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Detour
1945 - Approved - 67 Mins.
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Producer: Leon Fromkess
Written By: Martin Goldsmith
Starring: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald, Tim Ryan
Review by: John Ulmer
   
"Detour," directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, is one of the few rare motion pictures of any era that stays with you long after the credits fade away. Like "D.O.A." (1949), "Detour" is a B-movie filled with an uncountable number of imperfections and flaws, yet its haunting narrative and excellent lead character helps engrave it in our memory.

Like "Fargo" and "A Simple Plan," "Detour" is about a seemingly innocent and brief idea that soon unravels and turns into a dreaded nightmare. It all starts with Al Roberts (Tom Neal), a lonely, self-pitying hitchhiker who recalls his story to us in a beaten and dingy diner. A man in the diner starts to play a song on the jukebox: "I Can't Believe You Fell in Love with Me." "Turn that off!" Al yells. He doesn't like the song, and we have a feeling we're about to find out why.

He starts his story at a time when he was a happy piano player with a girlfriend named Sue. After tiring of the poor life, Sue decides to travel to Hollywood in order to find a new job. Left stranded by himself, Al soon musters the courage to make the long trek to California by himself. Once there, he'll reunite with Sue and they'll start a new life.

Along the way, Roberts is picked up by a traveler named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), a nice fellow who is so trustworthy that he even lets Roberts drive the vehicle part of the way to California. He also reveals a nasty scar on his hand to Roberts, and says that some "dame" bit him a while back along the road.

After Haskell dies of natural causes in the car, Roberts is left facing the opportunity of alerting the police of the death or burying the body far from sight. Realizing that the police wouldn't believe him if he told them his story, he decides to take Haskell's ID, clothes, and money. ("It seemed like an awful shame to leave all that money there.")

Convinced that he's done the right thing, Haskell crosses the border into California and soon finds himself picking up a fellow hitchhiker named Vera (Ann Savage). But, as Haskell so adequately puts it, why couldn't she have been a different girl? Why did it have to be the girl that Haskell gave a ride to the day before? "Where'd you bury his body?" she barks.

She doesn't believe his innocent story after he tells her. But she is a ruthless young lady, "No older than twenty-four," and doesn't care about his innocence--she just wants to make some money out of the ordeal. Her idea is so ridiculously outrageous that Roberts soon schemes a way to escape her grasp.

The film is a brutal one, both literally and figuratively. Filmed in six simple days with an ultra-low budget and some fairly unknown actors, "Detour" is proof that sometimes films don't need to be well made to be entertaining and effective. Here is a movie so technically poor that our narration begins with lighting in the background being shut off and a flashlight beam being shone down upon Neal's face. But, as silly and amateur as this may sound, I thought it was one of the most haunting narrative techniques of all time--a haunting technique that colorized filming would never be able to accentuate upon.

I enjoyed the acting in "Detour" very much, especially after hearing how "ham-handed" it was. Tom Neal--who comes across as a sort of moody, earlier version of a frustrated Kurt Russell--is a real scene-stealer. His portrayal of a man slipping down a steep slope, unable to return to the flat surface, is extraordinarily good--and I imagine quite controversial for the time. The implications of what his character does at times during the film are often the sort of stuff that would disturb today's audiences.

And Ann Savage, as Vera, is one of the best femme fatales of all time--dark and even subtly evil, she evokes the sort of hard woman cinema would be introduced to years later. Even by today's standards she is quite mean and controversially controlling. It's the classic example of a subdue man being controlled by a dominant woman.

But yet Al Roberts isn't completely subdued. Neal, as our film noir's hero, is probably one of the oldest anti-heroes of all time. In today's age there are doubts over whether or not his story is essentially true or fabricated--did he really kill Haskell with his own hands and make up the rest to satisfy his own sense of self-satisfaction? We'll never know the true answer. Part of what makes this film so engagingly playful is the way it twists everything about so that we never really know for sure what's happening, or what's about to happen, even on multiple viewings.

Its director, Edgar G. Ulmer (who I am not related to as far as I know), had previously united Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff for the first time in "The Black Cat," filmed eleven years prior. "The Black Cat," also filmed on a fairly low budget, is a major cult horror film to this day--and was a fairly popular film at the time; the equivalent of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees' infamous showdown in last year's "Freddy vs. Jason." So it's strange to think that Ulmer, a German refugee from Hitler, would lower himself to the depths of die-hard B-movie-making.

"Detour" is far from a perfect motion picture. It's often quite corny, and seriously flawed in terms of filmmaking. Sometimes you can tell where two scenes were spliced together to form a whole. In fact, the entire movie was essentially filmed in a car with a rear projection of California landscape and a hotel room.

Here is indeed ample proof that aspiring directors need not always worry about all the technical quirks. It helps to make a good movie a great one, but more important is a good story and fine characters, and if anything, "Detour" more than makes up for its literal flaws with strong storytelling.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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