Noirvember Review: ‘Detour’

Every November fans of classic cinema celebrate one of the great genres of filmdom, the film noir. These beloved films ensure fans get their fill of; gritty streets, tough detectives, mysterious femme fatales, dangerous villains, and a unique moody style. This month I will be looking at some of the great noir films of all time for what has been dubbed Noirvember. 

One of my favorite filmmakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age is the Czech born Edgar G. Ulmer. Ulmer possessed the talent to rank alongside the likes of; Huston, Hitchcock, Capra, and the other greats of this era if his career had taken its original path. In the 1930’s he directed the Black Cat for Universal, a stunning horror masterpiece which served as the first teaming of both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. His success was short lived as it was discovered he was carrying on an affair with Shirley Castle, the wife of a powerful producer. She left her husband and married Ulmer, who was then blackballed by the major studios. Enter the people at PRC, a Poverty Row production company, who noir2tempted him to work for them. Despite not having a lot of money Ulmer would retain creative freedom which appealed to him. With his new wife Shirley having experience as a screenwriter and script supervisor she was able to help her husband in the new path of his career.  He turned out a series of movies for his new bosses which while derided by critics on their release (owing entirely to the fact they were “B pictures”) many have gone back and reexamined them and lauded his skill. Chief among these is the film noir classic, Detour, starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage.

Neal plays Al, a down on his luck piano player who frames the story, by telling us the events which led to him being a disheveled shell of a man sitting in a diner. While hitchhiking to California to reunite with his girlfriend, he is picked up by the convertible driving Haskell who agrees to split driving time with him. A freak accident on a rainy night leads to Haskell’s death, and Al panics. Being certain the police would not believe it was an accident, he takes his companion’s; car, money, and ID before hitting the road with his newly stolen identity. It is not long before he makes a major mistake, picking up a dangerous and beautiful hitchhiker named Vera. In a strange coincidence, Vera had had her own memorable encounter with Haskell and as such knew instantly Al was pulling a scam. Given her own seedy nature, she decides rather than go to the police she need to blackmail her new unwitting accomplice. They rent an apartment in California, as Al is held under the thumb of this cold seductress. The stakes are raised when they noir1discover the real Haskell is in line to inherit a fortune from his ailing father and together they plot on how to get their hands on the money. As an audience we watch with baited breath until the inevitable explosion of violence from two criminals who despise each other forced in close quarters.

Tom Neal may have been the lead actor in this movie, but it is crystal clear that Ann Savage is the star. The actress owns every single scene she is in and commands the attention of the audience as the femme fatale Vera. Acclaimed German filmmaker, Wim Wenders put it best when he said that Savage’s performance was “30 years ahead of its time”. She is; ruthless, sexy, sharp-tongued, intelligent, and absolutely in control throughout the flick. In true film noir fashion, her co-star, Tom Neal is the lead character but he is by no means a “good guy”. He elicits some sympathy from the audience because of the way he is manipulated by Vera, but considering he put himself in the situation it’s not that much sympathy. As he is broken down throughout the movie, Neal does an excellent job of showing the character’s increasingly desperate nature. Behind the scenes there was true animosity between the two stars of Detour which inevitably bled onto the screen and added to their convincing performances.

With limited money and resources Edgar G. Ulmer crafted one of the finest films to come from Hollywood’s Poverty Row. With only a handful of actors and two primary sets, the director knew how to let the story unfold and the tension build. Considering there were elements of the movie he had to come up with on the spot there is nothing amateur or noir3unprofessional in this flick. As mentioned earlier, the critics upon the film’s release dumped on it as another B-grade crime flick, but since then film historians and critics have discovered the true complexities and brilliance of the story Ulmer is telling. Al may seem like a sad sack who is down on his luck, until we remember that it is Al who is telling the story so he controls how the audience sees him. We are given an unreliable narrator who wants us to believe he is hitchhiking to California for love rather than money; that Haskell died in a freak accident leaving the perfect opportunity to steal his identity, and most importantly that Vera has him trapped, when in reality who could probably figure out how to make a break for it at any time, especially when they are holed up in their apartment. Ulmer also dug into his bag of tricks to cover for the miniscule budget, Detour had. He could not afford to film on New York’s busy streets, so he shrouded that scene in a thick impenetrable fog to give the appearance of such a set. The production could not afford a car, despite the fact that close to half the movie takes place in a car; so he used his own. Edgar G. Ulmer is often hailed as one of the movie industry’s first auteurs and this movie is a perfect example of why.

Many have pointed out the ending of this film feels tacked on, but it is to be forgiven noir4because the picture had to comply with the Hollywood Code of the time which did not allow criminals to get away with their transgressions. At this time there were a lot of noir and crime flicks emerging from Poverty Row, yet Detour is one of the few which is still remembered. Having a smaller budget actually worked in favor of the movie as there is a pervading gritty pulp atmosphere. Tom Neal and Ann Savage both give stellar performances as two seedy and broken individuals looking for a way to get rich through less than scrupulous means. Make sure when you are putting together your viewing list for Noirvember, Detour is included.