(1945) director Edgar G. Ulmer
Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is one of the best film noir ever made. Not just my opinion, but one that is widely shared. But unlike some of the other finest noir films, Detour was filmed on the lowest of budgets, often referred to as “poverty row” pictures, and both because of and despite its limited and cheap constructs, is a bleak and vivid a noir film as there is ever made. I had seen Detour some years ago and it had stuck with me.
Tom Neal is a piano playing schmoe in New York whose girl heads off to California to try to make it big. After their initial split, he decides to follow her out there so that they can get married. As Neal hitchhikes his way across the country, he gets a ride with a garrolous fellow who is heading all the way to Los Angeles. But when Neal stops the car to rest and tries to rouse the car’s owner, the owner falls out of the car and hits his head, dying instantly. Sure that he’s going to be blamed for killing the man, Neal does the only thing he can think of, steals the man’s car, clothes, and identity, with the plan of ditching the car once he makes LA.
The film is narrated by Neal in voiceover, a reflection on what has brought him to be where he is, haunted and cast in shadow and weird lighting at some diner in Bakersfield. But the illogic of his choices start to call into question the verity of his storyline. No one will believe him because it’s so unbelievable that he didn’t kill the man. Maybe we don’t even believe him.
As Neal hits the road again for LA, he picks up another hitchhiker, a young woman, Patricia Savage. Only it turns out that Neal had ridden with the original owner of the car and immediately sizes up the situation and takes control, lest she report Neal to the cops. She’s as hard-boiled as they come and gets him to head to LA with her in tow, pretending to be the dead man and his wife.
Savage is savage, an emotional rollercoaster of a broad, ten thousand times more wise than Neal, biting his head off and bullying him, while drinking and being vicious. Savage’s performance is really something else, suggesting so much, while veering between viciousness and vulnerability. Neal is just a sap, with the face of an injured puppy dog, but also the mug of the Depression and depression.
Like so many film noir protagonists/lovers, they are in a spiralling dance of death. And the dramatic event, the twist in the story that makes it so weird and lurid, what pushes them both over the edge, is just a strange and clever plot device.
For a film that is not even 70 minutes long, made on the way cheap, starring an actor and actress for whom this was their biggest claim to fame, what is created is nothing short of grand cinema magic. The film has a ruthless air of depression and doom, but is vibrant and clever.
And interestingly, this film, which was selected by the United States National Film Registry for preservation (showing a keen and selective eye for this diamond in the rough), is part of the public domain. Available on DVD in several formats as a result, it is also available for free download on the web from a number of sites. And it is just plain one of the great films out there.