Welcome to The Noirvember Files, a new series dropping the spotlight on essential Film Noir selections. The titles celebrated here exemplify the style and substance of cinema’s grimiest, most-relatable underbelly. In this entry, we’re thumbing a ride down a highway of self-pity and despair, executed with a precision only capable via B-movie desperation. This Noirvember, the 1945 movie Detour demands attention as a stone-cold killer classic.
A man stumbles into a diner, plants his face in a coffee cup. A patron engages with a little small talk, a waiter makes nice. The man wants none of it. Life is a wretched illusion, designed to grind your spirit down before you’re snuffed out.
Suddenly, Anita O’Day’s “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” ignites from the jukebox, sending the man into an outburst of rage. The patron and waiter cool him down, but it’s too late. The camera pushes in on our protagonist, the bright lights dim, and the shadows envelop his face.
There’s a story boiling inside Al Roberts (Tom Neal). It’s one filled with lust, murder, and regret. He’s aching to tell it, but he’s got to get all the facts straight in his head first. Lucky us, we’re invited inside the sadsack’s pity party.
Detour is a beastly, ugly movie. Even in terms of film noir, Edgar G. Ulmer‘s micro-budgeted, mopey tale of soured second chances stings with contempt for the species, unlike any other entry. The film is not as flashy or slick or cool as The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity, but its heart is equally black, and through its cheap-ass run-and-gun production, an authentic wallop is achieved.
Told entirely through flashback, the story oozes from Roberts’ brain. Each drip of information is wet with irritation and exhaustion. Neal’s narration pleads to his audience. He’s trying to convince us (and himself) that we would have done the same thing if our shoes filled his. There were never any other options available, no other diverging paths to travel. His story is one of inevitability.
Maybe we buy that for the first couple of minutes, but as the tale of woe unwinds, it’s clear that he’s the demon of the story. One bad decision stacks atop another. If his soul were not already so utterly bleak, he would have found respite, or, more likely, never succumbed to the situation in the first place.
Roberts is a New York jazz pianist. A little while back, he ditched the Big Apple for the West Coast, where his vocalist girlfriend fled for fame and fortune. The second she calls him on the phone, suggesting Hollywood is not the land of opportunity she once thought, Roberts hits the road to rescue.
He hitches through the heartland, grabbing whatever seat will have him. In Arizona, he rides shotgun to a bookie named Charles Haskell Jr (Edmund MacDonald). Something seems wrong with this fella; he’s eating questionable pills like Tic Tacs.
At night, during a tumultuous rainstorm, Haskell falls asleep while Roberts is behind the wheel. Roberts pulls over, rushes around the car, pulls open the passenger door, and a corpse falls out, cracking its skull on a rock to no reaction. The bum up and died on him.
Roberts ain’t to blame! Who would think such a thing? Uh…well, lots of people, maybe—probably!
If Roberts were to trip upon this scene, he certainly wouldn’t believe Haskell’s head just tumbled onto that rock. He would call it like he sees it. That’s a murderer, right there.
With dark thoughts swirling through his noggin, Roberts gets to work ditching the body on the side of the road. He snatches the dead man’s money, clothes, car, and identification. The plan is to dump the machine once he reaches Los Angeles.
Roberts is a cynical bastard. He thinks the worst of humanity. No one is capable of compassion or understanding, because he’s incapable of such things. The detours he encounters are self-made, not destined. If life is a trap, he sprung it.
Legend states that Detour was shot in six days, but in the documentary Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins (available as an excellent supplement to the Criterion Collection edition of the film), the director’s daughter uncovers a shooting script marking the production as occurring June 14, 1945, to June 29, 1945. Fourteen days! Sure, a little more common for these kinda crime spree cheapies, but still utterly impressive considering the result.
Ulmer made films at a sprinter’s pace. Marathons were reserved for the Hollywood elite. Have at it, John Huston.
This undertaking demanded fewer setups, one-take performances, and bold, eccentric ideas. As a master of a carefree/careless craft, Ulmer knew his film required bombshell notions to scar his audience’s psyche. Red, hot, vile emotions were as rich a device as any camera equipment.
You work with what you got. No set for the day? Fine. Pump the room full of smoke and fog, prop a lamp in a corner, and you’ve concocted a dark, impenetrable night for the characters to commit their diabolical deeds.
Detour is a shoddy uncut gem. Continuity errors run throughout, negatives are flipped, and cars pass on the opposite sides of where they should. In many ways, Detour operates as the perfect film to show a young cinephile, encouraging them with an education on the dos and don’ts of the 180-degree rule. Flagrant violations appear everywhere, but the rough edges only sharpen the endeavor.
There are no heroes in noir. Just humans. More often than not, they suck.
Ulmer traps us inside Roberts’ head. There is no escape. For a little while, we’re happy to play passenger, but as he judges others based solely on his contemptuous disgust for them, we find ourselves on a jury — his jury. Roberts foresees a noose swinging on the horizon, and it’s pretty easy to reward him that necktie.
Roberts cannot talk his way out. Every thought is a step toward death row — steps he took.
He’s a man surrounded in shadow, but it’s not a blanket draped on him by God or anyone else. It’s a duvet he slept under every day since childhood. He bought into the line that others lean as dark as he does. He has no faith in himself; therefore, he has no faith in humanity. His disbelief is his undoing.
Detour looks like a movie made for a buck and a quarter. Throw an extra coat of paint on it, and you’ll gloss over its grime. Noir craves grime.
The celluloid sheen should never hide the wretch on the highway. The devil thumbs a ride, and that devil is us. We’re the makers of our unmaking. Every episode is a lesson to model your life after. If a noir protagonist goes left, you go right.