This is the sort of movie that you would never think belongs on a blog like this.
The negatives are flipped, the fog machines corny. The actors are transparent, their characters cliched. The lighting seems artificial, the plot seems incomplete. The whole thing is cheap in its production , even cheap in its quasi-Freudian metaphors. It’s the sort of movie that a high-schooler may come up with in about a week.
And made in about a week it indeed was. Filmed in six days, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour was one of those very same B-movie genre knock-offs that fill up two-thirds of your local Redbox (like Moe Money’s Eastside Story). It was a film made by PRC Studios, one of the several young and poor production companies known almost pejoratively as “poverty row” in the 1940s. PRC made B-movies that you’ve never heard of, the sort of fare that played at drive-in theaters before the main attraction. (For more about “B-movies”, check out my review of Psycho).
This is clearly not the precise and focused work of visionaries like Michelangelo Antonioni or Werner Herzog. It does not have the depth of plot that you find in the oeuvre of Orson Welles. It does not have the attention to detail that graced the movies of Martin Scorsese. It is not as engaging in its showmanship as are the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
And yet, here it is. It’s in my list of the Top Films ever made. Roger Ebert included it in his Great Movies list. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 100% rating. The Library of Congress has selected it for preservation for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. And, to this day, it is remembered as a quintessential film noir.
How does a movie so cheaply done, so poorly conceived, so trite and mismanaged, maintain the fantastic level of credence that it almost universally enjoys in modern film criticism? How can such a short film with shallow characters (it only runs at about 60 minutes in length) hold such a titanic presence in the pantheon of American film noir?
For me, this movie survives with such a reputation because it represents everything film noir is meant to be. The themes that I have introduced in this blog so far in my essay on the genre, along with my reviews of The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, and Laura, take center stage in Detour, from its Expressionist design to its guilt-ridden anti-heroes. What you find when watching Detour is not that it works despite all these supposed flaws. It works because of them.
In these flaws lies the essence of the film noir Expressionist world. While some in 1945 panned the film for its lack of realism, it wasn’t until the 1980s when critics resurrected this old classic exactly for its lack of realism. The movie was an Expressionist daydream—or nightmare, depending on who you ask—filled with the distinct lighting schemes and angular visuals that characterized the distorted noir world. The rushed production and inattention to detail did nothing but magnify these distortions, creating a world far different from our own, with an estranged sort of dreamlike quality.
It certainly does play out like a dream, not only its visual style, but also in its brevity. It tells a story that can be told in just a few lines, and has only three (maybe four) real characters. Tom Neal plays a piano player named Al (Roberts, not Jolson). After his girlfriend leaves for Hollywood, Al decides to hitchhike across the country and join her. Along the way, he is picked up by a booking agent, who asks Al to drive for a while and suddenly dies in the passenger seat. Al doesn’t want to be charged with the bookie’s death (especially after learning that there is money to be had), so he takes the dead man’s identification and cash and tosses the body out of the car before he can be found. In a classic stupor of thought, Al picks up a girl—a femme fatale if ever there was one—who convinces him to pose as the booking agent and reconcile with the agent’s long-lost father and take his inheritance.
One reason why the film is difficult to like at first is that this last plot element does not get developed far. As a matter of fact, the end of the film is so sudden that you don’t see it coming. In a lot of ways, it’s kind of like a dream coming to a halt with the sound of an alarm.
Some have postulated the fun dream-theory that the whole movie is just an extension of Al’s own guilt: Al is responsible for death, wants to justify himself, and creates a web of lies to tell a strange, nightmarish story that portrays him as more a victim than a vagabond. He then spends 67 minutes trying to convince you, the viewer, of the accuracy of his yarn. While I don’t necessarily believe that this is what literally occurred on screen, I do think that there is important analytical benefit to this idea. In particular, this theory helps demonstrate why Detour so thoroughly exemplifies the stylistic trend of American film noir.
The reason is that it so concisely plays, even overplays, on the important character of the genre. The entirety of the genre, as I’m sure you have come to see from my recent foray into it, is a convolution of quasi-Freudian sexual angst and repressed urges toward violence. It’s about a world of role-relationships, each one dichotomized by competition towards masculinity, power, and sexual dominance. And while lusty or aggressive banter may characterize the relationships, it’s the internal, guilt-ridden wrestle that characterizes the individuals themselves, in a vacuum. Guilt and insecurity is masked by these appeals to lesser traits. In this regard, the visuals follow the characters, rather than the other way around: the visible world is a reflection of their manufactured antithesis one towards the other, black and white and wretched. And all of it is a front for what they really represent: broken and lonely anti-heroes dealing with violent pasts and even more violent designs.
In this regard, the film noir came to taint the entirety of American film. The American Western of the 1930s and 1940s, with all its heroic mythicism, would embrace this character type in movies like The Searchers. The American gangster film would follow suit in films like Taxi Driver. Even the 1930s screwball comedy would turn to a more hardened and dramatic approach in order to tell its tales, by reciting stories of blemished people reconciling with themselves as they fall in love…it’s called the modern romantic comedy.
Granted, not all of these genres would embrace these noir-like principles in their fullness. Obviously, the modern rom-com doesn’t come close to touching film noir’s Expressionist visual approach. But Taxi Driver and Raging Bull (and so many other films) certainly did. This is because there is a special marriage between character and world in the perspective that this artistic form provides.
