Criterion Project #17: DETOUR (1945)

In yet another deviation from the project order, I decided to go full Noir-vember. I’ll continue the trend for this last week of November and then head back into the proper order going forward.


Spine #966

Year: 1945

Director: Edward G. Ulmer

And “Going Forward” would have been a much better title than Detour for our poor sap of a protagonist, Al Roberts (Tom Neal). Al is a talented piano player who is content to work for meager pay so long as he gets to perform with his soon-to-be-bride, club singer Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake). They’re a happy couple, about to be wed the following week. They even have a lovably campy production of “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” they perform at the club together night after night. Sometimes three to four times a night.

But all that is about to change.

In a perfectly abrupt exchange, Sue tells Al she can’t marry him next week because she has to go to Hollywood to try her hand at becoming a star. Al scoffs, attempting to kick dirt on her dreams so he can realize his, of course. She responds in the best way:

Al, why can’t you see my side of it? I’m young. We both are. And we’ve got all the time in the world to settle down. Really darling. What I’m doing is the only sane thing to do.

And just like that, the barometer has been set for what will be sane or insane in this film. Dropping the boring piano tickler to chase your dreams of Hollywood stardom is a completely sane, rational life choice – and I’m here for it! Al sulks off dejected and Sue heads out to sunny California. It’s those ideological screw-jobs that come through in film noir that make it feel so subversive and dangerous for the time. It’s peculiar that these films often have a grim, violent image of humanity but frequently tell stories about gullible men out-thought, out-muscled, and out-gunned by stronger, more intelligent women – the feared femme fatale. I’ve discovered just by doing this project that one of my favorite things to do with noir is pick out the line of dialogue or scene where the film comes right out and tells you its crooked view of the world. And Detour is a perfect example.

Not long after Sue has been gone, Al can’t take it any longer and calls her up. It turns out Sue hasn’t found instant stardom and they’re missing each other something fierce. Just like that Al decides he’s heading out to Hollywood to meet up with his love with nothing but….food money. But by hook or by crook, he’s going to get to Sue.

Al speaks to us in occasional voiceover, giving us his editorialized thoughts on the happenings in flashback. He’s mostly giving blow-by-blow information and some cryptic foreshadowing, but there’s one particular line he utters that I think encapsulates the remainder of the story, this film’s philosophy on life, and quite possibly the entire film noir genre:

Whichever way you turn, fate sticks a foot out to trip you

It doesn’t get much more succinct than that, which fits right in with the brevity theme of this film. At 68 minutes long it’s not only the shortest film on this list so far, it might be the shortest feature film I’ve ever seen (will have to double-check this). After Al decides to hitch it all the way from New York to California it’s essentially a road film (which undoubtedly kept costs down as most of the time is spent with two characters in a car against a projected backdrop). As soon as he makes the decision to head West, fate cracks its knuckles and enters the arena.

Unfortunately for Al, he gets picked up by Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), a flashy bookie in a fancy car who happens to be heading to L.A. What ensues is a case of accidental death, identity theft, kidnapping, extortion, another accidental death…and the list goes on. Fate, as it would seem, is not only a bitch but is also a bitch sitting at the head of the bar possibly being overserved.

Another thing I noticed while watching this film is how similar viewer reactions are to similar visual cues in horror movies.

For example, when a character in a horror movie is blindly walking into a situation that, to the viewer’s eye, clearly looks dangerous, your reaction is to yell out “Don’t go in there!” The same reaction erupted from me when Al happens upon a young lady hitchhiking near a gas station, a lassie we’ll come to know as Vera (Ann Savage). By this point Al has assumed the identity of his deceased traveling companion and he stops to fill up for gas when he spies the dame out by the road.

He calls out to her, “Hey, you.”

At that moment, something happened. Heck, when Vera first popped up on screen before he even uttered that line, I nearly leapt up from the sofa screaming “Stay away from her!” It felt like such a programmed response from years of conditioning that can never be undone. Alas, here we are.

Again, it can’t be understated that this film is a mere 68 minutes long but offers one of the darkest outlooks on its characters and life in general. I honestly loved every second of it, like a perfectly grim film noir. Again, horror is a passion of mine and I can’t help but feel the similarities to watching that and film noir when they’re hitting all the genre beats. It draws out a similar emotional response. I’m sure there’s an essay in there somewhere but for now I’ll just cap this off by saying Detour is another noir home run for me. Loved it.

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