Detour (Film Chest, NR)

dvd detourDirector Edgar G. Ulmer capitalizes on the tropes of noir in a film whose necessary economy in storytelling is one of its great appeals.




Detour is a legend among film noir fans. A pure product of Poverty Row, reportedly shot in six days for just over $100,000 and released in 1945, it became an essential entry in the canon thanks to its distillation of many of the themes that made noir great. An imperfect man’s choices lead him somewhere he never intended to go; he becomes involved with a woman as beautiful as she is deadly; and the inexorable grinding of the gears of fate demonstrate that the world that cares no more for the wants and needs of individual humans than do the Old Ones of the Lovecraftian universe.

It’s no secret that many of the tropes of noir—voiceover, stock footage, dim lighting, shadows to create visual interest on sparse sets— were based on making the most of small production budgets, and director Edgar G. Ulmer capitalizes on them in a film whose necessary economy in storytelling is one of its great appeals.

Al (Tom Neal) is a piano player with ambitions: to make a career outside the seedy club where he now plays, and to join his girlfriend in Hollywood. Hitchhiking was a normal way of traveling in those days, so he sets off to thumb his way from New York to California. Along the way, he accepts a ride from one Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), who later has the poor taste to drop dead while Al is taking his turn at driving.

Al doesn’t have a lot of faith in the workings of the system, justice or otherwise, so he decides to dump the body and take over the dead man’s identity (and car). Before the days of computerized records, he might well have gotten away with it, but fate is not smiling. The next day, he picks up the trashily alluring hitchhiker Vera (Ann Savage; Al says “she looked like she just got thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world”), and that seals his fate. She knows he’s not Haskell, and intends to use that information against him. She’s just the gal to do it, too: Savage’s iconic, acid-tinged performance is the perfect counter to Neal’s passive victimhood.

From that point on, their fates are intertwined as surely as if they had been handcuffed together, like McTeague and Marcus in Erich von Stroheim’s Greed. The world of Detour provides a sharp contrast with the cheerful domesticity and rah-rah jingoism of many Hollywood films of the period (one certainly can’t say that watching Detour would do much to raise morale or support the war effort), and it’s sort of the bastard stepchild of better-funded but similarly darkly-themed films like The Lost Weekend (winner of four Academy Awards in 1945, including Best Picture).

The restored film doesn’t look great—images are soft throughout, and quite a few scratches and other visual distractions remain—although it’s still watchable, particularly if you’re a fan of old films (in which case, you’ve probably watched through worse distractions many times). There are no extras on the disc, so the main thing you’re buying is the convenience of a DVD of a film that has been somewhat cleaned up relative to the public domain versions available on the internet. | Sarah Boslaugh

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