Reviewed by Thomas Doherty
Produced by Leon Fromkess; directed by Edgar G. Ulmer; screenplay and original story by Martin Goldsmith; director of photography Benjamin H. Kline; edited by George McGuire; art direction by Edward C. Jewell; musical score by Leo Erdody. Starring Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, and Edmund MacDonald. Blu-ray and DVD, B&W, 69 min., 1945. A Criterion Collection release.
A tapped-out hitchhiker with a five-day growth of beard sits alone at the counter of a threadbare diner, cradling a coffee mug. Murky in a low key-lit close-up, eyes framed by a band of illumination, he has logged a lot of dusty mileage and sucked in clouds of exhaust fumes, but it’s more than the hard traveling on the blacktop that has beaten him down. When a loquacious trucker feeds the jukebox a nickel to play a tune (“I Can’t Believe That You Love Me,” an ironically buoyant swing number that you just know you’ll be hearing again), the hitchhiker has a meltdown. “Turn it off!” he yells. “That song stinks!” What comes next abides by the rules of the genre we already suspect we are in: the voice-over kicks in and the screen unspools a cross-country road trip whose trajectory is only geographically east to west; it’s actually downward, into a netherworld of dead ends and black holes. If, in late 1945 or sometime in 1946, you were a GI watching the flashback in an Army theater in the recently pacified ETO, you might think twice about heading back to the home front.
The film, of course, is Detour, a castoff sixty-nine-minute program filler that in the years since its highly untouted release has edged into a select pantheon of film noir touchstones, uttered in the same breath as higher end productions (almost anything would be) like Double Indemnity (1944), The Killers (1946), and Act of Violence (1949). Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, an ill-starred underachiever who hit his own concrete barrier in Hollywood and forever after had to hustle in the bargain basements and back alleys of the business, the film is sweet revenge on the A-listers and moguls who snubbed him, but, alas, only posthumously.
The plot of Detour is Aeschylus by way of Jim Thompson. Piano player Al (beta-actor Tom Neal, fresh off the bizarre yellow-face thriller First Yank Into Tokyo ) and his chanteuse girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) are what passes for entertainment in a bottom-feeder nightclub in New York City with the hungover name Break O’ Dawn. Fancying a career in a classier mode of showbiz, Sue gives Al the brush-off to try her luck in Holly- wood. In a black mood, Al channels his angst into a virtuoso performance on the ivories. A drunken customer tips him a ten-spot, which is sufficient seed money for Al to follow Sue out West, using his thumb as a transportation device. Sue’s own California dreams have already fizzled—she’s a “hash slinger” not a torch singer.
A map-montage and rear-screen projection of jalopy ride-alongs synopsizes the long haul cross-country in pre-interstate highway America. In Arizona, Al gets a break, or so he thinks. Charley Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), a voluble hustler in a flashy coupe who is going all the way to LA, picks him up; the guy is flush, at least by Al’s standards, and treats him to a meal. On a dark and rainy night on a lonesome highway, in circumstances too hallucinatory to relate, Haskell mysteriously dies and Al assumes his clothes and identity. Next morning, he spots a dicey-looking dame hitchhiking at the edge of the road. Getting into character as Haskell, he picks her up.
This is a mistake. “She had a beauty that’s almost homely it’s so real,” says Al when he gets a close look at her, proving not for the last time his woefully bad judgment. The woman coiled next to him in the passenger’s seat is Vera (Ann Savage), who is emphatically not a femme fatale. There is nothing siren-like or come-hither about Vera’s piercing voice, insane eyes, and reptilian hiss. “She was trouble,” says Philip Marlowe when he first sets eyes on Vivian Sternwood in The Big Sleep, the three-word definition of the femme fatale in the land of noir and the male imagination—smarts and sexuality, radiating an intoxicating allure that will make a guy jettison his better judgment. So much more than trouble, Vera is a she-devil, a banshee, a harpy sprung from the gates of hell poised to rip to shreds any man in reach of her talons. (Ask the late Mr. Haskell, who bears her claw marks.) “Where did you leave his body?” she screeches at a stunned Al. “This buggy belongs to a guy named Haskell!” Vera knows Al didn’t kill Haskell; not for a second is she in fear for her life from this sap, this schlub, this patsy. From now on Vera is in the driver’s seat, grabbing both Al and the film by the, let us say, throat.
As Vera torments Al through the used-car lots, car hops, and spare hotel rooms of Los Angeles, she softens once or twice, leaning into him as if craving affection, but even Al is not so stupid as to crawl into her nest. Notably, unlike the true femme fatale, she is not very bright: one of Al’s few moments of lucidity comes when he tries to convince Vera—blinded by greed—that that there is no way he can pull off pretending to be Haskell to claim the guy’s inheritance.
After the most bizarre death by misadventure ever to be committed to celluloid, Al is free of Vera, but not the vise-grip of fate. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde—one accidental death is tragic, two is positively careless. Which is how Al winds up at the diner, back on the highway going in the other direction and, ultimately, into a police car. He seems relieved, and no wonder.
Detour is called a noir—it has the requisite shadowy-to-obscurant fog, low-key lighting, and doomed protagonist, but rather than German Expressionism by way of a marginal Hollywood studio, the film has the vertiginous feel of a surrealistic Mexican-period Luis Buñuel laced with elements of stark Italian neorealism. For all its twists and turns, postwar American noir tends to abide by a ruthlessly Newtonian physics and an orthodox Chekhovian dramaturgy. Even the unforeseeable accidents are organic because that is the way life is. When Al sticks out his thumb, he is plunged down a rabbit hole that is beyond noir and into a kind of black magic realism…
Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 3