Films I Love #51: Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)

[This is a contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir), the second Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and Self-Styled Siren. The blogathon has been organized for the benefit of the Film Noir Foundation, who do important work to restore and preserve the noir heritage. Please consider donating to the Foundation during this week. The blogathon will run from February 14-21, and during this time I'll be posting about some noirs to raise awareness of the blogathon and its worthy cause.]

Edgar G. Ulmer excelled at making tough, gritty pictures on miniscule budgets: films that transcend their Poverty Row production values with a strangely haunting grace and beauty, a powerful aesthetic guiding every rough shot of Ulmer's work. The ratty B noir Detour is perhaps Ulmer's strongest film, a pithy hour-long ode to fallen men and dangerous women — or is it the other way around? Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is just an ordinary guy, a bit down on his luck maybe, a pianist whose beloved singer girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) has moved to California, hoping to make it in show biz. Roberts hitchhikes after her, but his journey to be reunited with his love goes awry when, through an improbable series of circumstances, he accidentally kills a man who has picked him up on the road. Knowing that the police would never believe his outrageous story, Roberts decides to hide the body and assume the other man's identity. But even this plan is foiled when he himself picks up a female hitchhiker, the fiery Vera (Ann Savage), who recognizes the car and knows that Roberts wasn't the one who was driving it not long ago. Roberts' sad story is told through a series of flashbacks, narrated in a shattered monotone by the antihero, who relates each new twist as though he still can't believe these things happened to him. Roberts is an everyman, with no money in his pockets and no luck, and he's easily manipulated by the sinister Vera. Savage's performance is truly eviscerating; she looks at Roberts like he's prey, with her eyes wide, gritting her teeth, her eyebrows gesticulating wildly, her voice a cold hard rasp.

Ulmer's a true poet of the noir: his images have an unsettling potency and startling emotional depths. Even Vera, the wanton woman, has her moment of warmth, when she places a hand seductively on Roberts' shoulder and tells him, her words freighted with meaning, "I'm going to bed." She looks at him expectantly, and when he shakes off her implicit offer, her face hardens into her usual eagle-like mask, putting up a front of rage to disguise her disappointment and hurt. Ulmer's ragged poetry can also be found in the half-awake dream Roberts has while driving, a vision of Sue singing against a backdrop of shadowy jazz musicians — a surreal interlude that juxtaposes Sue's cheery, all-American sweetness against the dark, tawdry circumstances into which the dazed Roberts stumbles. Ulmer's images have a hazy, raw quality that is both hyper-real and disturbingly unreal, a nightmare imagining of a world determined to punish the innocent, to corrupt them, to make them guilty. But his vision is also sufficiently open-ended that it allows for another interpretation, in which the entire film is the delirious self-justification of a guilty man, spinning wild stories to assuage his conscience. Either way, Detour is a harrowing and unforgettable noir, a distillation of the genre's essential themes and images into their most untempered form.