Invariably, the idea of watching a B movie is always more satisfying than the actual experience of watching one. For two examples, consider Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945). Both are “classics,” but they also illustrate how the ideas behind a B movie are often more interesting than the movies themselves.
Carnival is about Mary (Candace Hilligoss), the lone survivor of car crash that killed two friends. She’s suitably haunted by her experience and feels dead inside. But she isn’t just haunted by survivor’s guilt—a mysterious figure only she can see is literally haunting her. And all this has something to do with a deserted carnival on the outskirts of the small Utah town where she works as a church organist.
In Detour, a pianist named Al (Tom Neal) hitchhikes to LA to see his girlfriend, who’s trying to become a star. When he accidentally kills a big spender along the way, he decides the best thing for him to do is bury the body and assume the dead man’s identity. His plan seems to be working pretty well, too, until he picks up Vera (Ann Savage), a tough cookie who’s wise to him and threatens to rat him out if he doesn’t help her scam the dead man’s family out of some inheritance money.
In both cases, the acting is awful, and the plot of Detour in particular is hopelessly contrived. That we’re still watching either is a testament to the resourcefulness of Harvey and Ulmer, who knew how to do a lot with very little. And then there’s those big ideas. Because Carnival was an independent release, it could push boundaries that higher profile films of the time couldn’t because of the Production Code, which was in place from 1934 to the late 1960s. With Mary’s skeptical attitude toward Christianity, her disregard for authority, and her Quagmire-esque neighbor who can’t get his day started without a little help from Dr. Jim Beam, Carnival is hot stuff (for 1962 standards). It’s just too bad that its few genuinely suspenseful moments are ruined every time an actor opens his mouth.
The same goes for Detour. With a not-too-bad beginning, Ulmer’s film noir devolves into a gabfest with the ricketiest of plots. What salvages it (and that’s being generous) is Al’s struggle with the American dream. Everything he does is motivated by his need to transcend his economic station. And because he ultimately fails, Detour exudes a sense of wear futility that makes it easy to identify with. Does it go as far as saying that the American dream has failed? A case could be made that it does. And that would be fine, if the movie actually made sense. Al’s supposedly rational decisions required enormous leaps of faith on my part. I’m as willing to suspend disbelief as the next man, but this movie asks for more than I can give it.