DetourReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/05/18 22:31:34
When “Detour” went before the cameras for its abbreviated shooting schedule in 1945, there was no indication that it would turn out to be anything more than just another programmer churned out by Producers Releasing Corporation, one of many fly-by-night studios operating on the fringes of Hollywood at the time. The screenplay seemed to have been deliberately calibrated to utilize the fewest numbers of locations and actors possible while still legally being considered a movie, leads reportedly hated each other, the director was a long way away from the time when he made one of Universal’s biggest films of 1934 and the budget was so tiny that the car in which the main characters drive around for most of the running time was apparently the director’s own personal vehicle. However, in a twist of fate more unexpected and bizarre than any of the ones depicted in its terse 68-minute running time, all of those elements managed to click together in surprisingly harmonious ways and, much like its unforgettable (in all the wrong ways) female lead, it grabbed at anyone who encountered it and refused to let go. Instead of disappearing into the pop-culture ether in the manner of so many programmers made during that time, it was sought out and discovered by subsequent generations of filmgoers—many of whom (myself included) first learned about it in the pages of Danny Peary’s invaluable book “Cult Movies”— and is now regularly cited as one of the greatest film noirs of all time. Now “Detour” has returned for another go-around in theaters via a brand-new 4K restoration (funded by the George Lucas Family Foundation) before its rumored imminent inclusion into the celebrated Criterion Collection. Granted, the idea of a cleaned-up version of the film—which didn’t exactly transcend its Poverty Row aesthetic and which has been seen almost entirely in beat-up prints whose visual scuzziness proved to be an inadvertently perfect match for the material—sounds like a weirdo cineaste joke but even though it looks better than it ever has in its entire existence, no amount of digital sandblasting can remove the darkness at its bitter heart.
As the film opens, our central character—even calling him an “antihero” would be stretching things too much—is sitting in a shabby diner in Reno thinking back on the nightmarish events of the past few days and how they landed him in the spot he is currently resigning himself to. This is Al Roberts (Tom Neal) and in the first of the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the film, we see him sort-of happy (though still quick with a bitter quip when needed) working as a piano player in a New York dive and in love the the club’s singer, Sue (Claudia Drake). The two are about to be married when Sue abruptly decides to postpone things until they both become famous—she heads off to Los Angeles for stardom while he stays behind while she establishes herself. When her dreams land her nothing more than a waitress gig, Al, who still loves her, decides to head out to the coast so they can get married anyway. With little money, Al is forced to hitch and is down to his last dime in Arizona when a guy named Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald) agrees to take him the rest of the way to L.A. and even buys him a meal. The only hiccup is that Haskell likes to talk, especially about the crazed female hitchhiker who scratched him up good when he tried to ditch her, while ever-grumpy Al would prefer to stew in silence.
As things are going as good for Al as they are likely to, it is only a matter a time before the other shoe drops and that occurs when he becomes tired after driving for a while and tries to wake up Haskell for his shift behind the wheel, only to discover that he is dead. Inevitably, he panics and becomes convinced that he will be arrested for murder if he goes to the police—the body accidentally received a post-mortem bump to the head after he pulls off the road. Instead, he hides Haskell’s body on the side of the road and drives off with his car, clothes and wallet with the plan of getting to L.A. as quick as possible and then ditching all the evidence. Once he gets into California, though, he makes the inexplicable move of picking up a hitchhiker himself. This is Vera (Ann Savage), who proves to be even worse company than he usually is and things get exponentially worse when he tries to pass himself off as Haskell. She knows that he is lying because, inevitably, she is the very same hitcher that Haskell had previously ditched. Holding all the cards, she forces him to drive her to L.A. and stay by her side at all times until he can sell the car and give her the money or else she will rat him out to the cops. You might think that things cannot possibly get worse for Al but as he would no doubt sneer, things can always get worse and that is certainly proves to be the case here.
