Edgar Ulmer is undoubtedly the least-known American filmmaker. Few of my colleagues are able to boast of having seen the few films of his that have made it to France, all of which are surprisingly fresh, sincere, and inventive […]. This Viennese, born with the century, first an assistant of Max Reinhardt’s and then of the great Murnau, hasn’t had much luck in Hollywood, probably because he doesn’t know how to fit into the system. His carefree humor and pleasant manner, his tenderness toward the characters he depicts remind us inevitably of Jean Renoir and Max Ophuls.
Detour is a kind of interior road movie. The ill-fated protagonist is travelling westward almost as a mockery of the gallant riders in westerns. Like many other films noirs, Detour takes place in flashbacks. In the present the game is already over. There are even a few bodies on the protagonist’s account. Everything is indirectly but inevitably evidence of ‘a lack of free will’.
The film can be defined as a mystery of pure style. In huge close-ups, mundane views from a sleazy diner turned threatening and unreal: lights turned off, a cup of coffee, a jukebox.
The characters are a chapter apart. Vera (Ann Savage) makes other fatal women of films noirs, including Barbara Stanwyck, look like Sunday School children. Tom Neal, who plays the male lead, was later in life actually convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The woman he confronts in the darkness of the highway sees him as a character who has spent nights in the depths of a freight car.
The brief affair of these two is a veritable circus. They wake up in a motel. Of course, a dependency, a weird relationship, a perversely precise reversal of a romance develops between these two wretched creatures. The world is saturated with unmotivated crime (money is “a piece of paper crawling with germs”), the absurdism of relationships is irreversible: in the end the murder suspect is a dead man whose identity the ‘hero’ has assumed…
Also memorable is the way Vera dies: an accidental hanging by a telephone cord twisting around her neck, almost as a mockery of human communication and its instruments. The camera moves around the room, inside and outside, as if swaying between life and death. Thanks to such images, one starts to miss the age of b-movies so much that it hurts.
Peter von Bagh, Road movien ei-tästä-edemmäksi [The Non Plus Ultra of the Road Movie], in Peter von Bagh, Rikoksen hehku [The Heat of Crime], a cura di Antti Alanen, Otava, Helsinki 1997
Cast and Credits
Sog.: dal romanzo omonimo di Martin Goldsmith. Scen.: Martin Goldsmith, Martin Mooney. F.: Benjamin H. Kline. M.: George McGuire. Scgf.: Edward C. Jewell. Mus.: Leo Erdody, Kimmy McHugh. Int.: Tom Neal (Al Roberts), Ann Savage (Vera), Claudia Drake (Sue Harvey), Edmund MacDonald (Charles Haskell), Tim Ryan (il proprietario del ‘Nevada’), Esther Howard (Holly), Pat Gleason (Joe). Prod.: Leon Fromkess per PRC Pictures, Inc.. DCP. D.: 67’. Bn.
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