Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) is the cinematic equivalent of shooting the moon—a movie so rushed, so underwritten, overacted and half-baked that it should exist only as an oddity for noir lovers, should it exist at all. It was shot in six days and feels like it; yet it perhaps defines the soul of film noir better than any movie ever made: “Whichever way you turn, life sticks out a foot to trip you.”
All the mysteriousness of Vertigo (1957) is more accessible than trying to understand why this little movie works. Roger Ebert says it “is a movie so filled with imperfections that it would not earn the director a passing grade in film school,” yet he goes on to say, “No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it.” I don’t want to paint a picture of a movie that’s so bad it’s good. Detour earns its place as one of the great movies, but it’s difficult to understand why.
It’s about a man, Roberts (Tom Neal), a bitter failed musician who follows his lover to Hollywood, hitching a ride from New York. He gets into a fancy car with a gregarious man named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) who seems pretty loaded. There are a number of fresh scars on Haskell’s hand. “There ought to be a law against dames with claws,” Haskell explains. With Roberts at the wheel, Haskell dies and Roberts panics, assuming that the law will pin him for it, and he buries the body by the side of the road. If he’s going to have the misfortune to be accused of murdering a man for his money, Roberts figures he better also get the benefit of the money, so he cleans Haskell’s body and drives off with the car, planning to ditch it later and resume his life with sweet Sue with a little extra guilt but little more.
However, fate sticks out another foot in the hot-tempered guise of Vera (Ann Savage), whose arching eyebrow is just one weapon of her hard Medusa face, one that Roberts explains gives “the impression of beauty, not the beauty of a movie actress, mind you.” She gives me the impression of the fires of hell. Roberts picks up Vera on the side of the road and tries to pass himself off as Haskell before it’s revealed that he’s picked up the owner of the claws. In a movie of unnerving scenes, this is perhaps the spookiest. Vera, after exchanging forced pleasantries with her driver, goes to sleep in the passenger seat, eerily reminding Roberts of how Haskell died in the same seat the night before. Suddenly, as if possessed, Vera shoots up and demands to know what Roberts has done with the body. She was given a ride by Haskell a few days ago and got ahead enough to get a second hitch from the man who last saw him alive. Blackmailing him with her knowledge, Vera uses Roberts as her stooge for her desperate financial schemes: first to try to sell the car and then to get him to impersonate Haskell in front of the dead man’s family in an attempt to get the inheritance from Haskell’s estranged dying father.
Surrounding this pulpy narrative is filmmaking that would be called highly stylized if it weren’t so obviously cheap. Most of the movie takes place in cars or in small offices or apartments. I don’t think there’s a single establishing shot that isn’t stock footage, and there’s more rear-projection in 70 minutes of Detour than in Douglas Sirk’s entire career. There’s even a scene in the streets of New York City that’s just a sound stage with lots of fog, not even big enough to sustain the walking characters for five steps. And yet, Ulmer, a German refugee and an assistant of Murnau’s, makes cinematic lemonade by using his lack of budget to give us a disjointed nightmare world, one that seems dangerous and aggressive because it doesn’t follow the rules of the universe we know. Detour most purely synthesizes the two influences of film noir: German Expressionism and the Depression-Era American crime film. Detour’s artificiality adds a heightened element to it, proving that it has as much in common with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) as it does with I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). Things that would be considered mistakes in other films contribute the entire appeal of this one. Noirs aren’t supposed to be slick; their worlds must reflect the psyche of their troubled heroes—a little unglued—and Detour is as haunting as it comes.
It also benefits from having one of the most troubled heroes in the canon as Neal’s sad sack loser is a sadder sack than Bogart or Mitchum would ever allow themselves to be. This is a weak man, who sarcastically quips to Vera that his “favorite sport is being kept prisoner,” which reveals more truth than he’d like to admit. He narrates directly to us throughout the movie, pleading his case as an unfortunate victim of fate, but he’s never sympathetic because he’s so mealy-mouthed and pitiful. How believable can his narration be? We hear about the pure love between him and Sue (Claudia Drake), but when we see her, she seems distant and she certainly drops him for Tinseltown quick enough. When he calls her from New York, she has a lecherous look on her face that betrays a desire to get off the phone with this milquetoast so she can have some fun. I’m extrapolating this; the scene is another odd budget-driven peculiarity in which only Roberts is shown speaking, but there’s enough ambiguity there to lead us to believe that Roberts isn’t being deprived of an all-time romance. The movie’s grandest cinematic flourish happens when we see Roberts dream of Haskell’s death which has just occurred. He’s already narrating the story to us and now we’re being shown what he remembers. Who is he constructing this story for? Us or himself?
Pitted against this pathetic foil is a snarling chimera created by the appropriately named Ann Savage (born Bernice Lyon, which also works), who prowls the edges of the movie like a jailor and can make the word “sucker” sound like the lowest insult imaginable. Roberts would be dominated by far meeker femme fatales, but in Vera’s hands he never stands a chance.
Low-budget rush-job B-pictures were a staple of wartime Hollywood (they still are; they just have bigger budgets) and here is one that used its quickie status as its vehicle to greatness. Detour’s appeal and lasting effect is that it’s the most noir, and it has the weakest antihero, the most vicious vixen, the least hospitable environment. There isn’t time for the slightest of subtlety or shading so it simply exists as pure fatalistic drama. Think of the hokey dialogue that might have been workshopped out had there been time: “I was tussling with the most dangerous animal in the world, a woman.” “As I drove off, it was still raining and the drops streaked down the windshield like tears.” “Life’s like a ballgame. You gotta take a swing at whatever comes along before you find it’s the ninth inning.” “What’d you do, kiss him with a wrench?” That’s my favorite because it’s a good descriptor of the movie. Detour, this imperfect unsubtle masterpiece, kisses you with a wrench.