The film noir movement is a true hallmark of mid-twentieth century popular culture. Films like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice are considered mainstays of the iconic film movement which ran from 1940 until the middle of the 1950s. Detour is often overshadowed by some of these glitzier, more glamorous films. However, the Edgar G. Ulmer classic is a stellar example of film noir, and a must see for all film fans and cinephiles. TCM debuted a brand new restoration of the 1945 film at this year’s Turner Classic Movie’s Film Festival.
Detour follows the story of Al Roberts (Tom Neal). Deeply in love, the jazz pianist follows his fiancée (Claudia Drake) out to Hollywood. However, on his way there the driver of the car he’s hitchhiking in (Edmund McDonald) dies. Was it an accident? Was it murder? Afraid of how the truth will ultimately look, Al takes the man’s car, disposes of the body and runs. Unfortunately, his bad luck continues as he meets with another hitchhiker named Vera (Ann Savage). She knew the driver… as a result, she knows about the murder. Suddenly, the iconic femme fatale has the man over a barrel. How will he escape when she holds all the power? The film is directed by the legendary Edgar G. Ulmer from a script by Martin Goldsmith.
While the film is considered a how-to example of textbook film noir, the movie unfortunately doesn’t receive the love it so richly deserves. Detour came out of a “Poverty Row” studio during the peak of the noir movement in Hollywood. As a result, its often lost in the flood of studio fair like The Maltese Falcon and Kiss of Death. Unless you’re actively running in film circles, or a starving film school grad (like myself) there’s a definite chance you haven’t heard of this movie.
Probably most striking is Detour‘s narrative structure. This feels especially relevant when analyzing the film noir movement of the post WWII era. To be perfectly blunt, life kicks your butt and then you die. This is what film noir is known for. The world is bleak. Remember, this movement took root during the peak of WWII, truly summing up Al as a character. We see him as a bruised and beaten pianist at what could only be considered a dive bar. We follow him through what can only be described as a riveting and painful journey, before the ever so brief runtime comes to a close at 68 minutes.
The layers of this character are made even more evident by the casting of Tom Neal. The young actor spent most of his time in B-movies. Classic film fans will come closest to recognising the actor in the 1939 film Another Thin Man. Much of his career was plagued by scandal and his off-screen antics. However, Detour stands above this as Neal’s best work. By this point in his relatively brief career, Neal had been a juvenile and and secondary male lead in studio pictures. Unfortunately, he was never able to make the jump to A-list stardom. His performance brings more than a hint of exhaustion. By this point, he’d been around Hollywood and very much conjures the world weary Al. His scandal riddled career chewed him up, and was just waiting to spit him out.
However, Detour’s greatest contributions to the film noir movement actually revolves around the femme fatale, as brought to life by Ann Savage’s performance. Like Neal, the actress spent most of her time in B pictures. However, she absolutely shines in this film as Vera, the rough and abrasive hitchhiker. Her portrayal is relentless. Her take on the femme fatale is very different from many of her contemporaries. In this character we don’t see the sexualization or seduction of Rita Hayworth in Gilda or Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Rather, she’s built as the villain. The character is sharp, rough around the edges, and will definitely go down as one of the greatest filmic examples of the femme fatale of the movement.
Not familiar with Detour? The feature is definitely a deep cut of the film noir movement. While it might seem like a rough, Poverty Row film, recent years have shown just how important this film is to post World War II cinema. If you are at all a fan of film noir (or even film), make sure you add Detour to your list.