Sunday, March 28, 2010

#28: Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)

Released: November 30, 1945

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer; Screenplay: Martin Goldsmith and Martin Mooney based on the novel by Goldsmith; Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline; Music: Leo Erdody; Producer: Leon Fromkess; Studio: Producers Releasing Corporation

Cast: Tom Neal (Al Roberts), Ann Savage (Vera), Claudia Drake (Sue Harvey), Edmund MacDonald (Charles Haskell, Jr.), Tim Ryan (Nevada Diner Proprietor), Esther Howard (Holly, Diner Waitress), Pat Gleeson (Joe, Truck Driver at Diner), Don Brodie (Used Car Salesman)

- “That's life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you…”

Peter Bogdanovich summed it up best when commenting on the work of Edgar G. Ulmer: “Nobody has ever made good pictures faster or for less money.” This most definitely applies to Ulmer’s most famous film, Detour. The circumstances surrounding its production are now legendary in noir circles. Made for Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), which was considered low budget even among Poverty Row contemporaries, it probably would have been impossible to make Detour any faster or cheaper. Instead of following the detailed, 130-page script that Martin Goldsmith adapted from his own novel, Ulmer had to completely slash it, cutting and pasting what he could in order to produce it as quickly as the studio demanded. The entire movie was shot in six days and for under $20,000 dollars, and it looks every bit as cheap and thrown together as one would expect. It has no business being as powerful as it is, but it has remained enthralling for generations of cult followers and maintains a reputation as a cornerstone of the film noir canon.

The best analogy that I can produce to try and explain the appeal of Detour is comparing it to the music of raw blues or garage rock. Just as those forms of music are appealing because of the simplicity and pure emotion, Detour derives its power precisely because it maintains such a raw, filthy atmosphere. Let’s face it, the low budget surroundings and horrendous video quality are perfectly suited to themes as dark as those dealt with in film noir. Since I’ve already quoted one big name movie personality, I might as well add another. Roger Ebert put it perfectly when he said: “’Detour’ is an example of material finding the appropriate form.” This is absolutely true. Detour looks horrible – as it should. Al sees his life as having become a walking nightmare and whether intentional or not, Ulmer’s shoestring budget and lack of resources only serves to reinforce this.

The story is simple, coincidental, and probably preposterous depending upon how you take it. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a New York nightclub piano player who decides to travel cross-country to reunite with his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake). Sue left for Los Angeles weeks before with hopes of making it big in Hollywood, but things do not go as planned. Unable to wait any longer, Al decides on a whim to surprise her in L.A. Hitchhiking his way across the country, Roberts is picked up by a gambler named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) who offers to take him all the way to the coast. Continually popping pills as he drives, it turns out that Haskell has a heart condition and while Al is driving for him, Haskell slips off to sleep and never wakes up. Fearing that the police would pin the death on him, instead of alerting the authorities, Roberts decides to just assume Haskell’s identity – along with his money – and continue traveling. Things are going smoothly until he decides to pick up a female hitchhiker. The rough looking Vera (Ann Savage) turns out to the person that Haskell had picked up and kicked out of his car before stopping for Roberts. She knows that Roberts is a fake and threatens to run to the police if Al doesn’t do whatever she asks.

There are no performances that one would show in an acting class, but Tom Neal is incredibly effective in playing Al as the weary traveler who feels like the entire world is working against him. For the short period that he is on-screen, Edmund MacDonald is very good as the gambler on the cusp of hitting it big, recounting his struggles with woman and bookmaking. Ann Savage is seductively evil. But the real star remains Ulmer and the small things that he does to create a genuinely great movie. His cost-cutting and time-saving practices are almost funny to consider now, doing things like flipping negatives so as to be able to show Al moving in different directions. Most importantly for my reading of the film is the way that he returns to the same eerie shot of Al’s face, with everything around him blanketed in darkness except for the a strip of light that reveals his eyes. As Al recounts the story in a flashback, Ulmer continually returns to these eyes of a madman, adding a whole new layer to the film. This crazed look, combined with the rambling, incoherent nature of much of the narration, still makes me wonder if the entire story is not one demented man trying to rationalize his actions. Unable to cope with what he has done – killing the man who picked him up, murdering someone else later – he instead blames everything on Fate. Nothing is ever his fault; it is always Fate that is out to get him. This is not reliable information that we are receiving. I don’t know, maybe I’ve seen too many David Lynch films, but this is the feeling I get every time I watch it.

Detour remains a marvel and its legacy baffling to those that don’t care for it. I don’t know if an appreciation of Detour can be acquired. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the film will either appeal to you at a very gut level or be far too camp to enjoy. For me, I don’t know that another noir has ever captured the grim outlook and sense of doom that permeates all of noir better than Ulmer does in Detour.


