The black and white film noir genre is making a huge comeback and scores of old B&W films are now being released on DVD’s in bunches. Film noir movies are ones where the protagonist, and mostly everyone else in the movie, are not very sympathetic characters. Think Bogie’s Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon. Or Edmond O’Brien in D.O.A. They are flawed people, but the plot is so gripping, we follow their exploits anyway with more than a moderate degree of concern. (Roger Ebert once said the difference between a crime movie and film noir is that in a crime movie the bad guys knows that they are bad guys and want to stay that way. While a noir hero thinks he’s a good guy who has been ambushed by life.)

Detour, a 1945 movie, staring Tom Neal and Ann Savage, and directed by Edgar J. Ulmer, certainly falls into this category.

Neal was a mainstay in B movies, staring in dozens of them in the 40’s and into the early 50’s. His career was derailed when Neal, a former boxer, KO’d actor Franchot Tone while they were fighting over a woman, breaking his nose and giving him a brain concussion. From that point on Neal, was reduced to small parts in obscure television shows. Neal was toast in the business for good, when in 1961, he shot his third wife Gale Bennett in the back of the head, killing her instantly. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to ten years in jail. He served six before he was paroled.

Savage, who acts in Detour with a permanent snarl on her face, made over twenty B movies between 1943-46. She was also a popular World War II pinup model and appeared in an Esquire centerfold. Stunningly beautiful, she steals this movie with a mouth dipped in vinegar.

Neal’s troubled soul is evident in Detour, who some critics consider the greatest B movie of all time. Some critics even rate it as one the best 100 movies of all time. Detour was shot in six days, using a total of six sets, with a total budget of only $20,000. On the cheap, even for 1945.

Al Roberts (Neal) is a New York City piano player working in a cheap joint, who’s in love with a singer named Sue (Claudia Drake), also struggling in the same dead-end dive. Sue decides to leave New York City for Hollywood for bigger things, leaving Roberts behind and not too happy. Lamenting the loss of his true love, Roberts decides to head west himself, but lacking the funds to go in style, he sticks out his thumb and hitchhikes. After making it as far as Arizona, he’s picked up in a snazzy convertible by a man named Haskell (Edmund McDonald), who has fresh scratches on his hand and is popping pills like they were candy.

After a while, Roberts takes over the wheel, while Haskell takes a nap in the passengers seat. It starts pouring rain, so Roberts gets out to pull up the top, when he realizes Haskell is dead from an apparent heart attack. Roberts panics and drags Haskell’s body onto the side of the road and down a gully. He changes into Haskell’s clothes, takes his money, and afraid of being blamed for murder, he assumes Haskell’s identity.

As fate would have it, Robert’s makes a fatal mistake when he soon picks up a nasty-looking hitchhiker named Vera (Savage). It turns out Vera had hitched a ride earlier with Haskell and was the person who gave Haskell the scratches on his hand, apparently because Haskell had trouble keeping his hands off her drop-dead body. Vera realizes immediately that Roberts is wearing Haskell’s clothes and driving Haskell’s car. After pretending to sleep for a while, she bolts upright in the front passengers seat and shrieks, “Where did you leave his body? What did you do to the owner of this car? You’re not Haskell! What did you do — kiss him with a wrench?”

Playing the bitch role to the hilt, Vera, sneer in place the entire movie, starts blackmailing Roberts. She demands the money Roberts took off Haskell’s body and forces Roberts to sell Haskell’s car for $1600, which she immediately pockets too. They rent an apartment in Hollywood and after they polish off a bottle of booze and start on another, Roberts says, “Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”

Vera reads in the newspaper that Haskell’s rich father is dying and Haskell is set to inherit a huge fortune. She decides that Robert must impersonate Haskell so that she can divert that inheritance money to herself. Roberts refuses. The plot reaches a boiling point, then ends predictably in an unpredictable way. In a final bit of bad luck, Roberts is picked up by the police in the film’s last shot.

As the film ends, Roberts laments in a voice-over, “Fate, for some mysterious force, can put a finger on me or you. For no good reason at all.”

No good reason? How about calling the police next time a guy dies of a heart attack, instead of taking his clothes, his money and his car? Maybe then Roberts could have avoided the fickle finger of faith.

Darn, I hate cliques.

Fans of film noir will absolutely adore Detour. Neal and Savage both give performances for the ages, especially Savage, whose mean-spirited act leaves an indelible mark on cinematic history. Even if you’re not a fan of the genre, you’ll get sixty five minutes of taut suspense.

On a range of one to five stars I give Detour a strong 4 stars. The only reason it doesn’t get five stars is because the director Ulmer’s lack of funds forces him to shoot scenes that are visually unappealing and downright depressing, which in this movie, may not have been such a bad thing.

Still, the plot’s the thing and Detour definitely delivers on that account.

Source by Joseph Bruno