01st Apr2019

‘Detour’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Edmund MacDonald, Claudia Drake | Written by Martin Goldsmith | Directed by Edward G. Ulmer

detour-blu-cover

Thanks to its absurd plotting and an even more absurd running time (it’s not even seventy minutes long), Detour is a breeze of a watch. Essentially a noir road movie, it’s fast, funny, grimy and atmospheric, and it comes with an absolute belter of a last ten minutes.

We meet our protagonist Al (Tom Neal) as a dishevelled drifter, hitchhiking his way across Nevada. He remembers his glory days in New York. He was a pianist and she – Sue (Claudia Drake), the love of his life – was a singer. One day she decided to jet off to L.A. to chase her Hollywood dream. Al wanted to chase his dream of Sue. He was flat broke but determined to marry her, so off he went.

On the way he hitches a ride with a chap called Haskell (Edmund MacDonald). When something very unfortunate happens to Haskell, Al finds himself in a tricky position. The cops will never believe that Al, a penniless rover, didn’t kill the well-to-do Haskell. So Al steals Haskell’s car (and a bit of cash to boot) and decides to make the rest of the journey in a dead man’s wheels.

The second half of Detour is where one almighty coincidence pushes the film close to farce, and where it’s at its most enjoyable. Al bumps into a close associate of Haskell’s, Vera (Ann Savage), and he is forced into a most contrived arrangement, which is also an impossible test of his character. He will find out that the decision to leave Haskell behind was only the beginning of his descent into a personal hell.

Prolific B-movie director Edgar G. Ulmer draws enjoyably frantic performances from his main actors. Neal and Savage are well cast as the misfits thrown together in a nightmare of their own making. His anguished eyes and rigid body language are the perfect juxtaposition against her laissez faire attitude and flowing, fluid movements. To call them great performances would be a push (“a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer” was how Roger Ebert put it) but they are effective and engaging, bouncing zingers off each other effortlessly.

Set mostly in back-projected vehicles, Ulmer is in his low budget element here. You haven’t seen this much superimposition outside a Marvel movie. It’s quite charming. But the real artistry is in the editing, which is not just inventive (a shift from a daydream to reality sees the screen shrink to a letterbox to match the rear-view mirror) but ruthlessly efficient. This really is fat-free filmmaking; so swift you never stop to question its ridiculousness.

A superior filmmaker with the luxury of ninety minutes might have made more of the scenario. There’s the sense that Al may be an unreliable narrator, and there is potential in the premise to mess with the audience’s perceptions: the reality before our eyes versus that which our flawed hero wants us to believe. But it’s a conceit never really explored. And this being the Hays Code era, a profound lasting message about the stripping away of a man’s identity is stolen away by a boringly moralistic finale.

Still,Detour is a cracking little page-turner with a truly grisly final act. And with a running time barely longer than a single episode of your average Netflix show, it can’t be said to outstay its welcome. A superior product of Hollywood’s “Poverty Row”, it is recommended for those who like their pulp sharp, funny, punchy and a little bit nasty.

SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES:

  • New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, a 2004 documentary featuring interviews with filmmakers Roger Corman, Joe Dante, and Wim Wenders and actor Ann Savage
  • New interview with film scholar Noah Isenberg, author of Edgar G. Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins
  • New programme about the restoration of Detour
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by critic and poet Robert Polito

Detour is out on Criterion Blu-ray from toady, 1st April 2019.

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