The wrong exit: A critical review of “Detour” (1945)

This blog would hate to call anyone the “ultimate cult thriller director,” but there are cases to be made. Case in point: Edgar G. Ulmer made two films that are recognized as undervalued representatives of their respective genres. The first is “The Black Cat,” a 1934 horror film whose offbeat and porous narrative paid more attention to unsettling atmosphere and psychological games between its iconic actors – Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi – than it did to its conventional leads. It is well worth a watch for horror fans, and it definitely deserves its own review some day. But that’s not what we’re talking about right now.

Nossir, we are talking about “Detour,” a 1945 film noir that is also quite interesting. However, whether it is a quality film or not is debatable. It’s a little movie trying to be a big movie. A bunch of my betters have suggested it’s waiting rediscovery, and while I’m inclined to agree, it’s not necessarily for the same reason. “Detour” might worth seeing, not because it’s so bad it’s good, but because it’s so bad it’s charming.

By the way, the film is in public domain, so you can watch it most places online, but anyone who misses that delightfully public access/old school horror host cringe can watch it here.

For those in a hurry, “Detour” tells the tale of a dour New York pianist hitchhiking across America to catch up with his girlfriend who’s fled to Los Angeles. Somewhere in the Southwest, he climbs into a car with a doomed man. After switching from hitchhiker to driver – and taking on the original driver’s identity – he picks up a young woman who has some killer baggage of her own.

To be fair, “Detour” has a couple of things going for it. It sports some thoughtful, mature camerawork and a suitable soundtrack for a film about an accomplished pianist, which is particularly impressive in its nightclub scenes. However, as far as things that are clear successes, that’s about it.

There is an ambition hanging over the film, but it’s an ambition that is almost never precisely satisfied. Part of the film’s failures come down to the editing and continuity, which are awkward and self-defeating. There’s also the script, which seems like it’s in a terrible rush to get wherever it’s going. “Detour” is less than 70 minutes long, and while that makes it a breezy view, the film never has the time to ruminate on its themes or characters in a comfortable manner.

Both of those flaws can be attributed to the notable lack of budget – film stock costs money, after all, and this movie was notoriously cheap. Of course it’s debatable whether the low budget can account for the awkward script and editing, but it can account for the clumsy matte shots and cheap sets. However – and this is where the charm bleeds through – budget can excuse but never fully explain some of the film’s quirks. Why does it look like the leads wander through the Gypsy camp from “Cry of the Werewolf” while walking home from the New York nightclub? Who knows. Unfortunately, a lack of funds can’t excuse the dialogue, chewy performances and aimless narration, which are so full of overcooked metaphors to sound like a pastiche of film noir rather than an earnest effort.

The biggest problem of all is Ann Savage as Vera, the hitchhiking femme fatale. She should have entered the film much earlier than she does. Savage is by far the most compelling component of the movie, and as soon as she appears, every minute that she was absent seems wasted. Her sharp movements and dark eyes are mesmerizing, and her shifty magnetism elevates the tawdry dialogue to literate pulp. She’s a perfect foil for Tom Neal as the stiff, sad sack pianist. Once she’s on screen, it feels like an integral part has been restored, rather than added, to the film.

That is “Detour” in a nutshell. It is an elegant movie with an ugly skeleton. The components of a good film – continuity, script, performances, competent lighting – aren’t here, but there is an ambition hanging over the result. It’s found in the atmosphere, which is foreboding, fatalistic and nihilistic. Even if the expected narrative doesn’t work out, that atmosphere does. There’s a dirtiness to everything, either by design or default, and little makes narrative sense, but that just gives the proceedings an oddball, dreamlike quality that is fully watchable.

Ulmer ain’t here, so no one can say how much of the film was that bad and how much was intentional (the ending was allegedly shoehorned in to please the censors, so an argument could no doubt be made that the ham-fisted narration and hacky editing followed suit). Regardless, it is worth a watch for fans of the genre who have an hour or so to burn. Just be prepared for a bumpy ride.

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