One thing that Expressionism shares with Surrealism is in its interest towards the non-authentic. And, I believe, this is where Detour rises to levels of greatness. It is perhaps the least authentic of the traditional films noir. A lot of that was unintentional. For example, there are those oft-mentioned middle scenes showing Al hitchhiking. They were filmed with American cars on studio sets that had the cars on the right side of the road. Unfortunately, when the film was edited, Ulmer realized that they should have filmed the cars moving from right-to-left (a common film allusion to east-to-west) to better show that Al is moving westward. Instead of re-filming the sequences, the editors just flipped the negatives, creating mirror images that show passengers entering the driver-side door and car driving on the left side of the road. It seems, for these scenes, that Al accidentally and somehow hitchhiked across the pond.
Yet, Ulmer decided to keep these unintentional elements into the film. Why? Because it worked. Like the cardboard buildings in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, you were given an inauthentic and dream-like world wherein the characters functioned perfectly. Granted, “perfect” functionality is relative to the world itself. In that world, “perfect functionality” involves something less than survival; it involves an inescapable fate, the poisoning trap of guilt and angst that defines the characters that survive within it. And, in that regard, the characters in Detour function perfectly.
Nor were all of these Expressionist additions necessarily unintentional or forced. While still palpably “cheap” in their usage, Ulmer used certain techniques that would play out importantly in the film’s overall visual atmosphere. One example is at the film’s beginning, when Ulmer used thick fog to substitute for New York streets. Fog is an essential element to the noir-like qualities of 1940s cinema; the earth is smoking a cigarette. Fog may seem trite, but tell that Martin Scorsese, who would use a similar (thoughnot identical) approach in Taxi Driver.
And, I’ll be honest. Not all the visual elements of this film should be, or even can be, criticized. It is not an infrequent thing to get a really stylish, clever, and essentially noir-like image in this movie. Ulmer, it is obvious, was not clueless.
It should be significant for my more faithful readers to understand exactly who Edgar G. Ulmer was and where he came from. If you’ll take the time to read (or re-read) my essay on film noir, you will find that certain forces in Germany before World War II were in play, creating a new art form in filmmaking that would come to be known as Expressionism. Among the factors contributing to this evolution were issues both pragmatic and artistic: on one hand, German movie studios were faced with rapidly decreasing budgets in the face of torrential inflation, and on the other hand, German filmmakers were trying to create a visual medium that properly reflected the national angst. These forces created a new strike force of Expressionist directors and writers. A later force (named Adolph Hitler), would lead to a mass migration of refugees to the United States; the strike force of Expressionist directors among these refugees.
Men like Billy Wilder, Michael Curtiz, Fritz Lang, and F.W. Murnau were now making movies in the United States. Of these characters, Murnau was probably the most important in terms of the Expressionist movement—he’s the genius responsible for movies like The Last Laugh, Nosferatu, Faust, and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. This is where Ulmer comes in. Ulmer was also an expatriate from Austria, and had worked in the discipleship of F.W. Murnau on what many consider his finest films, The Last Laugh and Sunrise. According to Ulmer himself, he also worked with Fritz Lang on his finest films, Metropolis and M. Ulmer even co-directed 1929’s People on Sunday in Germany with Robert Siodmak (another pre-war migrant to the United States), on which he worked with Fred Zinnemann and Billy Wilder.
Ulmer may have been a director making B-movies on poverty row, but, in Detour, he (I believe) knew what he was doing. He was making a movie that has now become a cult classic by channeling the visual themes of German Expressionism and the American noir, all of which he learned from the very best in the business. He created a world which, like I said earlier, was decidedly inauthentic yet was perfectly functional for the stories and characters that operated therein.
Obviously, the character that best functions in this story is Al. Tom Neal’s portrayal of Al is just as cliched as the production design of the film. He is convinced that the world is out to get him, and everything from the film’s music to its script to its photography works to convince us of the same. Here, he represents the quintessential noir male archetype. He is a street-level victim of the harsh world around him, riddled in guilt, and trying to rid himself of it. Where Sam Spade “rids himself of it” by trying to outplay everyone around him in The Maltese Falcon, and where Walter Neff “rids himself of it” by confession in Double Indemnity, Al Roberts “rids himself of it” by surrounding himself in a shroud of victimization in Detour. Nothing is his fault, though everything is.
Alongside the anti-hero bogged down in guilt and his own perceived victimization, another character type of typical noir film that prevails in Detour is that of the vicious and unrelenting femme fatale. Self-made and conniving, she is a “dame” with “long nails” who is willing to use them. It is from characters like this that Tennessee Williams crafted his “Maggie the Cat”. Only, there is no redemption for characters like this in film noir.
In Detour, that character is Vera, played by Ann Savage. Like Al, she is a character with deep-seated complexes that are somehow told in a superficial manner. There is no need to show character arcs or multifaceted motives. These are character types, and Savage, like Neal, is not afraid to refuse to deviate. Because of the Expressionist world in which they live, they do not have to be human: they have to be literary tools, they have to be conventions. As so succinctly worded by Roger Ebert, they were “a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer”.
Expressionism. Guilt. Violence. Shadows and fog. Inauthenticity. Narration. Femme fatales and dangerous men. Deceit. Corruption. Sex veiled by dialogue. A German expatriate director. A pouting actor. A sneering actress.
As trite as it all might seem, Detour works. It certainly does not work as a masterwork of technicality or a thoughtful exposition of sight and sound. It certainly doesn’t work as a dynamite script or in-depth character study. It works because it is the ultimate, perfect exemplification of film noir in the 1940s. Perhaps more than any other film, this is the culmination of all the themes, both visual and literary, of an entire genre. Because of its inauthenticity, because of its triteness, because of its carefree approach to moviemaking, Detour has aged remarkably well…by unapologetically being out-of-date, even when it was made in 1945.