*. Why is a movie as bad as Detour considered to be a classic? Not because it’s so bad it’s good, in a campy Plan 9 from Outer Space sort of way. Its shortcomings aren’t that entertaining. And I don’t think it scores points for being quick on its feet at just over an hour. In fact, on every occasion I’ve seen it again I’ve been disappointed at how slow it moves. So, to ask the question David Thomson asks (but doesn’t answer): “how is a film like Detour endurable?”
*. I think its durability and the high esteem in which its held (however reserved) is due mainly to its purity. There are many formal elements of noir in place, and they’re taken to an extreme. In the foreground is the weak male lead, Al Roberts (Tom Neal). Al isn’t just a wimp, he is the wimp. It’s there in the flaccid brow of his hat and his hangdog face and his constant harping on all the bad breaks in his life — breaks that he can’t even rouse himself enough to get mad about. Instead he just registers as peevish and petulant.
*. Roger Ebert: “Most noir heroes are defeated through their weaknesses. Few have been weaker than Roberts. He narrates the movie by speaking directly to the audience, mostly in a self-pitying whine. He’s pleading his case, complaining that life hasn’t given him a fair break.” That sounds right to me.
*. Before moving on, I’ll interject a point here that Ebert and a lot of other critics I’ve read bring up, and which was apparently first raised by Andrew Britton. This is the idea that we need to call into question Al’s account. But why? Sure, we have no way of knowing if he’s telling us the truth. And I guess he has plenty of reasons to lie. But you could say the same for almost any first-person narrative. We can’t be sure if any voiceover, in any movie, is telling us the truth. What’s the point in doubting Al? “The world is full of skeptics,” Al tells us. Yes it is, but I don’t see where such speculation gets us.
*. Returning to what I’ve called the purity of Detour and its archetypal leads, we next have Vera (Ann Savage). She takes Al’s weakness and flips it to the opposite extreme. It’s hard to think of a femme more fatale. I will, however, pull up short of Danny Peary’s judgment on the pair. Yes, “Roberts is one of the screen’s all-time great losers,” but is Vera “quite possibly the most despicable female in movie history”? She’s bad, but shares the same sense of a fate controlling her destiny as Al. I think she knows that she’s a loser too. Only that knowledge has made her bitter where it’s led him to become resigned.
*. Adding to my list of pure noir elements is the dialogue. We expect some jaded poetry, tough talk, or snappy patter in a noir but as Peary points out the script here reads like a Bartlett’s of such gems. Again I would insist that these aren’t good lines, but they are somehow the essence of noir. Al’s description of a ten dollar bill as “a piece of paper crawling with germs,” or Vera as looking like she had been “thrown off the crumbiest freight train in the world.” The bickering over the cut Vera is going to take on the sale of the car. Vera mocking Al about getting caught and winding up “sniffin’ that perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers.” It’s practically all like this.
*. Fate is the final noir element that I’d add to the list. It’s Al’s fixation but as I’ve also said Vera is just as stuck on its workings. “Life’s like a ball game. You gotta take a swing at whatever comes along before you find it’s the ninth inning.” And it’s not just talk. The thing is, Al’s story is one of terrible coincidences and bad breaks, to the point where, like the characterization of Al and Vera and the cheesy dialogue, it comes to seem almost ridiculous.
*. Detour‘s reputation soon outgrew the film itself. I always believed the legend (repeated by everybody who wrote about it) that it had been shot in 6 days for $20,000. Actually it was shot in 18 or (in some reports) 28 days (which strikes me as rather a lot) and cost over $100,000 (going well over budget). Does that change how we view it? I think it does make it seem a less impressive achievement. Couldn’t Roger Corman have done as much with less? Given how much time and money Ulmer actually had to work with, what excuse is there for the film’s more slapdash qualities?
*. Maybe not. Maybe there’s something to the idea that Edgar G. Ulmer was the Orson Welles of Poverty Row. I’m not as impressed, though I do enjoy Detour quite a bit. But I think it’s more of a guilty pleasure, something to be enjoyed for its silliness. It’s not a movie whose craft I appreciate in any department, or one that carries much of a message. To just change the title a bit, I’d call it a diversion.