19 October 2005

100 films: Detour

starring: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, and Edmund MacDonald
written by: Martin Goldsmith, based on his novel
directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
NR, 67 min, 1945, USA

"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."

Yeah, it's one of those films.

The studio didn't give the cast and crew of Detour a lot of money to work with, but they made use of every penny. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) narrates the film from a diner in Nevada, where he's clearly just been through a tough time, and his narration is quick, efficient, and brimming with lines like the one above. The lights in the diner are dimmed and focus on Roberts' eyes in that classic noir shot as he tells of how a New York piano player hitchhikes his way to Los Angeles to find his girl, but gets unwittingly caught in a web of murder and lies.

It's a sad story, really. All Roberts wants is to marry his gal, but circumstances take over, and in the end he's resigned to his fate and has given up on love, life, and everything in between.

Part of what makes the film work so well, despite the low budget, is how director Edgar G. Ulmer moves the action along at such a quick pace that we aren't given a chance to see the duct tape holding everything together. He knows he's got a solid cast, a compelling story, and a tight (if not cliche-filled) script, so he cuts all the filler that might slow the production down and just lets the story take over. This might not have been possible had the studio taken more interest in the film, or insisted on casting a name in the lead role, or given Ulmer more than 5 days to shoot the whole film. Ulmer, though, knows how to turn a liability into a strength, and in doing so, ends up with the best film of his career. In a lot of ways, Detour serves as a forerunner to some of the recent indie explosion, especially when you consider that nearly all indie films have more than $30,000 to spend.