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Detour (1945)

by on 2011/03/19

“That’s life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”

* * *

For an obscure little trifle, Detour (1945) enjoys an enviable reputation. Despite numerous glitches, it’s been celebrated without irony: originally as a solid B-movie, later as a landmark film noir, and nowadays as a Library of Congress honoree. Not to sell it short, it’s best described as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by Ed Wood.

Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is thumbing his way from New York to Los Angeles in pursuit of fiancee Sue (Claudia Drake). En route, he is picked up by Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), a mysterious pill popper who almost immediately dies. Roberts adopts his identity, but soon discovers Haskell was a con man, then meets a previous victim, Vera (Ann Savage).

By today’s standards, the shortcomings are clear. The acting is more amusing than convincing, the plot stops at least an act too soon — yet runs exactly one minute too long — and the production values are less suspect than guilty.

Rarely have I seen malformed characters as poorly played. The breathless script and monologues are awesomely over the top. The entire affair teeters precariously between noir melodrama and Z-list strain. Neal delivers the single worst phone “conversation” I have ever seen, though it might be the most entertaining call as well.

Almost no aspect of production is above such reproach. The driving scenes look faker than fake; Sin City is cinema verite in comparison. Axes are broken, angles mismatch, props appear and vanish from shot to shot, and “dramatic” lighting effects draw less attention to mood than method.

Whether audio or visual, the tricks of the trade seem teasingly out of reach…

…and still the whole remains improbably cool. A savvy audience will see exactly what was intended. The filmmakers obviously knew what they wanted to do, and why. They just had a bit of trouble with the how.

All the right ingredients are here: flashbacks, nightmares, fantastic silhouetted reveries, all feeding into a twisting narrative structure . . . a flick for flawed heroes, impossible virtues, femme fatales, accidents, and nearly immanent justice.

And jazz music. A jukeboxful of big band swinging, orchestra-slumming, downbeat Chopin-mashing jazz music.

I didn’t expect too much, despite its reputation. The early going’s slipshod technique made me doubt its worth. In time, however, I began to see, if Detour doesn’t look very noir, then at least it manages to feel that way. It may not be a great ride, but its story, characters, and attitude make it one worth taking all the same.

* * *

Full movie (public domain) available here:

Not rated

68 minutes

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