Essentials #22: DETOUR (1945)

Stylish. Pulpy. Fatalistic. Edgar G. Ulmer’s DETOUR is the definition of film noir, a period where hard-boiled men and women tore each other apart for entertainment. DETOUR is also an example of indie filmmaking at its finest. If you’re interested in film noir or want to learn about it, start here.

AL ROBERTS: “That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”

Clocking in at only 1 hour and 7 minutes, the movie takes you on a cruel journey of one man’s misfortune. Al Roberts (TOM NEAL) is a bitter piano player who ditches his nightclub gig in New York and hitchhikes to Los Angeles in order to see his girlfriend, an aspiring actress.

What a great setup for trouble.

I won’t spoil the details, but Al’s journey across America puts him in contact with a bookie named Charlie Haskell and a dame named Vera (ANN SAVAGE) — both major components to an unspooling of narrative fun. And obviously, money is involved. It always is.

Like many noir characters, Al recalls his tale with a level of world weariness, as if nothing can eliminate the pain of human existence. This is one of the essences of noir. A bleak, existential outlook on the suffering of life through either personal trauma, bad decisions, or lost love.

Tragically, all of Al’s misfortunes can be attributed to the futility of good intentions.

The latter half of the film becomes a tête-à-tête as old as time: Man v. Woman. While Tom Neal is pitch-perfect as our anti-hero (tragically, the actor’s real life had odd similarities with his character), Ann Savage steals the show. Her ‘Vera’ is one of the greatest movie villains. Conniving, snide, and incredibly vile, her character embodies the terrors of a sociopath. She is the perfect femme fatale.

Savage plays it tough, sexy, and oddly enough, charming. She can stop on a dime and go from helpless and needy, to commanding and dominant. And her delivery is great. She’s the kind of woman who’s got an endless buffet of one-liners and comebacks, which make it impossible for any man (or woman) to get a last word in.

So there you go: you got motivations for money, murder, and a wearied [and probably a WWII veteran] protagonist, and a femme fatale, all in a room together.

This is film noir in a nutshell.

The biggest misconception of film noir is that it’s a genre. It’s not. It’s more of an attitude. Film noir reflected a lot of what America was feeling at that point in history (~1940–1958). World War II caused PTSD and other mental traumas in American men; it also forced many women to take over the workforce and become more independent (a major precursor to the women’s lib movement of the 1960s). It wasn’t as romantic as we like to think. Many young peoples’ lives were destroyed by the great war.

I could write a 20 page essay on film noir and its historical connections (I actually did in college) but the main point I want to stress is that film noir reflects an America that is non-existent today.

America is extremely different than the America of 1945. That’s why any movie that attempts to be noir doesn’t really qualify. It was only in that post-war period that these films existed. They had to because it reflected the dark cultural psyche of a nation.

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DETOUR is made with the intention of creating a state of mind. It’s not meant to reflect a reality you and I are both familiar with, but a feeling of dread and paranoia. It’s like a nightmare world where fate and circumstance are a necessary function of pain and human experience.

This is why all the noir characters are so weary and subdued. They’ve resigned themselves to a life of sorrow due to the loss of an idealism they had once possessed in their younger selves.

I won’t spoil much but after repeated viewings, I began to think whether or not Al is really telling us the truth. Every time a bad thing occurs, he credits it as a curse. He absolves himself of any sort of responsibility, claiming fate had his number from the very start.

Is he hiding behind these rationalizations? Is he twisting his bad luck to fit the narrative and that perhaps, he is really a bad man? Again, this is Al’s version of what happened and it’s extremely unlikely to hit this amount of misfortune. Though it is the world of noir. It’s an interesting thought — I don’t know if it deserves credence, but it definitely paints another layer to an already great movie.If this was intentional, that is absolutely brilliant.

Goldsmith deserved an Oscar for his script because you can watch this movie two ways:

  1. We could view Al as this sympathetic guy who got the wrong end of the stick (main view)
  2. We could view Al as a pathological liar blinded by any sort of moral responsibility

And the movie works in either interpretation.

DETOUR is also great because of the filmmaking. Director Edgar G. Ulmer claims he shot the film in 6 days (Ann Savage says 24; however, 15 days is the widely believed number) on a $20–100k budget — whatever it is, that’s incredibly cheap and fast to shoot a movie, especially for a 35mm film from 1945.

What I love is how Ulmer embraces it. With the great eye of DP Benjamin H. Kline, they both create an seedy atmosphere of fog, shadows, light, and make great use of the interior spaces. Just look at some of the stills (above); simply staged — 10k lights with barn doors to create texture on the walls and faces. There’s another great scene with Al and his girlfriend in the city and you can tell it’s a fake set, but it’s interestingly fake. Like the world of the narrative.

Film noir is a state of mind. A story like this could only be made in this method. Fast and cheap. If a few million were added to the budget, it would lose its pulpy appeal. I actually saw a 35mm print in 2015 and it was one of my favorite movie-going experiences. There were cigarette burns, scratches, loss of frames; in fact, there were moments where I felt the film was going to wiggle out of the screen because it kept bouncing about in its sprockets.

Ideally, you want to watch a movie like this on 35mm film, in an old theatre. It’s like seeing an amateur porn mag in a rain-soaked gutter. Like I keep preaching, atmosphere is what keeps the audience engaged and ultimately, wanting more.

DETOUR is an inspiration to me as a filmmaker because given the technology we have now, there’s absolutely no reason to not be making films. Write a good [and budget-relative] script, find some decent actors, and let the magic come to life.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Martin Goldsmith’s dialogue is so great. I’ve tried to emulate noir writing but it never works because I feel like you either have to be a genius writer or have experienced the period when people talked like this.
  • David Lynch directly references the piano scene in this movie in his underrated film, LOST HIGHWAY (1997)
  • Pay attention to the motifs of circular objects in the film — fate is a cycle; an unforgiving one, according to Al
  • The film is so low budget that during the montage, if you notice, they actually flipped the film to maintain the visual continuity of hitchhiking from New York to Los Angeles (in this case, right-to-left) as they couldn’t afford reshoots

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

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Filmmaker | Photographer | MatthewOquendo.com

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