Detour (1945) is high noir, low budget and endlessly fascinating. Like many of Edgar G. Ulmer’s films it was shot in 6 days; ‘Just visualise it,’ said Ulmer, ‘eighty set-ups a day.’ It’s hard to visualise, but it sure is heroic. Normally, this approach would produce a clunky and directionless mess, but occasionally as here, it can still produce a gem. It's what they used to call a 'poverty row quicky', for the high-speed and low-expense of its production, and there is something about this format that really lets the subversive implications of noir rise to the surface.
Detour is a fatalistic road-movie featuring the broke, the dissatisfied and a spade of bad luck. At heart it’s a tense anti-buddy relationship, between actors Tom Neal and Ann Savage. I keep thinking that it is my favourite noir, given how bleak and cheap and evil it is. It's twisted in a way that is hard to achieve these days, and what buffs call a 'low-rent masterpiece.'
Above all Detour is a sordid tale of many losers - one loser in general - and that loser's self deluded narrative, which painfully falls apart over the course. Yep, the story is replete with outrageous coincidence, but that is story-telling for you, and these things happen. The fatal final words sum it up: 'Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.'
And everyone takes a battering, even Tom Neal's piano when at one point he offers up a crazed rendering of a Brahms waltz. There is nothing he or anybody can do, and in fact his struggle against fate is what makes him so hopeless, and what drives the movie to its final destination, the electric chair. You know this coming, you can hear it in that incessant and confessional voiceover, you can see it in the pessimism and doom that he and Ann Savage share, in the claustrophobic surroundings of their car and in their hotel room.
The car, incidentally, because of the cheap back projection, looks just as like a prison cell as the hotel room, and Detour actually benefits from being cheap. It suits these bums and reinforces the metaphorical aspect of their journey, their own endless detouring as they try and put off the inevitable. In this respect, Detour is nothing more than a fantasy, an image from hell itself.
Tom Neal himself had a kind of noir career, injuring actor Franchot Tone so badly in a fight that he was ostracised in Hollywood, turning instead to landscape gardening, until he was sentenced to jail for shooting his wife in the head, and killing her. Tom Neal served 6 years for this crime and died within a year of his release. Neal’s son, Tom Neal Jnr made one film, reprising his dad’s role, in a 1992 remake of Detour, which is a must-see for the avid noir collector. Franchot Tone had two sons with Jean Wallace (star of The Big Combo) and she had one with Cornel Wilde. Everything they say about incestuous Hollywood is therefore proved true, just by these guys alone. Read about Tom Neal on Wikipedia, if you dare.
In his time, Edward G. Ulmer directed about every type of cheap movie there is — including the noirs Bluebeard (1944), Strange Illusions (1945), Ruthless (1948) and Murder is My Beat (1955). But he also made sci-fi (The Amazing Transparent Man, 1960), horror, low-budget epic and nudist films.
What are the noir elements at work and play in Detour? First the (anti)hero, who is on edge and in something of as nervous panic in every scene. Tom Neal excels at this, and is terrified of his shadow and seconds away from a cold, unshaven sweat in scenes, even when he doesn’t need to be. Next, the dame. She is attractive, cold, and more ruthless than Lady Macbeth. Combined with the hero’s indecision and fateful lack of confidence, a classic anti-marriage evolves. Tight on rum she strumpets herself around the apartment. He paces up and down at the window, trousers unfeasibly high above his waistline. Cinematic joy, all round.
Then there are the supporting characters; cops who always turn up at the most inopportune moment, but suspect nothing. And members of the public, who in classic noir mode, suspect everything, and seem to be about to blow the whole thing wide open.
That’s key to true noir. Central to every noir is a crime, whether it be one of passion, or even an almost accidental or subconsciously committed crime, as in this case. Your weakness and indecision are going to plunge you into an anti-social hell from which there is no escape, and it’s this separation from the world at large that gives the general public their lethal quality in noir. Think of the witness, the ‘Medford man’ in Double Indemnity, a fool in one respect, but the world-shatteringly loose pin in the wheel in another.
One of noir’s other greatest capabilities is the fatally unlucky coincidence, and this is perfectly captured in Detour, and twice. I say perfectly, because coincidence is a difficult thing to pull off, given that while audiences in general don’t mind a crazy coincidence if it keeps the plot rolling, you can never be sure how far you can stretch these things.
As an early road movie, Detour doesn’t depict the road as a place of freedom, but rather as a trap, a place of restraint. There are none of the landscape shots normal to road movies in it, probably due to its budget, and the cast is too small for any incidental characters of note. The detours are endless and the journey is interminable, and the low production values create a meaning all of their own. Tom Neal’s voiceover for example, adds a weird unreliable aspect but also covers up gaping plot holes, and the constant use of the process screen and the film loop of the passing desert creates an even deeper feeling of being trapped. Ulmer was in fact a low-budget master. Often, instead of using a clapperboard he would shoot quickly orchestrated master shots and reaction shots of actors, putting his hand over quickly over the lens to save time and precious film stock.
I’ve been calling Detour noir, but in terms of classification, it has a few other things going for it. It may even be known as one of the first classics of post-war cinema, being released in November 1945. It is however Ann Savage who raises Detour from the genres of noir and thriller into that of horror. Possibly the reason why the film still holds its head up high today, 70 years later, standing proud alongside every cinematic achievement since 1945, is her performance, which is ugly-wicked and horrific.
There is one striking moment in Detour when the film swings from thriller/road-movie mode, into the inextricable mess that leads to everybody’s downfall, and it’s when Ann Savage turns to accuse Tom Neal in the car. It’s because of Ann Savage that Detour was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The look she gives Tom Neal is as memorable and fatal as anything else on screen, as she announces herself as one of the great screen psychos.
The Motion Picture Production Code, a set of moral censorship guidelines that governed the production of most United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968, meant that the ending of the film isn’t quite what you may like or expect. But one of the code’s key tenets was that murderers were not to be seen to get away with their crimes. There was actually a heap of hokey BS in the code that I’d like to look at another day, but as with everything else in Detour, the end is over quickly, and so you can’t be too bothered that it isn’t the conclusion you’d like.
There are countless ways to see Detour for free on the internet, including at archive.org/details/detour where you can download it straight to your computer, and because it's public domain it's also all over YouTube, and other video sites. Another bonus is that Detour is only an hour and seven minutes long which is such a relief, given that the trend today is for producing three hour ass-crunchers which are often not worth the effort.