Detour (1945)

D: Edgar G. Ulmer
S: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake

Extremely oppressive film noir with pianist Tom Neal falling afoul of fate at every turn in a typical embodiment of the era's paranoia and despair about America's future. On a cross country trip to reunite with his estranged girlfriend (Claudia Drake), Neal is picked up by a helpful motorist (Edmund McDonald), who then, unhelpfully, dies in his sleep. Fearing police suspicion of a drifter, Neal dumps the body and steals his belongings in the vague hope of getting to his girl and resuming his old life. Unfortunately, he himself picks up the hitchhiker from hell not long after; the femme fatale as psychotic (Ann Savage), a woman so determinedly independent, manipulative and cruel that she makes Barbara Stanwyck look like a schoolgirl. She, of course, threatens to turn him in unless he complies with her wishes and lives out a twisted charade of a marital relationship.

It takes a little while for the actual plot to kick in here, and this is a film which was made on a tiny budget, so there are expected limitations. Ulmer's inventive exploitation of film noir's stylistic conventions makes for some interesting visual innovation. Tricks such as the use of masking to draw the viewer's eye to the actor's eyes in a side mirror and the shifting of focus in the absence of more complex processing tricks to suggest disorientation are great fun for the attuned and are the basis of the film's popularity among film students (Martin Scorsese included). But the story is a shade too cheesy and some of the dialogue much to melodramatic even by the standards of this particular type of thing. Yet the film has become a cult favourite, and it certainly raises many interesting questions for film buffs regarding the representation of gender and society in its time. It embodies many of the fears of then contemporary American males and its relentless darkness is in sharp contrast with some of the bigger budget alternatives, especially Michael Curtiz' prestige picture Mildred Pierce which won Oscar plaudits that same year.

But like all cult films, it is a seriously flawed work of cinema. It works more as a kind of tone poem on a theme of film noir than an actual film, and casual audiences will find its style easy to accept. But its plot, dialogue and performances a little harder to swallow, and often border on Russ Meyer-ish camp though no such thing was intended. Still, no one would have claimed it to be great art when it was made, and we ought not overdo our reaction to it now. Worth a peek on a slow night, but more a film for devotees of the form than someone just looking for an enjoyable movie.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.