Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films. With 263 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go, Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. This week, he takes on Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour.
In the spirit of good film noir, this little thriller about a hitchhiking journey across the country provides a mixture of curves, sharp turns and dead ends. What’s impressive about this film is that it’s considered a classic noir despite being from “Poverty Row”, a term used for movies made by Z-grade Hollywood studios from the 1920’s through mid-50’s. It’s also why people assumed that Detour was filmed in 6 days (in reality it was more like 3 weeks). The film runs 69 minutes, so they barely squeezed out a feature film, but we can be glad that they did:
- Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
- Writers: Martin Goldsmith and Martin Mooney
- Cast: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald
The noir style is rendered beautifully, with a charm that comes from its a shoestring budget. The German Ulmer, who moved to America – like a number of great directors – because of the Nazis, draws stylistically from what he learned working on German Expressionism (Ulmer had been an assistant to F.W. Murnau), which helps paper over some of the obvious deficiencies that comes from having no money. For instance, the voice-over narration is solid, but it feels like it’s used to advance the narrative by voice-over whenever possible. But despite its theoretical and practical limitations, it works.
Down on his luck, Al (Neal) sits at diner counter having flashbacks. He remembers a time when he worked as a musician at a restaurant where he was “blessed” by the presence of Sue Harvey (Drake). When Sue leaves to Hollywood, Al decides to hitchhike across the country to catch up with her. Al’s predicament unravels into a series of life-changing events that mostly involve femme fatale Vera (Savage).
And Savage’s Vera is reason enough to watch this film. Her ferocious delivery of the razor-sharp dialogue – especially when the plot gets twisty – is hard-hitting, bold and frightening. The way her hair blows in the wind adds further to her devilish demeanor, but her introduction would be enough to nominate her for an Oscar in just about any year. Her performance is just so chillingly good. She’s one of the most abrasive and “in your face” female personalities I’ve ever seen; she’s capable of anything.
Brief Words for Ebert: Since this is a movie made on a shoestring budget, I mostly that this is flawed material that finds a perfect home in the imperfect world of film noir. I’m happy to discover thrilling plot in the vein of Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. – both of which also include an excellent use of voice-over narration. Mr. Ebert, by referring to the theory that Al’s narration “illustrates Freud’s theory that traumatic experiences can be reworked into fantasies that are easier to live with”, you make me want to rethink this film to arrive at better explanations for some of the storytelling inconsistencies. Left to such interpretations, I can definitely see why this film, among other reasons, may be deemed “Great”. Undoubtedly, your review adds to my fascination with this film. This is a movie experience I will never forget – it’s a minor miracle – and after more than 50 years, and all is said and done, Detour not only still works, but is crushingly effective despite its flaws.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: Good
Do you like Detour? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Swing Time