I'm sure this confession won't rise my street cred in the world of the noir aficionados: I saw Edgar Ulmer's Detour for the first time just two nights ago. "What?" you say. "One of the most famous and notorious of all film noirs, and you haven't seen it?! How's that even possible?" I've been quiet about it and just kept on nodding, when someone has mentioned the film. "Yeah, that was interesting." Add a hesitant smile.
The Finnish Broadcast Association's Teema channel has started a series of classic film noir, and Detour was the second film in the string (with an old favourite, Murder, My Sweet being the first one). It's a great series, with some rarities in the bunch. My only gripe is that they stop in the mid-fifties. What about Murder by Contract, for example? One may argue there were great noir films in the sixties (Blast of Silence, Siegel's The Killers, Point Blank, Madigan etc.). And what about the noir films of the seventies: Klute, Chinatown, Hickey & Boggs, Night Moves..? Here's hoping they'll continue on to these - and maybe even the eighties' neo-noir films and the high-adrenaline postmodern noir of the 1990's and 2000's: Reservoir Dogs, Little Odessa, Bound, The Woman Chaser (which has never been released in Finnish), etc.
Okay, back to Detour. As everyone (well, I guess "everyone" applies here) knows, it's a very poor B-film, shot with $20,000 in a week, about a guy who's lifting his way to Hollywood from New York and ends up in trouble. If something is noir, then Detour is: there's no escaping your fate, whatever it is, and usually you fate is you'll die, probably sooner than later. Ann Savage as a hitch-hiker really makes the film: one of the scariest motherfucking sociopaths on any side of the Atlantic ocean. Period. And furthermore, she's not pretty in the least. She's actually quite ugly, if you ask me, and her style is awful. Her hair doesn't fit her at all, yet she keeps combing at it, like it would help. I don't know if this is something Ulmer set out to do or if it came only by accident. The way Tom Neal's character can't get away from Ann Savage is not out of this life: it's a nightmare that one can't escape out of. Unless by accident. That is your fate. Just accept it.
There are an awful lot of scenes in Detour that take place inside a car, with a camera shooting out of the front window. There's lots of voice-over narration. Yet none of this feels stilted. Detour is pure cinema, and I really don't know how Ulmer managed to break all of his poor film's financial restrictions. I sure am happy to finally have seen this.
I haven't Martin Goldsmith's novel that this is based on, but I know someone who has it and I'll be loaning it.