On Saturday Matinee, we showcase full-length films from or about the diesel era.
Fall is here again in the US. With the dying light fading through scarlet topped trees, the shadows are stretching in all directions, simultaneously reaching for and hiding the things that good men shouldn't know about. The shadows will creep a little more each day, until the world is covered in a deadly white chill once again. In the land of movies, it's the perfect season for Film Noir.
Noir is an elusive style showing how clever men can never escape Fate, though they may struggle against it. Using the metaphor of shadows, it kicks over the normal world and shows us all of the nasty things hiding in the rot.
What you need to know about Detour (1945)
Starring Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake and Edmund MacDonald, Detour is the story of a New York nightclub pianist who hitchhikes to Hollywood to join his girl. On the way there, he is picked up by a sleazy gambler who mysteriously dies a few hours later. Afraid of the police, our hitchhiker takes the man's identity and continues onto Hollywood, but thanks to a blackmailing dame, his every move plunges him deeper into trouble.
Why we chose Detour (1945) for Saturday Matinee
Although made on a small budget with bare sets and straightforward camera work, Detour has gathered much praise through the years and is held in high regard.
Detour is by no stretch of the imagination a conventional masterpiece (if masterpieces can be counted as conventional). It shows evidence of starting out to be something – a longer, more fully developed movie – quite different from what it ended up . Groundwork gets laid for developments that never come to pass. What seems to be intended as the plot's centerpiece – a scheme to pass Neal off as McDonald, the lost scion of a wealthy family – comes to nothing. As does Savage's ominous cough, a clue to her subsequent indifference ('I'm on my way anyhow') to that 'perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers.'
Somewhere along the way, Detour ran out of time, or money, or film stock, and was cobbled together out of footage already in the can, with the aid of peculiar voice-overs (in the last-ditch manner of The Magnificent Ambersons or My Son John). Against all odds, it still worked, and remains one of the best known and most unforgettable titles in the film noir canon, a stunningly effective piece of work that manages to encapsulate, in 67 minutes, all the inchoate angst that informs the cycle. It may have been an accident, but it's the kind of accident you can't peel your eyes off of.
When the noir cycle began to coalesce in the early 1940s, it looked like it was going to take the high road of starry, big-budget prestige productions (The Maltese Falcon, I Wake Up Screaming, The Glass Key, Laura, Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce). Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour took the low road. A Poverty-Row production empty of box-office names, it was shot on a few cheap sets in a matter of days. But it sweated off a raw power that other alert film-makers working on the fringes of the industry were quick to emulate; the next few years would see Fall Guy, The Guilty, Suspense, Violence, I Wouldn't Be In Your Shoes, Decoy (the pick, along with Detour, of this particular litter) – all done with wannabes or has-beens in cast and crew, visually often ugly (the murky lighting more a matter of necessity than moody esthetic choice). It was often inspired movie-making on the most frayed of shoestring budgets.
And yet, with a few exceptions, this second-feature slot was the niche into which film noir would settle until it ran its course in the late 1950s. Which raises a question: Without Detour paving the way for quick-and-dirty, sensational fodder to fill up double bills – B-movies that the suits in the front offices didn't much care about and so paid little attention to – would the noir cycle have been but a brief flash in the pan? Would it have stayed the passion only of a handful of French cineastes? Would it have amounted to a cycle at all? The debt owed to Detour may be greater than acknowledged.
Watch Detour (1945)
Photos from Detour (1945)
Until next Saturday... watch out for those shadows.