watching my bargain bin physical copy (purchased from a yard sale), but at least I got to exercise my rudimentary lip-reading skills?
The worst part about all of this is knowing that things only got worse for Bela Lugosi’s career. He might’ve had a couple decent Universal productions left in him as second fiddle to rival Boris Karloff (1945’s The Body Snatcher is especially great), but the rest of his career as a leading man would be relegated to works exactly like this slice of poverty row dreck. Even though The Ape Man was a nothing of a film, that wouldn’t stop Lugosi & Monogram from teaming up again for its sequel, Return of the Ape Man. Lugosi would even work again with The Ape Man director William Beaudine, whose prestigious credits include titles like Billy the Kid Versus Dracula & Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, on the infamously terrible Martin & Lewis knockoff Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. At least that poorly-remembered gem is notably terrible, though. It’s possibly the most shrill & aggressively unfunny film I’ve ever seen, but The Ape Man is an even worse kind of awful: the unforgivably bland kind. It’s the first truly sour note in a career that had outworn its welcome in the Old Hollywood studio system, even if that career persisted endearingly in horror fans’ hearts in the more forgiving decades since. Yet, its worst offense is in being an entirely forgettable bore.