The film was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, who had one of the more curious careers in American film history. Born in Austria, he first made his name in the film industry as a set designer and contributed to the striking looks of some of the most notable silent films of the era, including “Der Golem,” “Die Nibelgung,” “Metropolis” and “Sunrise.” After moving to Hollywood, he eventually went in direction and made a huge splash with “The Black Cat” (1934), a go-for-baroque Universal Pictures horror epic co-starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff so perverse, bizarre and kinky (what with more-than-insinuations of incest, necrophilia, Satanism and torture) that it continues to raise eyebrows even today. Although a huge hit, Ulmer’s career in with the major studios soon foundered—stories range from him fleeing in order to avoid directing a Shirley Temple vehicle to being caught having an affair with a woman married to a relative of Universal head Carl Laemmle—and he soon found himself doing quickie movies with budgets that would have needed to be doubled in order to earn the designation “paltry.” And yet, even in his reduced standards, he still managed to create a remarkably consistent filmography that often dealt with characters undergone quick rises and agonizingly slow falls and utilized offbeat visual styles that often belied their budgets. Even when he was just working on something totally impersonal, he brought more to it than most other journeyman in his position would have bothered—thanks to his judicious use of atmosphere, he took what could have been a sci-fi craptacular and turned it into something genuinely eerie in “The Man from Planet X.”
With only a couple of sets—all which look the worse for wear—and a few actors to speak of, “Detour” may not have obviously offered him the chance to show off his visual gifts but this time around, he had an ace up his sleeve in a genuinely great—not just “B”-movie great—screenplay by Martin Goldsmith (based on his novel) that is truly one of the gems of the entire noir genre, complete with one eminently quotable line of hard-boiled dialogue after another.(“No matter what you do, no matter where you turn, fate sticks out its foot to trip you.”) Yes, if one analyzes it in the cold light of day, much of it makes little sense—there is no real reason why Al should believe that he would be accused of murdering Haskell and it defies explanation that he would then opt to pick up a hitchhiker instead of just getting to Sue as quickly as possible. However, this is not a story meant to be taken literally—this is a story about Fate in all of its grim spectacle as recounted by someone who is desperately trying to use it, and not just his own insanely poor judgement, as a way of explaining his rotten luck. As things go on and Vera enters the picture, practically claws first, it becomes increasingly hallucinatory in how it comes across and even the incredibly spartan trappings and stark visuals seems more like inspired choices than unavoidable necessities. Ulmer does have one opportunity to demonstrate obvious visual flourishes—as it comes during the jaw-dropping climax, I will not reveal any of the details—and he makes the most of it with one of the most impressively constructed moments in noir history, all the more so because, again, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense when you mull over it later on.
“Detour” is also aided immeasurably by the two central performances by Tom Neal and Ann Savage, a pair of journeyman actors who turned up in plenty of low-budget films without ever quite crossing over into the big leagues. Nevertheless, when they received the script for this film, they clearly must have recognized it as something other than a typical rush job production because they tear into their roles with such fervor that it makes you wonder how their careers might have fared if their performances had gotten the recognition they deserved at the time. The history of noir is filled with losers who taste a little bit of personal happiness as the result of some weakness and wind up paying for it in spades. Al, by comparison, doesn’t even get that bit of happiness (his one moment of lightness is a flashback to a time that we already know has long passed by) before his suffering begins and it would be almost too much to bear except that he is so squirmy and off-putting that there is a certain perverse pleasure in watching life put the screws to him. Neal does an astonishingly good job of playing an astonishingly unlikable person—he is playing a louse through and through and never once makes a play for audience sympathy. Oddly enough, he gets it when Savage (no kidding) enters the fray and proves to be so relentlessly monstrous (and this is before she hits the bottle) as Vera that she somehow makes Al into the more likable of the two, if only by default. Although their performances here were as great as any ever offered in the genre, neither one was able to really capitalize on them. Savage mostly retired in the Fifties and only made occasional appearances here and there—apparently even turning up in an episode of “Saved by the Bell,” before being brought in from the wilderness by Canadian surrealist Guy Maddin to appear in his wildly offbeat pseudo-documentary “My Winnipeg.” For Neal, life ended up mirroring his art, at least in this case—in 1965, he was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of his third wife, Gale Bennett, and spent six years in prison.As for the restoration, there is obviously only so much that can be done to rehab a film made under the conditions that “Detour” was and no amount of after-the-fact fiddling can alter its uber-cheap look and feel. That said, as someone who has watched the film countless times over the years in prints that looked as if they had been left sitting on a dirty floor for years at a time, to see it in a relatively clean and clear iteration is at times startling. At the same time, while it looks better than ever from a visual standpoint, the film itself remains a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that is as bleak and bitter to behold as ever. The only real difference is that when we watch the characters as they relentlessly march towards their grim fates, we can seen what is in store for them with greater clarity than ever.
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