Movies We Like
Film students across the world come to be familiar with Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour because it's one of the first examples of the "noir" genre; it makes clever use of its low budget and it offers a classic, if simplistic, story on how men and women can manipulate each other into horrendous actions. While all of these are the reasons why the film still holds up today, it's also more fun to think of Detour as the 1940s equivalent of Stranger Than Paradise or Clerks. Super low-budget and completely pioneering in its time for depicting human behavior, this is a film that can still prove to people that quality films can be made outside of Hollywood.
The story opens up on a grizzled and paranoid-looking Al Roberts, who staggers into a diner somewhere in the barren remoteness of Southern California, just outside of Los Angeles. He reacts harshly when somebody in the diner plays a particular song on the jukebox and, after apologizing and being nearly kicked out, he drinks his coffee and begins to tell his story over narration.
We learn that he was a piano player in New York who decided to hitchhike to California after his girlfriend, Sue, left to become an actress in Hollywood. On his travels he gets picked up by a man named Charles Haskell and it doesn't take long for Al's life to spiral out of control shortly thereafter. The only other plot point I'll mention here is that certain events lead Al to meet Vera, the film's manipulative, femme-fatale of sorts, who leads Al's life into a direction that is as horrific as it is bizarrely comic.
Roger Ebert famously wrote about Detour, explaining that the entire film could be viewed as Al's mind creating an alibi. A lot of bad luck appears to happen to the character and often times his narration seems like a complete contradiction of what we're watching on the screen. It's this ambiguity that helps make the film all the more compelling.
And from a low-budget point of view, the film shows exactly how much can be done with a handful of actors and a few locations. The exterior shots of New York in the beginning were probably shot on a sound stage in Burbank, but with enough fog machines and small lights in the background, it serves as a believable city street. Instead of elaborate set pieces and expensive editing techniques to show flashbacks and internal moments within a character, Ulmer will instead shine a spotlight on the eyes of his actor while the background dims to black. Such techniques are applied with incredible subtlety and add to the overall low-fi charm of the film.
Reviewing Detour in any conventional sense feels impossible for this blog because I, personally, cannot watch it as something to just put in the DVD player when I'm bored. It endures as a classic because of how much density it packs into its 67 minute running time--but don't get me wrong, it provides an entirely enjoyable story too. Don't let this blog intimidate you.
Also a note of interest -- director Richard Linklater (Dazed And Confused, School of Rock, A Scanner Darkly, etc.) got the idea to name his production company after Detour.