Film Noir Series: Detour (1945)

by tigermanifesto


One of the reasons I joined this class was to see some of the classic B noir pictures. Often, their budgets and the circumstances for making them sound more like social experiments or challenges from Lars von Trier than production schedules. Detour, the subject of today’s entry, was shot in six days released with numerous technical errors and deficiencies. Running a tight 67 minutes, even that low amount doesn’t preclude director Edgar Ulmer from having to pad the film with stock footage of telephone wire relays. One can see the results of the film’s almost spartan economy throughout: the blurry, shaky rear projection in moving car scenes, the scene that substitutes thick fog for bustling urban streets, the simplicity of the film’s flashback transitions, etc. Nonetheless, within these constrains, Detour manages to become a perfect encapsulation of the noir aesthetic. This was, no doubt, helped by the fact that its director assisted Murnau on a couple of features before moving to the United States.

Our protagonist this time around is a despicably spineless chap named Al Roberts, a pianist from New York who fancies himself in love with the club’s singer, Sue. Sue takes the traditional westward road to Hollywood to try to make something of herself. I suspect she might also want to get away from her prospective husband-to-be, since she proves remarkably evasive when asked about why she is moving and none-too-enthusiastic about the marriage. When Al takes his own journey out west, his character flaws are bared for us to see. Note that the couple’s romantic song is “I Can’t Believe You Fell in Love With Me,” which echoes in Roberts’ plaintive narration. He complains that no one believes that he didn’t murder the sickly man who picked him up at the side of the road, and there is a note of falseness to his story that still bothers me. It makes too much sense for a man in his situation to twist the facts of the story to suit his fragile conscience: after all, the man was a con artist out to fleece his own father, what right didn’t I have to steal his money when he died? Taken at face value, of course, Roberts is more the victim of circumstance than anything else, trapped in a situation that, together with his meagre intelligence, conspires to push him into mistake after mistake.

We have many of the hallmarks of noir here: Venetian blinds, striped pajamas, confined interior spaces, and brutal, creative but unseen murders. Vera, the femme fatale, is a much more physically imposing presence on the screen than others, if only because of her bluster and loud voice. She seems almost as rough as the man, and initially cuts a more masculine figure, though she vacillates into seductress mode in the confines of the hotel room. Our hero is too preoccupied with his own guilt and misfortunes to notice, however, and ends up sitting at the diner, his sad, glassy eyes reminding me of nothing so much as William H. Macy’s character from Fargo. Hapless and banal, he is both the victim of fate and, lest we forget, a murderer.