Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Short Take: Detour

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The 1945 film Detour, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, isn't quite the shoe-string effort movie lore has made it out to be. The shooting schedule was four weeks, not six days. The budget was approximately five times the widely reported $20,000. The film isn't conspicuously underproduced, either; apart from the unconvincing treatment of the New York City streets in an early scene, it actually looks better than most television programs from the black-and-white era. What movie lore gets right is that it is one of the best of the 1940s B-pictures--the low-budget second films in a theatrical double-bill. Tom Neal plays a New York nightclub pianist who's making his way across the country to rejoin his singer fiancée (Claudia Drake) in Los Angeles. A man he hitches a ride with dies in a roadside accident. Afraid he'll be arrested for murder, he disposes of the man's body and assumes the fellow's identity for the rest of the drive to California. Along the way, he picks up a female hitchhiker (Ann Savage) who knew the dead man and proceeds to blackmail him. Both characters are completely unsympathetic--he's surly and self-pitying, and she's an opportunistic shrew--but Ulmer and the actors get a compelling tension going between the pair. They make no secret of their mutual dislike (although she makes it known she's sexually available), and the suspense comes from seeing how the woman's conniving and bullying play out. Ann Savage's performance is especially striking. She projects a ferocious, almost predatory air that makes the character possibly the most frightening femme fatale ever. Ulmer's staging and camerawork are sleek and economical, and despite the thin plotting, he keeps this noir melodrama crisply paced. Admirably, he avoids playing the moments of death and violence for thrills. He also shows a surprising talent for musical scenes; the two featuring Claudia Drake are probably the best directed in the film. The screenplay is by Martin Goldsmith, from his 1939 novel.