Posted in: by David Coursen, Contributors, Essays, Film Noir, Film Reviews

Detour: Closing Down the Open Road

Ann Savage and Tom Neal

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

Detour is a masterpiece of wry perversity, a film virtually constructed on irony and paradox: an incredibly claustrophobic film about hitchhiking on the “open road”; the bleakest of films noirs, with the bulk of the action taking place during the day and away from the city. But perhaps the supreme ironies relate to the film itself. Despite acting that ranges from incompetent to bizarre, a storyline bordering on the absurd—alternately trashy and fanciful—and a minimum of sets or characters, Detour somehow speaks directly and compellingly to the dark side of several pervasive American myths, forcefully expresses a coherent vision of the way the world operates.

But if Detour can reward the receptive filmgoer, it does, by its very nature, demand a little more than the ordinary film. After all, there is no denying that a film shot in a very short time (rumored to have been four days, more likely five or six), on a budget of—it almost seems—something in the neighborhood of 45 cents, may lack some of the slickness and polish we ordinarily expect. But if we focus on what the film offers rather than what it lacks, we can begin to appreciate what is, on reflection, an extraordinary piece of filmmaking.

To understand Detour‘s wry perversity, it may be necessary to know something of the man who made it, Edgar G. Ulmer: an extraordinarily gifted German who began his career working with people like Lang and Murnau, and himself made films in Hollywood for over 30 years. Yet the biggest “star” he ever directed was Zachary Scott and his longest shooting schedule was 12 days, with most of his films made even more quickly. He deliberately refused to work for any major studio, preferring the complete creative freedom and low budgets of Poverty Row. The “freedom” he found there enabled him to direct Yiddish-language pictures, a Ukrainian musical, a Harlem movie, and a prison film called Women in Chains. Ulmer may have been able to make such films exactly as he wanted, but with such dubious projects, with budgets so small many scenes were done in one take, his freedom often must have seemed as illusory as that of Detour‘s hitchhiker.

On the surface, the film is fairly simple: a man hitchhiking across the country, inadvertently involved in an accidental death, becomes involved also in a murder. Initially, his traveling suggests the exercise of free will, but as the road begins to seem endless this freedom is revealed as complete entrapment. The reversal extends even to the ways we perceive the visual imagery. As he sets out, full of faith and optimism, riding down the highway in an open convertible seems like an expansive, liberating experience. But when later he, as driver of the car, picks up a hitchhiker himself, all the space “out there” beyond the car ceases to matter as his circumstances constrict his existence to the narrow dimensions of the car’s interior. The sequence in question has a heightened effect precisely because that expansive, open world is so prominent visually, its physical proximity so evident yet so increasingly irrelevant to his existence as the alternatives it offers are increasingly closed to him.

This notion of contrast, often extended beyond all rationality, is central to Ulmer’s method. Grim, sordid, bizarre events take place in the most banal surroundings, and, because of those events, the meaning of the surroundings themselves is somehow altered, our responses to them changed. The first death in the film is an accident so farfetched it seems surreal, but the second death—a grisly murder by long-distance telephone—seems to exist beyond all laws of plausibility. But it is the very implausibility of the action, juxtaposed with the ordinariness of the milieu—a nightclub, an apartment, a used car lot, and, of course,. the road—that gives the film much of its force. Ulmer is actually taking several American fantasies (“going west,” looking to Hollywood for success and happiness, finding freedom and happiness on the open road—cf. Capra’s It Happened One Night) and performing unnatural acts on them, with devastating effects. If, for example, we think of the hitchhiker in terms of a Horatio Alger character, we see that he meets with just the opposite of an unbroken string of good luck and success; each ridiculous plot twist narrows his alternatives, increases his victimization, further emphasizes his lack of free will. In fact, the closest thing to a moment of freedom in the movie (though the character doesn’t perceive it as such) comes in the extraordinary sequence in which, working in the nightclub he professes to despise, he plays a brilliant, disjointed piano improvisation, shown largely through closeups of his crazily moving fingers.

Tom Neal under thumb of fate

At the heart of the film, then, is its belief in the existence of fate: irrational, relentless, malevolent. Fate seems almost a palpable thing, shaping the action with a malicious perversity beyond reason, beyond resistance. But Detour is so perverse it upsets even our sense of inevitability. From the introduction we know that the film’s flashbacks will gradually reveal the chain of circumstances that have brought the character to his present state of desperation. But we are not really prepared for anything more, for a final injustice presented in a casual longshot so indifferent it’s practically a throwaway. In retrospect, this shot perfectly extends the. logic of the main body of the film by denying that final myth of mobility and freedom, of the doomed outcast bound to wander forever.

When we discuss the conditions of Ulmer’s career, the necessity for choosing between “selling out” to a major studio or working on Poverty Row, we can easily see how he might have felt a personal affinity for a project like Detour. It is no accident that the hitchhiker’s intended destination should be Hollywood where he will find success and happiness. (There is even one shot in which two characters are framed in a window that looks for all the world exactly like a movie screen.) After a decade of Jive Junctions and Women in Chains, of limited options and illusory freedom, of entrapment within the economic imperatives of Hollywood, Ulmer was exceedingly well-equipped to handle Detour‘s desperate fatalism. The film’s grim acceptance of a malignant fate, its deliberate mockery of some of the more facile American myths, its singular admixture of the banal and the bizarre surely reflect the director’s belief in the existence of the illusion of free choice, not the substance of free will. It is hardly surprising that he made of this project perhaps the finest of his ten-day wonders, a forceful and compelling articulation of a distinctive world-view.

DETOUR (1946)
Direction: Edgar G. Ulmer. Story and screenplay: Martin Goldsmith. Cinematography: Benjamin Kline. Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). (69 minutes)
The players: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald, Tim Ryan, Esther Howard.

© 1976 David Coursen


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