About eight years ago, I watched Detour (1945) for the very first time. I was in the early stages of my film buff-ness, and I wanted to consume as many movies as possible. Film noir had become my favorite genre and I couldn’t wait to get through them all. I’d heard about Detour and its B-movie reputation may have preceeded it in my estimation. I knew this wasn’t going to be the greatest noir and I, foolishly, dismissed it even after watching it. My film buff mind, at that time, craved Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum and Gloria Grahame; it craved impeccable shots and even better reputations in the classic movie pantheon. Detour had none of that. And I simply brushed it aside. Last year, after watching it for second time, far too long after the first time, I realized how wrong I’d been all these years. After watching it again, it came 27th in last year’s top 30 favorite noirs here at the Garden, but it has now moved up a couple places, at least. Why, you ask? Because Detour is a masterpiece and I quite simply adore it. Funny how things change.
Edgar Ulmer’s greatest movie starts with Al Roberts (Tom Neal) sitting in a roadside café in Reno, Nevada. A customer buys some music from a jukebox and the song transports Al and the viewers to a happier, albeit bittersweet place. In this flashback, we witness his former life in New York City, with his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake), the love of his life. He is a pianist, she a singer; they perform in a nightclub and they have big plans for the future. But because noir won’t let anybody be happy, she changes her mind and goes to Hollywood by herself. He promises to meet her there so they can make it big and be together. Problem is, he has no money. So he hitch-hikes… Somewhere along the way, Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) gives him a ride. That night, they switch seats, and after a while, it starts raining and Al stops the car to put the top up while Haskell is asleep. Only he isn’t, as Al discovers when he opens the passenger’s side door and Haskell falls out, dead… Fearing he might get framed for Haskell’s death, Al takes the man’s clothes and everything he has, dumps his body in the woods and drives to California, with the intention of getting rid of the car. Once in California, he picks up a hitch-hiker himself: Vera (Ann Savage), who, twenty minutes into the journey, reveals to Al that she knows Haskell is dead and that this is his car. Turns out, she hitched a ride from him back in Lousiana…
Detour quite simply won’t let you breathe. At just one hour and seven minutes, it feels a lot longer. Its characters, dialogue and twists hit you where it hurts and you can only wish you could get more of it. You don’t need it though. Everything you need is there. We have a down-on-his-luck protagonist, who wants to run away from his past, because the future, whatever it looks like, is a lot more appealing than nearly everything he experienced up until this point. And right here, in this café in the middle of nowhere, he has no choice but to daydream about his once-happier life. In this flashback, we realize Al Roberts used to be someone. A talented musician with an equally talented girlfriend, and a life to look forward to. As he decides to hitch-hike his way to Sue, fate ‘sticks out a foot to trip you’, in his own words. Even more awful is the fact that he did nothing to deserve what happened to him. In a genre that is full of unlucky guys, Al Roberts might just be the unluckiest of them all. One could argue that he is an unreliable narrator, since his is the only account we have on what happened, but this wouldn’t be the first time we’ve had to suspend disbelief while watching a noir (looking at you, Decoy (1946)…). For all we know, and this is indeed all we know, Al Roberts did nothing wrong. To begin with, that is. After Haskell’s death, what can he do but try and get out of this situation? And that’s when things start to go downhill. Because in film noir, there is no happy ending. In film noir, your choices dictate your fate. In this case, Haskell’s death is but a catch-22. Either tell the police what happened and risk them not believing you, or get out of it your own way. And if Haskell’s death provides a choice, then picking up Vera seals Al’s fate. Vera and everything that comes with her, is the punishment for a poor decision. She’s evil and malicious and she doesn’t care that he knows it. With a rough exterior and a rough personality to match, Vera is living her own nightmare. She wants a break. And she’s ready to do anything, because as we soon find out through their interactions, her past (‘back there…’) isn’t perfect either. And so she has to be rough. And tough. She’s all no-nonsense, because how else would you deal with all that life’s thrown your way? There is no seduction in her eyes, no sultry tone in her voice, no hiding of her true intentions. What you see is what you get with Vera. And she will ruin Al, without mercy. She’s the film’s femme fatale, and in the truest definition of the name. In fact, I’d say she’s one of the greatest femme fatales of all time. Because she’s the most raw. Which is only appropriate as Detour is quite possibly the most raw noir of all. And this is where its B-movie status comes in handy. Sure, it’s a B-movie, but is that a bad thing? Of course not. The low budget reflects itself in the film’s tone, mood and cinematography and that, to me, is a bonus. The sharp change of lighting during the flashback, for example, is a stroke of genius. The camera closes in on Al’s face, and his eyes light up as begins his flashback in a way that seems amateur-ish, but actually it works oh so wonderfully. Detour‘s nature doesn’t need any more than that. It’s stark, raw and rugged and that’s what you get. The film’s attempts at re-creating a look that is as close to the genre as possible are futile because ultimately Detour can do without it. That’s not to say it doesn’t look good. It does. It just doesn’t need to look like anything else. It does, however, sound like its contemporaries. The dialogue is to die for and nearly every line is textbook noir. In particular, the last one, which, to me, encapsulates film noir perfectly: ‘Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me. For no good reason at all’. And there it is. This sense of despair, of helplessness, of inescapable doom that comes with film noir, summed up in one sentence. And it’s perfect. I don’t think there has ever been a noir that is so completely void of hope as Detour. There is absolutely nothing in it to comfort you, nothing to take the edge off. Nothing to make you believe things might actually get better. The image of Sue comes up every once in a while and we, like Al, try to cling to it as much as we can, but we know it’s hopeless. Ironically for a road thriller called Detour, there is no way out.
Detour never gets the praise it deserves as quintessential film noir, but damn it, isn’t it? As much as Out of The Past (1947), even. Sure, it doesn’t look as good and it doesn’t enjoy the same budget and means, but everything else is there. Maybe that’s a good thing. Detour is special. And that’s something nobody can take away from it.