If there’s anything film noir is known for other than brilliant lighting and shadows, the classic tropes of the femme fatale and the convoluted double-cross, it’s having a low budget in comparison to major, much “safer” Hollywood efforts of the time. Edgar G. Ulmer’s film noir Detour is perhaps the pinnacle low-budget film noir, as the film was estimated to have cost somewhere between $20,000 to $100,000 in 1945. Just to give you an idea of how incredible that is, my last review, Laura, cost somewhere around $1 million, with most future Noirvember reviews falling somewhere between $500,000-$1 million. Not only was Detour a very low-budget independent affair, but the film was shot in merely six-days, which is unthinkable to most filmmakers in history. For these feats alone, Ulmer’s film is an absolute triumph of early independent cinema, despite some of the technical issues that it undoubtedly features. After the death of director Edgar Ulmer, Detour found traction in the new television era and soon became a cult classic in the film noir genre, and was re-discovered by a new generation of viewers.
Detour follows a bitter, disillusioned piano player named Al Roberts (played by the infamous actor/boxer/accidental murderer Tom Neal). Left by his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) so she could pursue work as an actress in Hollywood, Al decides he’s had enough and pursues Sue across the country. With nothing to his name, Al is forced to hitchhike; which he explains through classic noir narration is a very dangerous and desperate thing to do at this time. After being picked up by the seedy bookie Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), our main character finds himself in hot water after Haskell ends up striking his head on a large rock and dying unexpectedly. After a very close call with the police, our unlucky protagonist is forced to take the name of Charles Haskell Jr. until he’s in Hollywood, and eventually finds himself giving a ride to a young, mysterious hitchhiker called Vera (Ann Savage). The mischievous Vera isn’t who she seems to be, and is onto the newly crowned “Charles Haskell Jr.”. In classic film noir fashion, the two quickly become embroiled in a plot to get enough money for them to travel to Hollywood together. Will things end happily for the mismatched pair? Almost certainly not.
Despite Edgar Ulmer’s Detour not being a perfect film on a technical level, I just can’t deny how impressive it is for what the cast and crew were working with. On paper it shouldn’t have been anywhere near as successful as it was, but here we are exactly seventy years later still talking about and analyzing it! I’ve mentioned the notorious shadows associated with the genre, and this film is no exception to the rule. There’s a scene where Al and his girlfriend Sue are so shrouded in thick fog that you can hardly even see the pair. The lighting works incredibly well for the budgetary limitations, and the script and dialogue are more than competent. It even features lines like “I was tusslin’ with the most dangerous animal in the world – a woman!”, you just can’t beat that hilariously noir way of writing dialogue! It’s very interesting to me that Tom Neal’s own life would eventually mirror his character Al Roberts’ luck in Detour. Roberts almost can’t help but accidentally kill his road-mates, and in real life Neal would be sentenced for manslaughter after shooting his spouse after a heated argument and subsequent struggle over a gun.
It’s hard to write about Detour in too much detail, as the film is only 67 minutes long, making it an incredibly brief viewing experience. The film is full of delicious film noir tropes, but somehow manages to feel fresh and more competent than it actually is. Snappy dialogue, two actors with great chemistry, and a short run-time make for a well-deserved cult classic. Despite having everything seemingly working against it, Detour is a terrific film and I’m very glad that I gave it a chance! If every film noir I see this month is even half as good as Ulmer’s film, then I’m going to be one happy man. Detour is highly recommended.