Passed, because it's 1945. It's a film noir. There's drunkenness and murder. There's also some accidental death and theft. Oh, and blackmail! Considering that the movie has a body count, it's pretty tame. If you are worried about inappropriate content, consider the fact that people treat each other terribly for the bulk of the movie. I mean, I wouldn't show my kids this kind of movie because they love happiness and sunshine. But they aren't my target audience. Are you an adult who has a modicum of patience? You'll be fine. Passed.
DIRECTOR: Edgar G. Ulmer
God bless you, 68 minute movie. You used every second appropriately and left me with an open evening. I just started a Film Noir class. That's right. A guy who has taught a film class for three years and maintains a practically daily film blog is taking a film class. If you are wondering what it must be like to be in a class with me, the answer is I'm insufferable. I can't keep my stupid mouth shut and I keep answering EVERY question. But I'm super relieved that I have this class now. I have to watch all these movies for class and I get to keep my film count up for the blog. It's a symbiotic relationship.
I haven't seen Detour before. As much as I love film noir, I don't consume as much as I'd like. I tend to like these movies a lot, but film noir tends to have really forgettable titles. Film noir and rom-coms have really forgettable titles. I think part of me is anxious to watch the same movie again, which is a terrible attitude to have. But we learned all about Detour and I'm jazzed to talk about it. The best things going into it? It's 68 minutes and it's a B movie. It's one of the rare B-movies that have transcended its branding and is considered to be a classic, despite the shoestring budget attached to the film. In my head, this is one of those masterpieces that came out of a 24 hour challenge to make a movie. The movie, when you look at it closely, looks cheap. There's a lot of driving scenes with rear projection happening. There are sets that can come across like a stage production versus a big budget movie. But none of that really hampers the movie. Rather, the movie rests on a very cool concept coupled with great characters.
I want to say that I had my expectations pretty low. The movie has a lot of exposition leading into the movie. The protagonist, Al (portrayed by Tom Neal), has a lot to explain about his past before the story really gets going. I don't know if the movie needs it. It actually might because the movie is short enough as is, so maybe it decided to pad out the movie a bit with some exposition. But once the inciting incident drops, I was in. On top of that, Ulmer scales his drama up appropriately. For a movie that starts off so expository, when the story gets going, it really hauls. I'm ashamed of myself a bit on this front. I know the guy who sits next to me in class a bit. I couldn't help but whisper my theories over to him. That's a good sign in a mystery: me not being able to shut up.
The big question that the professor ran by us is the concept of evil and femininity. Female characters in film noir tend to be a bit evil. But the professor ran the idea past us that they often might simply need to be opportunists in a land of chauvinism. Vera is a great villain. She's more than simply the antagonist. She is a villain. She lacks even the most basic morality. When she finds out that Haskell is dead / had been murdered, she seems morally outraged. But within moments, she comes up with a really complex scheme to get ahead. I love Vera. She is infuriating, but there are these moments that explain her character that aren't really telegraphed. I love that Vera has nothing to lose. As a character, she has decided that she has been put upon too much by God and fate, so she lives a life of anarchy. She's this nihilistic character that is out to get out as much as she can from life. She's dying. But she's not dying in a way that screams "I'm dying."
It's such a compelling character. I'm not going to lose my mind over the performance because it has to be kind of easy to play. But it is such a choice. Ulmer and Ann Savage create this character that dares you to feel sympathy for her. I think it would have actually been easier to have Savage play the part as sympathetic. Instead, she comes across as this spitfire. Her face is contorted with hatred for the duration of the film. It demands that the viewer remember the backstory to humanize her. There's a moment, and even this is up to interpretation, where Vera comes across like a human being. There's a scene where she's completely intoxicated on a couch. She's not a good human being in the moment. I can't actually help but judge her because I'm a bad person. She's not a good person in this moment, but the genius thing about it is that she's vulnerable.
Because Vera's defining trait is control in the face of control. The entire movie is chaos and coincidence. There's so many things that just don't line up with how the universe works. Al runs into every single person that can make his life worse and that's how it all plays out. I mean, we discussed the idea that Al is probably an unreliable narrator. I find it more interesting if he is actually a reliable narrator, but that's a whole new argument. Instead, Vera takes the chaos that encircles this couple and doubles down on it. She's picked up by a familiar car and she insists that Al is a murderer. I'm not saying that she is wrong to come to that conclusion. What is nuts is her reaction. She goes into this righteous fury and instantly schemes blackmail. It's phenomenal. If I thought that someone I was riding with was a murderer, I wouldn't wake up from a nap ready to lead this guy by a leash. But that's what makes it compelling.
Similarly, Vera's big plan with the newspaper article. The newspaper article is part of the insane coincidence motif running through the story. Vera doesn't need 15 million dollars. She's dying. She is living moment to moment. But she comes up with this insane scheme that will obviously fail. Al's problems with the plan make so much sense. Al knows nothing about Charlie Haskell shy of what he gleaned over the course of an eight-hour car ride. Al, in this moment, represents logic and intellect. But Vera is all emotion. It's odd to see the id and the ego fighting so clearly in personified form. It becomes knock-down and drag out. It's all the forms of compelling that it can be.
Yeah, the narrator probably is unreliable. The end of the movie, if he was a reliable narrator, makes Al kind of dumb. It's so weird that he pulls on that end of the cord. Yeah, it makes a dramatic ending that is kind of rad. But it also makes no sense. There's coincidence and then there is the result. The only reason that I think that Al might be a reliable narrator is his reaction to things in the framing narrative. Al is genuinely shook and unstable, making it seem like he's not used to the kind of lifestyle that would lead him to accidentally killing someone. Regardless, I kind of hope that he's a reliable narrator. It creates a cool narrative about fate and the universe that may be implausible, but I like that.
Detour was a great watch. It made me excited to take this class. Also, I will almost always recommend a 68 minute movie that has any value to it whatsoever. The only problem is that I'm going to get this mixed up with every other noir I'm going to watch over the next few months. But that's not a bad problem to have.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.