Monday 8 June 2020

Movie Review: Detour (1945)

A low-budget film noir, Detour wallows in a world of despair, where poor judgement and cruel fate combine to create an inescapable downward spiral.

Down-on-his-luck Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is irritable and alone at a diner in the middle of nowhere. In flashback he recounts his story, starting in New York City where he is a piano player in love with lounge singer Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake). Both dream of making it big but instead of getting married she leaves him and departs to Los Angeles. Increasingly depressed and penniless, Al eventually decides to follow her by hitchhiking across the country.

Al, narrating: Money. You know what that is, the stuff you never have enough of. Little green things with George Washington's picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for. It's the stuff that has caused more trouble in the world than anything else we ever invented, simply because there's too little of it.

In rural Arizona Al is picked up by Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), a wealthy bookie driving a fancy car and popping pills due to poor health. Haskell also carries physical evidence of a recent altercation with a woman. In the middle of a rainy night Haskell promptly dies. Believing he will be accused of murder Al assumes Haskell's identity and continues the trip. Once in California he picks up hitchhiker Vera (Ann Savage), and she quickly multiplies his problems.

Al, as narrator, describing Vera: She was young - not more than 24. Man, she looked like she had been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world.

Produced with minimal funds in a matter of weeks for poverty row studio Producers Releasing Corporation, Detour starts at an emotional low and only travels downwards. The film burrows into one man's misery, director Edgar G. Ulmer scrounging together enough sets and props to chronicle the rapid disintegration of a loser's life.

Al, narrating: That's life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.

Al lurches from one bad situation to the next with practiced certainty, and for the 68 minute duration he never comes close to finding an escape road. Instead, he hurries along his own misfortune, Detour suffering from Al's breathtaking inability to ever make a good decision. After Sue summarily abandons him he sets out on a treacherous hitch-hiking adventure, and sure enough is soon standing over a dead body in the middle of nowhere, certain every court in the land will find him guilty of murder.

Then he makes matters worse by inviting Vera into his stolen ride, and tolerating her blackmail agenda and even more perverted plot to pretend to be a couple and sell the car. By this point Al is a shell of a man, fully justifying any rotten fate that may befall him. Earning her place among the most conniving women on film, Vera is not done: she hatches another, even more far-fetched, money-making scheme. 

Vera, to Al: You're no gentleman, see?

Ulmer and writer Martin Goldsmith, adapting his own 1939 novel into a sharply defined shrine for pessimism, manage to conjure up one more detour for Al to grapple with, this time involving a telephone cord. This final humiliation is an emotional bludgeoning on the heels of comprehensive surrender, but in a world unforgiving of mediocre talents like Al Roberts, bad news is the only news.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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