During my time at Keene State College, I could always count on the school’s Film Society to provide me with an inviting environment to express my admiration toward a number of great movies with some wonderful people. We may be separated from one another under some incredibly strenuous circumstances, but that doesn’t mean we can’t indulge in some spectacular cinema together. I want to extend an invitation to all of you in reading and discussing said classic film featured in this bi-weekly column.
“Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”
In “Detour,” Al Roberts (Tom Neal), hands stuffed in his pocket, wanders aimlessly down a dark road until he hitches a ride to a roadside diner. Disheveled and anxious, he sips his coffee and pays no mind to anyone else in the joint, say for a truck driver who, with the power of his nickel, triggers a flood of unpleasant memories. “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me” (a beautiful showtune by any other nature) plays on the jukebox, setting off his internal paranoia.
All but Roberts’s face goes dark as he recollects the tragic past events that led him to this moment, a tight interrogative close up on his mug forcing him to confront what should have been a simple trek to see his love. A shady gambler (Edmund MacDonald) and a corrosive hitcher (Anna Savage), however, take him on a detour that breaks down any assemblance of hope he ever had.
It’s been about 75 years since “Detour” hit theaters in the midst of the American Film Noir boom, and it has retained every ounce of its nihilistic splendor. Produced on the cheap in Hollywood’s Poverty Row, “Detour” emanates from enigmatic Austrian filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer. The declared “King of the Bs,” having worked alongside the great F.W. Murnau (“The Last Laugh”), inspired countless filmmakers from David Lynch (“Eraserhead”) to Joe Dante (“Gremlins”), and everyone in-between. The film went through a rigorous process of changes in and out of the editing room, ensuring that “Detour” would have been a wholly different project altogether had Ulmer stuck to Martin M. Goldsmith’s 1939 source novel - “Detour: An Extraordinary Tale.”
What I find so captivating about “Detour” is just how easily we fall into Roberts’s internal despair. All this nighttime pianist wanted to do was make his way to Los Angeles to marry Sue (Claudia Drake), a former singer of the Break O’ Dawn Club who just happens to be the love of his life. She’s the Hollywood hopeful who escapes the pits of New York for a shot at stardom, leaving Roberts to stew in the nightclub, meaningless without her golden voice, until he decides to make his way cross country.
Nevertheless, his trek would be cut short by the accidental death of bigshot Charles Haskell Jr., the man who picks him up on a dry Arizona road, and later succumbs to a fatal injury by happenstance.
Tom Neal’s state of being is consistently trying to act smart and act fast to avoid being caught, enveloping himself in Haskell’s aesthetic. There’s no time to breathe or make mistakes when a frantic frenzy of paranoid thoughts take up valuable mindscape real estate. The fragile mortality of his unbelievable yarn, whether you choose to believe it or not, is wonderfully depicted as he seems to drown in a piling number of predicaments to swim his way out of. Roberts always has a naturally guilty, pathetic disposition plastered on his boyish face, as if he’s a moment away from a nervous breakdown, despite his seemingly good intentions. The leitmotif of that song, beautifully sung by Claudia Drake, taunts him with a future he’ll likely never see fulfilled.
And who does Roberts pick up of all of the hitchhikers on all the roads in all the world? None other than Vera, the rancorous “dame with claws” who Haskell had picked up and subsequently kicked out after she left some nasty scratches on his right hand. Ann Savage lives up to every part of her name. If bullets won’t kill you, her bulging, intensive gaze will. Vera is vicious to the teeth and seering with contempt for Roberts from the moment she catches a whiff of his hogwash.
The facade of the typical femme fatale is dissolved away upon her presence. She manipulates, yet won’t resort to cheeky, clever tactics to pull the wool over Roberts’s eyes. Vera will tell you flat out what you’re going to do with a clever smile and a bevy of deliciously mean insults, one of my favorites being: “Shut up. You’re making noises like a husband.” It’s through her sneer and wavering dissent for Roberts that the film’s greatest quips of pulpy euphemisms roar from her mouth. “What’d you do? Kiss him with a wrench?,” Vera says when inquiring how Haskell made it to the pearly gates. The mean-spirited fervor of “Detour” lies solely in Ann Savage’s entrancing performance.
“Detour” first struck on my radar when I went shuffling through Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” catalogue. He made
a compelling argument that Al’s subjective recollection of events plays into the tropes of the unreliable narrator, scrambling to concoct a narrative that lays pity at his feet rather than fess up to what really happened. The phrase “you believe me, right?” is embedded in the very DNA of Ulmer’s film. The mysterious circumstances of the rock that just happened to deal the death blow or the suspiciously utilized telephone cord in the film’s closing moments calls Al’s panicky story into question. Maybe it did happen like he said he did.
Or maybe Al thinks he can pull a fast one with a cock and bull yarn only the movies could produce, and we’ll lap it up. As the evolving reception of “Detour” shows, we will. One of the first B movies to be inducted into the Library of Congress, Ulmer’s underestimated film underwent a stunning 4K restoration in 2018, just in time for its overdue induction into the Criterion Collection. The blu-ray transfer is stunning; they did an incredible job cleaning this thing up as it went through the public domain wringer.
“Detour” is the grit and grime of film noir, boiled down to its bare essentials and laid for what it is – mean, snappy and absolutely riveting. Its simplicity ensures that I’ll never get tired of watching it. That telephone cord may have wrung Vera, but Ann Savage’s piercing gaze will never wither. Vera may have gotten greedy, but Roberts’s goose would be cooked no matter which temperature the oven is set to.
What are some of your favorite film noirs? How many of you are already familiar with “Detour?” Be sure to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know. I’d love to hear from you! Be safe out there.