“Ever done any hitchhiking? It’s not much fun, believe me. Oh yeah, I know all about how it’s an education, and how you get to meet a lot of people, and all that. But me, from now on I’ll take my education in college, or in PS-62, or I’ll send $1.98 in stamps for ten easy lessons.”
‘Detour’, directed by Edgar G Ulmer in 1945, is a compact and satisfyingly heightened film noir. It tells the story of a man called Al who hitchhikes across America from New York hoping to meet and marry his girlfriend in Los Angeles. Halfway he is picked up by a businessman who mysteriously dies. Al panics, conceals the body of the man and assumes his identity. He luck take a further turn for the worst, however, when he encounters a devious and manipulative woman who was an earlier passenger of the businessman and who decides to blackmail Al. Appropriately for the noir genre it is dark, both in terms of the cinematography and the characters. Our sympathies are with Al who cluelessly ends up as a murderer and unable to complete his journey for fear of being arrested. Highlights are the occasional fantasy moments giving us a taste of what’s happening in Al’s mind – at one point he remembers his girlfriend flanked by shadows of saxophone players. The dialogue is incredibly rich and detailed adding texture to the pared-back visuals and simple plot. Also, the pace and efficiency with which Ulmer directs. It’s only just over an hour long, not much more than an episode of a television drama, but in terms of thrills and plot it reminded me of a Hitchcock horror like ‘Psycho’. It’s my first film noir on this blog, and not my last. You can see the effect this genre had on directors such as Godard and Kurosawa, but here we see the source material. At the end of the film we see a man from the Great Depression generation trapped in the middle of America – unable to go west to LA or back east to New York. The real prison he finds for his crimes is America itself, and that cynical, scathing attitude is what the noir genre is built on.
Would I recommend it? Yes – maybe in a double bill with a Godard road-trip movie like ‘Pierrot le Fou’, but more likely with many other American movies that I haven’t watched yet. It would be interesting to parallel this with ‘Psycho’ though.