Crime Scene is a monthly Vague Visages column about the relationship between crime cinema and movie locations. This Detour essay contains spoilers. Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 film features Tom Neal, Ann Savage and Claudia Drake. Check out VV movie reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.
When I started this column, I posited that the U.S. film industry had three basic types of noir films: the New York noir (dirty, gritty, sleazy), the L.A. noir (superficially beautiful veneers hiding an ocean of corruption) and the rural noir, which exists at a remove from the tropes and characteristics of the coastal metropolises. Appropriately, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is about a man journeying from New York to L.A., and the vast expanse of land he encounters in between. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) hitchhikes cross-country in the hopes of seeing his girlfriend. When traveling salesman Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) picks him up and then dies accidentally, Al fears being accused of his murder, so he hides the body and takes on the man’s identity. By sheer coincidence, the next person Al picks up is Vera (Ann Savage), the deceased’s ex, who quickly recognizes the car and then blackmails Al. Detour plays like a fever dream powered by guilt and dread; an existential noir about an American male lost in the nothingness and vastness of the country.
Detour’s reputation rests on a slightly erroneous perception of it as a Poverty Row masterpiece made on a shoestring budget. Yes, it was produced by low-budget studio PRC, and yes, it was intended as a B-feature, playing at a snippet below 70 minutes. But commonplace estimations that the film was made for as little as $20,000 appear erroneous: the real budget was likely to be around $100,000 — not an insignificant amount for a B-movie at the time.
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Yet, compared to the budgets available to noirs at studios such as Warner or Fox, $100,000 was still a paltry amount. Almost 80 years since Detour’s release, its low-budget nature is still apparent, but even more so the ingenuity that Ulmer employs to compensate for financial issues, and the effect that ingenuity has on the film, further pushing it into dreamland.
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Almost the entirety of Detour is shot in a car (Ulmer’s personal 1941 Lincoln Continental). Al journeys much of the time either with Charlie or Vera. But location shoots in any case were impossibly expensive (most of the long-shot footage in which real locations are visible amounts to a few B-roll snippets, probably shot by second units), and so the actors only appear on one physical location — a car lot.
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Detour is built out of a constant, never-ending blur of rear projection, the camera pressing in tight on Neal. The noticeable artificiality of rear projection eventually functions like a bubble, or perhaps a snare, tightening around the protagonist like a snake, until he’s unable to breathe. Nothing outside of the car has any bearing on Al’s reality, only the lives and actions of those inside the car: the dying man and his ex.
Detour Essay: Related — Soundtracks of Cinema: ‘Drive’
That Al chooses to simply steal the dead man’s identity, instead of owning up to it, is also evident of something more nihilistic in his psyche — a deep, obsessive desire to be something better than he is. The protagonist’s narration throughout outlines that he doesn’t think too highly of himself — an average piano player in an average nightclub — and as time goes on, its clear that he is categorically incapable of viewing himself as originating anywhere other than the gutter. So, it is logical that Al partly sees Charlie’s death as a ticket to a better life, enamored slightly by the man’s tall tales of financial escapades (all of which turn out to be the work of a con man). It’s not altogether unlike the identity swap that kicks off the plot of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), in which a war photographer (Jack Nicholson as Locke) steals the identity of a dead arms dealer. Both Neal’s and Nicholson’s protagonists find themselves entrapped in their new identities, more constricted than they ever were before. Was Antonioni using Detour as a reference point?
Detour Essay: Related — Know the Cast: ‘Drive My Car’
Detour’s use of rear projection also has another effect: it entirely abstracts and anonymizes the Americana it traverses, with the noticeably faded and artificial effect of rear projection creating an ersatz, unreal world. There are no identifying features – save for one state line crossing in California — and there may as well be no permanent residents, just a vast array of roadside diners, truckers, drivers and passengers. This drabness applies outside of the car too. The few sets in Detour are drab and simplistically-dressed: empty diners, sparse hotel rooms — all equally evocative of the protagonists’ anonymity.
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Detour’s anonymity charges Vera, a character whose behavior befits the actress’ surname (Savage). She is nasty and abusive, with a line designed to obliterate what few slivers of self-esteem Al has left. But Vera’s savagery comes from economic necessity, as she arrives into Detour from a world willing to ignore her so completely: it is suggested Charlie simply decided to drop her like a stone and drive off, discarding her simply because he got bored or annoyed. As a figure treated like crap, Vera responds like crap — an antagonist who knows only nastiness.
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It is a cliche, at this point, to talk about the car as a major symbol of Hollywood’s classic cinema; a receptacle of middle-class values, respectability and personal liberty. Noir, of course, reversed that trope, often using it as a machine which promised freedom but trapped the car’s drivers outside the law, such as the young lovers who make their escape in Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1948). In Detour, Al takes on the identity of the dead Charles principally by taking his car — the man’s most significant possession. Over the course of the film, it becomes symbolic of the protagonist’s inability to sell it or get rid of it, like an anchor tying him to his guilt.
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The weight becomes even heavier with the arrival of Vera, a femme fatale who, by dint of her association with Al, starts to behave like a de-facto wife. Two prominent trappings of 20th century heteronormative American life — the car and the woman — become cages and prisons, reminders of Al’s ersatz guilt, which itself only emerges from a paranoia that he would almost certainly be blamed for a man’s accidental death. The protagonist may have a car and a wife, but he is too castrated and ineffective, the direct opposite of an all-action male, and his inability to reckon with this fact sees him sink further into depression and despair.
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Such emasculated anxiety around the tropes and signifiers of middle-class, all-American trappings would reach its peak at the end of the 20th century, where films such as American Beauty (1999) and Fight Club (1999) sought to skewer suburban living. But these films never had the guts to truly emasculate their protagonists and instead merely repeated the ultra-masculine showboating they claimed to repudiate. Such movies ultimately emerged as more masculine and retrograde than ever before, repeating cruelty rather than dissecting it and eating it alive.
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There is, no doubt, a particular cruelty at the center of Detour, but it is one that is befitting of its milieu, and the world in which it emerges from. Ulmer’s film noir finds nothing meaningful, just a wandering army of barely recognizable lost souls — a vast expanse of the void.
Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specializing in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that, he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.
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