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Detour is a true hidden gem of film noir, one of the finest examples of a pulpy, low-budget Poverty Row B-film from the 1940s. Over the years, the film has become a classic due to its minimalist settings, unforgettable femme fatale and a plot that embodies every aspect of noir. Its 67-minute runtime barely qualifies it to be considered a feature film, with its plot to the point, omitting any unnecessary and nonsensical side conflicts. Even though the film is essentially considered a pinnacle of noir, in its heart, it is undoubtedly a road movie.
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, Detour tells the story of Al Roberts (Tom Neal) framed in a flashback. Jumping back in time, Al, an unemployed piano player from New York, decides to hitchhike across the United States to Hollywood to reunite with his girlfriend, Sue (Claudia Drake). In Arizona, he is picked up by Charles Haskell Jr (Edmund MacDonald), a bookie on his way to Los Angeles. During the drive, Haskell sleeps in the passenger seat, and when Al opens his door to wake him up, the man tumbles out, hitting his head on a rock. Al realises Haskell is dead, yet it is unclear whether he had died earlier, maybe from a heart attack. Given the situation’s absurdity and fearing arrest, Al hides the body in the brush and takes the dead man’s clothes and identity as if nothing had happened.
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Not only does Detour brilliantly use the visual tropes of the noir, such as recurring tilted angles, low-key chiaroscuro lighting and heavy use of shadows, but from a narrative perspective, it forces Al into a spiral of dark and unexpected events as he narrates his own downfall. From the moment Haskell picks up Al, the majority of the runtime takes place on the road, with occasional breaks at various motels. Travelling through several states, Al essentially witnesses the ugly side of America. Detour, therefore, becomes one of the forerunners of the road movies that portrayed a disillusionment with the American Dream – something that would become an essential feature of the road trip by the 1970s.
Having taken Haskell’s identity, Al picks up a hitchhiker called Vera (Ann Savage – undoubtedly the greatest name for any actress playing a femme fatale). Vera reveals she had been picked up by Haskell earlier and blackmails Al by threatening to turn him over to the police. She soon turns out to be a mysterious and opportunistic woman with a troubled past. However, we never get to see her entire backstory.
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Vera only seems interested in money as she comes up with new, immoral and even morbid ideas to get more. Yet, behind the rough facade, there is a twinge of human frailty and desperation. Vera is the ultimate femme fatale, one of the most memorable of any noir; she exudes threat and danger from her first appearance – and unlike other similar female characters of the time, she does it without hiding her true intentions behind a charming and seductive mask.
Detour excels in creating a haunting, paranoid atmosphere that lacks any glamour. The film’s meagre budget, minimalistic settings and technical shoddiness also successfully add to this miserable, nightmarish, unforgettable milieu. Due to the Production Code, censorship prohibited portraying murderers from escaping justice, yet, regardless of the film’s final shot, it is clear that fate truly punishes Al. Detour still remains one of the most nihilistic, cynical films in cinema history and masterfully mixes the noir and road movie genres to achieve the best of both worlds.