Friday, May 09, 2008

DETOUR (1945)

Tom Neal is an unshaven hitchhiker at a roadside diner who freaks out when a song from his past plays on the jukebox. In a flashback, we see that Neal was once a promising pianist in New York City (at a club called the Break O' Dawn), but when his girlfriend, a singer at the club, leaves to make a name out in California, he becomes dejected, sadly plunking out rather avant-garde pastiches which drive away customers. Even big tips don't make him happy--when one patron gives him ten dollars, he says to himself, "What's a 10-spot? A piece of paper crawling with germs." Neal decides to hitchhike out west to be with his gal and winds up riding for a while with a chatty businessman (Edmund McDonald). As fate would have it, the man drops dead of a heart attack while Neal is driving. Not sure what to do, Neal dumps the body and takes his ID, money, and car, and soon discovers that the man was out to cheat his rich father, whom McDonald hadn't seen in years. He picks up a hot bimbo (Ann Savage) who sees through Neal's deception. She threatens to turn him in to the cops and say he murdered McDonald, so he lets her take control of their relationship. Savage basically imprisons him in a cheap motel room, and when they find out that McDonald's dying father is looking for his son, they figure Neal could pose as the son and get some dough out of the old man. But before they can even get out of the motel room, fate takes another hand and trips them both up, and Neal gets up back on the road, with the law just a step or two behind.

This is the movie that critics and film buffs point to as the ultimate example of how a Poverty-Row studio could occasionally create a movie as entertaining and memorable as any big-studio product. You do have to adjust your expectations a bit--after all, the movie was made in a week with B-level actors--but it's one of the best film noirs ever. Neal, who never got past B-movie lead status, is excellent as the sweaty, passive, pathetic guy who may or may not be telling us the truth. Some critics have made some grandiose claims about this movie's use of the unreliable narrator (since it's all in flashback, how do we know Neal is really as innocent and abused as he claims?). I think these critics are mostly just trying to cover up ambiguities and gaps caused not so much by intention as by speed and cheapness of execution, but it is fun to "read" the narrative that way. Savage is just as good as Neal, looking so hard and ugly that she's sexy, and spitting out her lines in a raspy voice. Without a doubt, these are two of noir's greatest characters. The cheapness of the production, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, the Orson Welles of B-movies, gives everything an almost surreal feeling; the road scenes are all blatantly shot in a studio in front of a rear projection screen, and a New York City street scene consists of a street sign in darkness and mist. There are no pristine copies of this public domain film around, though some DVDs are better than others. Still, this is one to catch no matter what shape the print is in, and certainly not to be missed if you are a noir fan. [TCM]

1 comment:

Jim said...

You nailed this one ... you did a good job of articulating what bothered me about this film, and also what makes it a lot of fun.

it would be great to be described as the Orson Welles of B movies ... or the Orson Welles of anything, for that matter.