Detour: The Cheap, Rushed Piece of 1940s Film Noir Nobody Ever Forgets

Accord­ing to cin­e­ma lore, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour, a slap­dash, unpro­fes­sion­al $20,000 melo­dra­ma shot in a mere mis­take-filled six days, has some­how, over the past 66 years, accrued a siz­able and appre­cia­tive fol­low­ing among film noir enthu­si­asts. Except it turns out that, in real­i­ty, its bud­get prob­a­bly ran to some $117,000. And those six days might have actu­al­ly been three six-day weeks. And the Aus­tri­an-born Ulmer, who had not only worked for such Euro­pean lumi­nar­ies as F.W. Mur­nau, Bil­ly Wilder, and (so he claimed) Fritz Lang, but even made The Black Cat for Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures, hard­ly lacked pro­fes­sion­al bona fides. And the film’s care­ful use of sound and strik­ing use of light set it apart even from its brethren in the genre.

And speak­ing of that genre, a hearty crit­i­cal agree­ment now holds that Detour dis­tills, in its brief 68 min­utes, the most vital emo­tion­al and aes­thet­ic ele­ments of film noir in a way that none of its oth­er exem­plars have man­aged. And mis­takes? What mis­takes? As Roger Ebert wrote on ush­er­ing the film into his Great Movies canon, “Plac­ing style above com­mon sense is com­plete­ly con­sis­tent with Ulmer’s approach through­out the film.”

To recount Detour’s sto­ry here — a piano-play­er down on his luck; a sud­den death; a schem­ing, ven­omous dame — would be to miss the point. To cite out its many, er, uncon­ven­tion­al pro­duc­tion choic­es — nonex­is­tent back­grounds con­cealed with fog, shots sim­ply flipped over and re-used, stock footage meant to pad the run­time almost to fea­ture length, uncon­vinc­ing rear pro­jec­tion even by 1945’s stan­dards — would be to miss the point from anoth­er direc­tion. The film has fall­en into the pub­lic domain, so watch it free online and expe­ri­ence for your­self the way that, for all its appar­ent blunt­ness, it stealth­ily lodges itself in your sense mem­o­ry. To call a movie “dream­like” reeks of cliché, but Detour presents the ele­ments of film noir in such a pure, naked state that you have lit­tle choice but to accept them direct­ly, the way you would accept the “facts” of a dream. Though seem­ing­ly incom­pe­tent on all the lev­els sub­ject to con­scious analy­sis, the film oper­ates effec­tive­ly on all the lev­els beneath, hence the last­ing inspi­ra­tion it offers to cer­tain film­mak­ers today. Make Detour, if you can, a dou­ble-fea­ture with David Lynch’s Lost High­way, which plays almost like a straight trib­ute to Ulmer’s pic­ture. As a ded­i­cat­ed tran­scen­den­tal med­i­ta­tor with a fas­ci­na­tion for the dark side of Los Ange­les and a ten­den­cy to bend arche­typ­al char­ac­ters toward his often oblique but always vivid styl­is­tic will, Lynch has inter­nal­ized Detour’s lega­cy — intend­ed or oth­er­wise — more deeply than any oth­er film­mak­er alive today.

More noir clas­sics can be found in our col­lec­tion of 60+ Free Noir Films.

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (7)
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  • Vincent says:

    Any opin­ions on “kiss me dead­ly”
    Had not seen this till 2013. Great style but let down by poor script and inco­her­ent dia­logue.

  • Freddy says:

    I love Kiss Me Dead­ly. I even bought the blu-ray. I like how the main actor is such a dick. And it has a raunchy feel­ing for such an old film. The whole premise is bizarre. I would rec­om­mend that movie to any­one.

  • Dennis Cass says:

    The ‘flipped’ neg­a­tives can be seen at approx­i­mate­ly 14:30, when he first starts hitch-hik­ing (notice that sud­den­ly cars’ steer­ing wheels are on the right, and they’re dri­ving on the left side of the road!)nAnother nice touch at approx­i­mate­ly 39:00; Ver­a’s wind­blown hair looks like dev­il horns, just when her true evil side comes out. If this is a coin­ci­dence, it’s a very for­tu­nate one.nAnd no one can bark “Shut up!” quite like Ann Sav­age.

  • squash says:

    Love “Kiss Me Deadly”–it’s so strange because it looks like it was def­i­nite­ly influ­enced by Euro­pean film—and yeah, it was very vio­lent (for its time) and strange as heck–and def­i­nite­ly before its time–which is why it’s so fun and fas­ci­nat­ing to watch. It’s like watch­ing a 1960s flick made in 1955—sweet!

  • squash says:

    Love the title of this arti­cle, because it’s fun­ny as heck,too! “The cheap,rushed piece of film noir nobody ever for­gets.” They sure haven’t, thanks to film noir nuts like us!Ha ha ha ha ha! Love it!

  • Jerry says:

    “Détour” is, quite pos­si­bly, one of the best films noir ever. After the sil­ly flipped car footage to match the right to left map stuff, it set­tles down into a great, over the top char­ac­ter study. The script is actu­al­ly fan­tas­tic, with some bril­liant lines. The cam­era work is spot on, nev­er look­ing like cam­era work. Sure, some of the rear pro­jec­tion is less than stel­lar, but the act­ing fits the sto­ry and tone and, unlike “Dou­ble Indem­ni­ty” which I think is the Emper­or’s New Clothes of films noir, the char­ac­ters sound real in their world.

  • Brant Lee says:

    I can’t get enough of Ann Sav­age in this film. That she enters so late in the movie which then takes a sur­pris­ing direc­tion as she wakes in the car after being giv­en a ride is fan­tas­tic. It takes off to 90 miles per hour as you take in the crazy plot. Yes, the sto­ry a long shot and not entire­ly believ­able but still very effec­tive (More believ­able than Tom Neal play­ing the piano). Sav­age should have gone down as a top mem­o­rable vil­lain­ess in movies for this role. She’s almost com­i­cal but so nasty and mean with her facial move­ments and glar­ing eyes. Only after watch­ing this movie twice do you appre­ci­ate her first scene of walk­ing up to the car. My all-time favorite Noir. No mean­der­ing in this film.

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