Recently released by Criterion, Detour is --- from what I understand --- a criminally underseen, Poverty Row film noir. I was pleased to see the restoration on the big screen at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA shortly before receiving a review copy, and I'm happy to say that on the second viewing at home, Detour is still excellent.
The film is imperfect to be sure, but nonetheless riveting due to its direction, story, and performances. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer (The Black Cat, The Man From Planet X), Detour was released in 1945, and follows pianist Al (Tom Neal), who is the most worried-looking protagonist I think I've ever seen. He hitchhikes across America from New York to Los Angeles in a road trip sure to turn the screws into him, body and soul --- and if that doesn't kill, him, well, Hollywood surely will. The point is to join Sue (Claudia Drake), his lounge singer girlfriend in L.A. and then get married.
It's too bad that they didn't stay in New York and get married there, but if Sue hadn't pushed to go out to try her luck in L.A., there wouldn't be a tragic movie to watch. (FYI: Detour is based off of a book. The included booklet has an essay that compares the book to the film adaptation.)
Al encounters a friendly, well off man that gives him a ride, but then accidentally dies during the road trip. Of course, Al panics and assumes his identity because the police aren't usually friendly in such matters. Things become more complicated after Al decides to offer another hitch hiker a ride. Enter Vera (Ann Savage), the most vicious femme fatale I've yet encountered in film yet. She's hostile as hell and her speech fires at Al like a machine gun. It's fascinating to watch the plot unfold with Vera in play. Perhaps, like me, you may laugh at the vitriol on display. I loved the arguments and threats on display, and you may as well.
Without spoiling too much, Detour doesn't end well. That's a laughable thing to say, considering that film noir never does end well, but you'll enjoy the journey, even if the characters you watch do not. This is a delicious tale of accidental death, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and of fate making sure you have a pretty bad time of it. All in all, Detour is a joy to watch.
My main issue is that the film is too short, at 69 minutes in length; it also ends with the flavor of a scare film. That's fine, but the morality face punch feels tacked on, as the rest of the film is a deftly directed narrative. I also wonder if the film was so short because they simply used all the footage that they were able to grab in the miniscule shooting schedule allotted to the production.
After all, one of the things that I learned in the special features is that Ulmer was something of a seasoned cinematic warrior when it came to delivering the goods in a ridiculous amount of time for very little money. And that's to the tune of anywhere from six to fourteen-day shoots for $20,000 or $30,000 --- a damn miracle for an indie film produced in the shadows of Hollywood.
Speaking of the special features on the disc, here they are:
The restoration is fantastic for the most part, and there's a bonus feature on how it took many, many years to bring this home release to you as you see it; when you watch the featurette, you'll be shocked by the scans of how bad the prints of Detour were that the restoration team had to work with, as well as why it took so long to deliver a release worthy of the Criterion Collection brand. The film looks and sounds incredible, and those who seek this disc out are enriched, believe me.
There's also that 2004 documentary on Ulmer, which, in part, features Joe Dante and John Landis riding around in a car in L.A. discussing the movie. Those two friends are always fun to watch talk about cinema, in addition to Wim Wenders, Roger Corman, actress Ann Savage (Vera), and more.
If you're a die hard fan of film noir, or simply Hollywood's weirder WWII outputs, you'll need to see this one. Want to add Detour to your film noir Blu-ray collection? Head on over to Criterion's website here.