  1. Well I'm one of those people that finds the appeal of this film somewhat baffling. Its not that I think it's a terrible film just that its so overrated. The garage rock reference is perfect. This movie is The Shadows of Knight or The Sonics while your two previous films plus most of the ones yet to be introduced are like The Beatles, Velvet Underground, The Byrds, and The Beach Boys, etc. I would never suggest that Detour doesn't belong on this list. The fact that it was made so fast and cheaply makes it a Poverty Row classic. I just think people are enamored by it precisely because its campy, over the top, and so badly made. I always liked the premise that Al's narration is not to be trusted. It's like he's lying to the audience to garner sympathy for his obvious crimes. We are like a jury as he pleads for his life or to avoid jailtime. Maybe I'm a little perverse but i find Ann Savage to be really sexy in this film. I don't want to be the negative guy I just would rank it about 30 spots lower.......M.Roca

  2. Hard to argue with M. Roca. With all due respect I wouldn't think this would make the top 50. However as you said it is possible you either really like this or...?
    I am not condemning it either. It works. I just think it has been over appreciated if that makes any sense.

  3. No problem with disagreement... as frequent visitor Sam Juliano would say, I feel comfortable with my position too, with scores of previous film writers, critics, directors, etc. that support my own position. Personal taste is personal taste, there's no way we're going to agree on every placement.

    M.Roca - Yes, this one may be The Sonics to previous efforts from The Beatles or The Byrds, but there's something to be said for the primitive energy of garage rock of the era. Is it "better?" Probably not, but that doesn't mean that it's wrong if somebody prefers it to more refined, better made contemporaries.

    Moremiles - Your position makes sense, I just disagree. I would be surprised by a noir list where this _didn't_ make the Top 50, so we obviously feel different toward it. But that's what makes these things interesting!

  4. Hahaha, talk about FATE that inevitably bites your a** in the end! That poor schmuck was destined to go down. Did I sympathize with him? No, I didn't. Some people just have no business looking for a paradise (on the earth or above), 'coz they are not suited for it in the first place. The guy should have found something WITHIN himself, instead of trying to find something WITHOUT (be it a lost girlfriend or a sunny California). He is just as empty and hollow and unattractive inside as this movie settings.

  5. M. Roca and "moremiles" are completely off the mark, as this econimical film noir has earned every bit of its stellar reputation, and the rightful reference points in so many studies of the form. But it's an exceedingly entertaining, and as you astutely point out, it's dingy look is perfectly wed to this material.

    In a marvelous essay you make a superb point here:

    "The best analogy that I can produce to try and explain the appeal of Detour is comparing it to the music of raw blues or garage rock. Just as those forms of music are appealing because of the simplicity and pure emotion, Detour derives its power precisely because it maintains such a raw, filthy atmosphere."

    DETOUR would make my own Top 30, no question.

  6. Dave, what makes this film important is that despite shoddy filmmaking, and mediocre acting, "Detour" captures the bleak, desperate and paranoid mood that defines so much of film noir. Doomed characters spiraling downward were never portrayed better.

  7. Sam - I agree... this one just has a raw powerful that may be hard to identify, but it certainly exists for a large number of noir fans.

    John - Completely agree. In terms of doom and bleakness, Detour is just about as good as it gets.

  8. God, I love this film. Not only do I think it very much belongs on this list, I would quite possibly rank it a bit higher. In fact, I'd venture to say that anyone who doesn't love this one doesn't quite get what film noir is all about: the bleakness, the awful, inevitable progress of fate, the remarkably unappealing, rotten femme fatale who's somehow irresistable anyway, the darkness and griminess of it all, contrasted against the innocent purity that the hero so desperately wants. Ulmer's rough, lo-fi aesthetics are perfectly suited to noir, and far from being "campy," it has a certain strain of harsh and brutal realism mixed in with its over-the-top plot mechanics. Its story is perhaps implausible, but the emotional devastation that results from these coincidences and mishaps is utterly believable and raw. Such a fantastic movie.

    And hey, there are some of us who'd much rather listen to the Sonics than the Beatles...

  9. Ed Howard's comment here is tremendous. John's is too!

  10. Love this movie! Is there a better noir line than the last (citing from memory) "You never can tell when fate or some mysterious force is going to put the finger on you for no good reason at all." Yikes! Unfortunately, most readers can't experience this film the way I watched it -- on the "All Night Movies" at 2:30 am, complete with screaming car dealer commercials. Imagine this film...cut a crappy 3 a.m. The Kafkaesque plot and existential despair of Roberts (heightened for those who know the bleak life story of Tom Neal) lept off the screen.

  11. Rich - This is an awesome story about seeing the movie for the first time... great to have you stop by and share it!