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I love film noir, and one of the best examples of the genre is Detour. Made on the cheap in 1945, none of the participants could ever have imagined that they were making a classic. With a running time of only 67 minutes, the film hits the ground running with a bizarre tale of a sucker sucked into a vortex of bad luck that just keeps getting progressively worse. Good film noir is always about bad luck and Detour delivers a textbook example of bad luck, noir style. Film noir bad luck is usually a chain reaction of improbable horrors, each one more improbable and horrific than the one before, and always leading to the inevitable DOOM. As a genre, film noir is usually considered a sub genre of suspense or mystery. I would argue that film noir is in fact more related to the horror genre, and Detour is very much a horror film.
There are usually no real heroes in film noir; if the participants possess any moral fiber at all, it’s always shabby, tattered and unraveling. Film noir heroes are typically amoral losers obsessed with sex and money, obsessions that drive them to madness and murder. Al Roberts, the hero of Detour, is actually a decent guy by noir standards. He’s still a loser though, a cynical, wise cracking, world weary piano player in love with the singer in his band. When she heads off to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune, he follows after her, and it’s a decision that seals his DOOM. The cruel hand of fate soon lovingly and systematically slaps the shit out of this poor sap, right up to the final moment of the film. Al doesn’t really deserve the preposterously bad hand he’s been dealt, which makes Detour more pitiful than other noir films.
Tom Neal gives a nuanced performance as Al, subtly transforming from cocksure cynic to cowering coward with ease. You truly feel his mounting helplessness as the merciless noose slowly tightens around his neck. Neal is a joy to watch, but Detour clearly belongs to his costar, a remarkable actress with the most appropriate name… Ann Savage. Savage portrays Vera, giving a performance that belongs in the Bitch Queen Hall of Fame. Cinema history is filled with bitches with varying levels of venom, but what makes Savage so noteworthy is the dimensionality of her performance. Bitch performances tend to be of the one note variety, more an excuse for chewing scenery than character exploration. Not so with Savage’s Vera. Vera is a despicable bitch to be sure, but she’s also a frightened child, a scorned woman, a conniving hustler and a raging lunatic. And she’s even sexy too. Vera is a multi-dimensional bitch and Savage plays every aspect with virtuosic skill, making Vera a fascinating and formidable femme fatale. Aside from her acting chops, Ann Savage has a presence that burns a hole in the screen. It’s unfortunate she never achieved the fame she deserves.
Detour was directed by Edgar Ulmer. It’s clear from the meager production quality that this project was strapped for cash. And yet, it never feels lacking in any way. Ulmer still manages to throw in a few stylistic flourishes that hint at what he could have achieved with more money. A skilled director, Ulmer shoots with a unobtrusive style that allows the story to unfold and the performances to take center stage.
For anyone who has heard the term film noir and wondered what it was all about, may I suggest you veer off the safe, well lit cinematic highway and make a Detour. But be prepared for a dark journey.