Film noir is a house of cards built on a very shaky foundation. It's a foundation made of sand, that sand comprised of numerous genre tropes and signature elements, among them the deadly femme fatale and protagonists who consistently make bad choices. Bad? Make that lethal.
DETOUR, Edgar G. Ulmer's 1945 minimalist masterpiece, contains both of those elements in spades. Piano player Al (Tom Neal), yearns to break free of the two bit New York night club where he performs nightly, accompanying his girlfriend singer Sue (Claudia Drake). When Sue leaves for greener pastures in California, without asking Al to accompany her, he becomes determined to make his way to the promised land and find Sue by any means necessary.
That means hitchhiking cross country. Along the way, Al is picked up by Charlie Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), a glad-handing, big-talker with a questionable past. The two become traveling companions and things are going well until Haskell suddenly collapses dead in the front seat of the car. Al decides to ditch the body, dress himself in the dead man's clothes and continue on to the next big city where he plans to ditch the car. But when he stops for gas, he picks up Vera (Ann Savage), a hitchhiker who had previously ridden with Haskell.
Vera is not your typical film noir femme fatale. She's a fury, a harpy, an uncapped volcano of rage and hatred and all of it is directed at Al. The two become trapped by circumstances, the shrewish Vera screaming at Al and dictating their every move. Al yearns to escape from her clutches and find some way out of the mess he's gotten himself into. He just wants to go to California, re-connect with Sue and find some modicum of happiness and normalcy.
But that's not to be as things take a wicked, deadly twist for Al and Vera, a twist that sends Al spiraling even deeper into a whirlpool of doom.
Bleak doesn't begin to describe this exercise in existential despair. Shot on a shoestring budget in a matter of days, DETOUR ranks as Ulmer's best film, an undisputed film noir masterpiece. Ulmer, a European emigre, made more than thirty films in the United States from 1933 to 1964 but fame always eluded him. He was stuck doing mostly grade B and lower genre fare, most of which is forgettable, disposable cinematic junk. But he did film THE BLACK CAT (1934), at Universal with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in their first on-screen pairing. It's a bizarre, outre film, one that ranks second among my favorite Universal horror films after BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). Ulmer also directed the low-budget science fiction classic, THE MAN FROM PLANET X (1951) in which he got the most out of a minuscule budget and a handful of sets.
DETOUR is one of the touchstones of film noir. If you're just starting to discover the pleasures of noir, this is a great film to start with. Genre veterans and aficionados already know what a terrific film it is. Highly recommended.