Home Video Hovel: Detour, by David Bax
There’s a reason noir films appeal so strongly to certain people, particularly the smart but disillusioned teens and young adults who are just beginning to explore a passion for cinema. It’s not just the coolly pessimistic worldview that hooks them but the fact that, more often than not, the protagonist is the only one who sees things as they really are. For prime examples, see anything based on a James M. Cain novel. Think of Double Indemnity’s smug insurance drone or The Postman Always Rings Twice’s unemployed drifter with delusions of grandeur. These are Joe Schmoes housing inner, scowling Holden Caulfields. More often than not in these kinds of films, it’s not the cruelty of existence but a specific and angry arrogance that sets our anti-heroes on a path toward comeuppance.
Al, the protagonist of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, played by Tom Neal, fits right into the mold. He’s a piano player who is sure that his nightclub gig, playing background music for other people’s conversations, is below him. His girlfriend heads to Los Angeles to be a star and so he figures he ought to do the same. He sets out hitchhiking, he gets picked up, the driver dies, Al makes a bad decision and, just like that, you’ve got yourself a noir.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an according-to-Hoyle noir without a dame. Ann Savage burns so fiercely as Vera (what a femme fatale name!) that her mark remains on the genre to this day. When we first meet her, standing on the side of the road with a thumb and a leg angled toward oncoming cars, she is sans makeup and the wind is batting her unkempt hair from one side of her face to the other. She looks feral and all the sexier for it.
Ulmer has more with which to dazzle you than just Savage, though. Despite the Poverty Row production, Detour features some bravado use of light to create the long and subtly unnatural skulking shadows that belong as much to expressionism as to noir.
Detour was made right in the middle of the 1940s and right in the middle of the great noirs, after The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity but before The Big Sleep and Out of the Past. With all its genre trademarks – a guy in over his head, a gal leading him down the wrong path, angular darkness looming over it all – it could have run the risk of being a by the numbers excercise. Instead, unlike Al and so many others, it really did turn out to be exceptional.
The Detour DVD, available from Film Chest, has been digitally restored.