Detour - 1945
Director(s): Edgar G. Ulmer
Writer(s): Martin Goldsmith
Cinematography by: Benjamin H. Kline
Editor(s): George McGuire
Cast: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald, Tim Ryan and Esther Howard
Edgar G. Ulmer is known by few for the B-movie work he did after being blacklisted from the major Hollywood studios in the 1930s (He had an affair with an actress that was married to the nephew of Universal studio head, Carl Laemmle). However, within those B-movies, he made while in exile, Ulmer shined thanks to his creativity within a bare bone budget system, showcasing his talent and promise as a director. Despite his unwelcome status, Ulmer managed to craft an all-time noir-classic in Detour. Thanks to Criterion I was able to watch it, so how about we talk about it.
The story follows Al Roberts (Neal), a down on his luck piano player hitchhiking his way back east from California. Through narration, Al tells the audience that his journey started in New York City and he crossed the country to reunite with his girlfriend that move to California to become an actor. During his trip, he meets a bookie named Charles Haskell, Jr. (MacDonald), who offers him to drive him the whole way. However, Al's luck runs out when Charles dies under mysterious circumstances leaving Al no option other than hide the body and assume his identity until he reaches California. Just as things start to look up for Al, he meets Vera (Savage), a fellow hitchhiker that knew Charles and knows what Al did to him. The way the story unfolds keeps the audience on their toes, as each event adds to the bad luck of our protagonist and there is no end in sight. The twist and turns told through Al's narration add a certain level of uncertainty since we cannot trust the source of information even if we wanted to believe his version of events.
Quick note: The protagonist is also unusual for the noir genre, as he is a self-pitying hero and to a certain extent the villain of the story depending on if you chose not to believe his version of the events.
The best example of Ulmer’s creativity as a director comes during the POV sequence of Al going through a nervous breakdown. Ulmer starts to focus and unfocus on things around the room placing the audience in Al’s shoes visually representing all the stress and confusion that is running through his body at the moment. Ulmer also gets wonderful performances from his stars even when they aren’t household names. Tom Neal brings a level of vulnerability that makes him stand out from the typical stoic noir lead that lights a cigarette and lets the audience in on his unlucky streak. By the end, he is so disheveled and distraught that he welcomes an end to his journey. While Neal is fantastic as the lead, this film belongs to Ann Savage as she wonderfully chews up every scene of every second, she is on screen. She is not your typical femme fatale since she is also down on her luck and doesn’t hide her intentions.
Detour is available thanks to Criterion and if it was not for them, I would not know of this hidden gem. While one can argue that Ulmer brought his exile on to himself, it is a sad thought to know that this talented director was stumped by a studio system built on favors and backroom deals (and I know this is the lesser of the evils that have occurred in Hollywood). Maybe in another timeline Detour is considered a true and true classic, and the names Ulmer, Neal, and Savage are commonly known. But for now, seek it out and enjoy it as the hidden gem that it is.
Detour is a Glass Half Full.
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