Detour: B-Movie Turned Noir Classic

Detour is the sort of film noir that doesn’t overstay its welcome and utilizes every last bit of its limited runtime to deliver a gut-wrenching, unflinching tale of one man’s descent into an ocean of misfortunes and one woman’s want for more, rendering her perhaps the most frightening femme fatale ever put to screen. This is not your classic “get a man with no future and a dame with a past” sort of traditional noir narrative, this is a man running into an unlucky accident, one he could have walked away from were it not for a sinister woman that takes complete control of him and the film ever since she first appears on screen and doesn’t let go even after her departure. Directly out of Poverty Row, the many film studios that found a home in Hollywood from the late 1920’s to the mid-1950s and produced B-Pictures, Detour was a small success in 1945 but its status grew radically over the year, and it is now considered one of the finest films of the genre.

So, what is it exactly that makes Detour the noir classic it has become? The genre has so many more polished movies, all-star actors, great production, big directors, all that jazz, and Detour has none of that. A cast of unknowns; very cheap and basic production, a couple of sets, some exterior shots and plenty of technical difficulties; and a director who was a Nazi escapee like so many noir directors but who worked on nothing but B-movies. Yet, that is exactly what makes Detour so unforgettable, it completely neglects all of the glamour and gilding of the big productions of the time, and what remains is raw doom and paranoia; everything that was partially covered in bigger noir titles under plenty of wise dialogue and pretty ladies is unraveled in Detour in its truest, undaunted and ugliest form. Take it or leave it.

Detour tells the story of Al Roberts (played by Tom Neal), a piano player in New York with big dreams, fully in love with a woman who refuses his marriage proposal and decides to go to Hollywood and try her luck as an actress. Deep in his sorrows, he can’t take it anymore and decides to hitchhike across the country and marry her. The owner of the car that gives him a ride inexplicably dies and Al has to steal his identity because the cops would never believe him, and then, enter Vera. Played by Ann Savage, Vera is more sinister than any femme fatale of the genre, she doesn’t try to hide her intentions with her charms, she has none in fact, and her face and attire easily betray her nature since the start. She sees right through Al’s alibi, and threatens to turn him over to the cops for a couple of thousand dollars at first, until her ideas grow into a larger but crazier plot, one she blindly wants for financial gain and one he desperately avoids for its sheer insanity.

Hitching a ride next to a gas station with untamed hair and a grumpy face, Vera enters the film and it is suddenly hers to command; it obeys her wants, her plans and even her drunk whims, she is completely in control. The fear she inspires is really second to none in the entire genre; whereas most femme fatales reveal their true intentions very slowly and only when they absolutely have to, Ann Savage’s character hides nothing and shouts her commands with terrifying eyes and not a drop of compassion; even her attempts at seduction have a certain cruel superiority behind them. Tom Neal’s performance earns a compliment as well for its obedient passivity, when he is not surrendering to Vera, he is surrendering to love, to cops, to fate. “Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

From the first moment we see Tom Neal’s face in darkness with only his eyes highlighted by a cheap lightbulb, Detour delivers 67-minutes of raw, uncut doom. Dripping with depressive paranoia, yielding its protagonist to any force with the potential to control and ruin his life, the film draws the noose closer to Al’s neck by each passing second, with him aware, and at the end, more than accepting, perhaps even glad.


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