Thursday, April 23, 2015

Detour (1945) *** 1/2

Some movies come from a place so outside their time they look like they were made for another era.  Edgar G. Ulmar's Detour, filmed on a shoestring budget over one week in 1945, sounds and looks unlike anything that came before or after.  A definitive entry in the film noir genre, Detour expands in complexity and depth with each viewing.

The story follows one Al Roberts, a really down on his luck sad eyed piano player. The film begins when his girlfriend Sue, who sings at the local night club, aspires to make it as a movie star in Hollywood.  Al decides to stay behind.  So Sue heads out west and Al eventually decides to join her.  Low on cash, he hitchhikes and trouble ensues. One of his drivers dies suddenly of a heart attack in the middle of nowhere.  Afraid he'll be accussed of murder, Al assumes the man's identity.

Then he runs into Vera (Ann Savage) at a gas station.  Vera remains the ultimate femme fatale as she relentlessly inflicts verbal abuse upon Al.  She also knows he's guilty of identity theft and blackmails him.  They trade verbal barbs repeatedly.  Once they arrive in California, in a crazy coincidence, they learn the man who's identity Al stole has a rich father who is dying.  Vera tries to convince Al to impersonate the son to collect the inheritance.  It doesn't take an Einstein to figure out the scheme is completely wacko.

If you ever come across Detour, it will look horribly dated upon first viewing.  But don't be fooled, the sharp dialogue and nuanced performances keep the story humming along. Directed by German expatriate Edgar G. Ulmer, a fringe figure in Weimar Expressionist cinema, Detour has a unique, hypnotic style. If you ever wonder what a pulp story directed by an avant garde filmmaker might look like, check out Detour.  One can see a foreshadowing of Tarantino's cinema.

Tom Neal's performance as Al exudes helplessness, a man totally out of his depth. Like most film noir protagonists, he's entrapped in a maze and there's no exit.  We see his character appear over and over again, whether William H Macy in Fargo or Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.  As Al says at one point, "That's life, whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you."


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