“You can change the scenery, but sooner or later you’ll get a whiff of perfume or somebody will say a certain phrase or maybe they’ll hum something, then you’re licked again,” muses piano player Al Roberts in Detour (1945), Edgar G. Ulmer’s singular film noir. He is sitting, isolated, in a New York City bar when Bing Crosby’s “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me” begins to play, launching him into a reverie about his estranged girlfriend Sue, who has up and left him for her California dream of becoming an actress.
Al will spend the 68-minute runtime of Detour trying to change the scenery, turn the tables, get the devil off his back. But he’s licked, as he says, time and time again—as hard as he might try, the past always catches up to him.
A low-budget thriller from a director who was, at the time, only known for “ethnic pictures” and exploitation B-movies, Detour is not a technically sophisticated film, and it was never destined for greatness. Its success and enduring legacy, mysterious as it may be, has something to do with this fruitless human impulse to “change the scenery.” Roger Ebert put it best in his essay for The Great Movies, writing, “This movie from Hollywood’s poverty row, shot in six days, filled with technical errors and ham-handed narrative, starring a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer, should have faded from sight soon after it was released in 1945. And yet it lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir. No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it.”
The images of Detour are so deeply woven into the fabric of cinema today, they are not so much unforgettable as elemental. When you see Al (an unknown Tom Neal) drive through the night, the rain beating down around him, you can immediately ascribe guilt, mystery, and strong-willed Americanness to him, even if you missed the scenes where he hid the body of his recently-dead driver and decided to assume his identity. When Al picks up hitchhiker Vera (Ann Savage, also a newcomer), a fast-talking beauty with dark hair and a permanent pout, you know she’s going to cause him trouble. Their journey West towards a new frontier will be haunted by those whose lives they’ve subsumed—as is the American way.
The legacy of Detour lives on most obviously in neo-noir, road movies, and Don Draper, but its addition to the Criterion Collection this month is well-timed with the release of Christian Petzold’s Transit, an adaptation of Anna Seghers’ 1942 novel of the same name. Another on-the-road tale of stolen identity that’s imbued with suffocating urgency and paranoia, Transit uses many of the conventions of noir (mysterious brunette, dead husbands) to weave a Kafkaesque narrative about how memory functions in the face of trauma and political oppression. Transit is, by almost any regard, a much better film than Detour, but it owes so much of itself to Ulmer’s weird, haunting vision.
Criterion Reviews is a series of short 500-word reviews of films released every week by Criterion Channel until the channel officially launches on April 8th. Don’t forget to sign up for the channel and support them!