In my best of film noir series, I thought we’d take a look at a low-budget thriller, Detour. Full of bare sets and camera work that is less than dazzling, Detour has stood the test of time. The plot revolves around a piano player, Al Roberts, who bemoans the fact that he has to work in a New York City nightclub. When Al’s girlfriends decides to move to Los Angeles, Al follows her. He hitchhikes across the country, encountering one bad thing after another.
The Best of Film Noir – The Noir Hero
The noir hero in Detour is portrayed by Tom Neal. Who? That’s what I said. Neal acted in many low-budget films, his most notable (other than Detour) being the 1938 Hardy family movie Out West with the Hardys. But Neal portrays Al Roberts so effectively that we feel for this man who is trapped in events gone awry. Roberts doesn’t have the usual moral code (such that it is) of most noir heroes. Roberts is caught up in events, reacting to situations, and his poor choices lead him into more trouble. Some have even compared the character of Roberts to Albert Camus’ Mersault, from The Stranger. While there are existential themes in some regard in Detour, we see more fatalism than anything. Roberts is the noir hero, a man defeated by his weaknesses.
The Best of Film Noir – The Femme Fatale
Ann Savage portrays Vera (no last name). Vera is an atypical femme fatale in the sense that she is not rich and beautiful. Instead, she is just as down-on-her-luck as Roberts is. She is not sultry, or elegantly dressed. She is thought by many film noir aficionados to be one of the nastiest of all the femme fatales in the film noir genre. She effectively castrates Roberts, peppering him with names like sap and sucker (remember, this is the era before four-letter words were allowed in movies). But the delivery of these lines is so angry, so caustic, that we feel nothing but loathing for this woman. That’s some acting, and some femme fatale.
The Best of Film Noir – The Director
Detour is considered one of the darkest of any film noir. This is in great part due to the director, Edgar G. Ulmer. Ulmer learned his craft in Germany during the 1920s expressionism era. He came to Hollywood in 1923 and worked alongside greats like Billy Wilder. A series of events caused him to be blackballed and he left Hollywood. Upon his return in the early 1940s, Ulmer was relegated to Hollywood’s Poverty Row, an area where impoverished independent studios churned out incredibly cheap, B-grade movies that were most often sub-par compared to those of the Big Five studios. Out of this came Detour. Hm, does this sound a bit like the indie author that rises out of the slush pile to much acclaim? But the cheap budgets and time constraints that hampered the filming only served to make Detour darker and more despairing.
The Best of Film Noir – The Story That Lives On
It’s a credit that a movie that many feel has technical errors, bad narrative, few sets and shaky back-projection stays with us long after we’ve viewed it. As Roger Ebert says:
This movie…starring a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer, should have faded from sight soon after it was released in 1945. And yet it lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir. No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it.
You authors, take note. If you’re going to write a sub-par novel, make sure that your plot portrayal is strong enough that your readers will think about the book long after they put it down :). When any of us put on our critic’s hat, we can forgive a lot of errors if the story lives on within us.
Watch this short video with more information about Detour and Tom Neal and Ann Savage.
A bit of trivia: a remake of Detour was produced in 1992 starring Tom Neal’s son, Tom Neal Jr., and Lea Lavish, along with Susanna Foster’s first acting appearance in 43 years and her final appearance on film.
So get your popcorn popping, get a soda, sit down and watch a great, albeit dark, film noir classic!
If you enjoy film noir, read my Reed Ferguson mystery series. Reed is a wannabe private eye who loves film noir and crime fiction, and these mystery novels are consistently well-reviewed: This Doesn’t Happen In The Movies, Reel Estate Rip-off, and the short story Elvis And The Sports Card Cheat.
5 Star Review
There is little doubt that Renée Pawlish is a promising new voice to the comic murder/mystery genre. Quite noticeable…is Pawlish’s adept development of the plot coupled with her ability to contrive clear, concise and playful prose with almost perfect pacing.
Norman Goldman, Bookpleasures Publisher and Editor