"Detour" is THE grunge classic of all time. In most cases, when you watch a poverty row film, you find yourself wishing that you they had just a bit more time or money to do things properly: If only the wallpaper in the hero's apartment and the police station weren't identical. If only the same three extras weren't in the background in every single sequence. But "Detour", shot on a next-to-nothing budget in less than a week, is perfect just the way it is. The main reason, of course, is that the brilliant director Edgar G. Ulmer, who rarely got a chance at an "A" movie, was at the helm. No one could wring more from a poverty row effort than Ulmer, as he demonstrated in his superior work on films like "Bluebeard" & "Strange Illusion".
Superstar John Garfield might have seemed like an ideal choice for the role of the protagonist in "Detour", but in fact, Tom Neal WAS Al Roberts. Neal kicked around Hollywood from the late thirties through the early fifties, launching his career at the prestigious M.G.M. studios, but he descended swiftly to grade-Z programmers, in part because of his unsavoury offscreen behavior. (He later wound up in prison for killing one of his wives.) If ever a camera recorded the face of a loser, Tom Neal was the quintessential loser. He was 31 in 1945, the year "Detour" was shot, and while superficially attractive, he seemed drenched in world-weariness and defeatism. Ann Savage, then a 24-year-old starlet, sacrificed her good looks to play the role of Vera, a femme fatale with a vengeance. No other young actress of her era ever made herself so unlovely for the sake of a role: no make-up, ragged hair, a wardrobe from Hell. If you catch a dolled-up version of Savage in any of her glossy Columbia films, you'll find it hard to believe you're looking at the same person.
In the course of little over an hour, Al and Vera meet, join forces and destroy each other on the road, spitting dialogue at each other that you're unlikely to hear in any other forties movie. Among the lighter-than-air films of that time, "Detour" stands alone as a grim chunk of realism and it's still every bit as hard-hitting now.
© 2008 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 12/31/08
USA - 1945