Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of the late Roger Ebert, whose life and career is celebrated in the new documentary Life Itself, we’re recommending a few films the critic loved and championed.
Fatalism doesn’t come more caustically blunt than in Detour, Edgar G. Ulmer’s noir portrait of one loser’s rocky relationship with fate. A low-budget affair reportedly shot in six days and marred by chintzy sets and poor driving-sequence rear projection, the film delivers doom-laden atmosphere without frills or nuance. The plot pivots around Al (Tom Neal), a two-bit New York City piano player whose go-nowhere life is made even more miserable by news that his girlfriend, Sue (Claudia Drake), is leaving town to try her luck in Hollywood. Unhappy without her, Al decides to hitchhike his way to California, where he plans to marry Sue. However, as made immediately clear by the framing narrative—in which Al, bitter and alone at a diner, morosely recounts his sad story in flashback—a happily-ever-after isn’t in the cards for this sap, whose journey goes south shortly after being picked up by a former bookie named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald).
No sooner has Haskell befriended Al than he drops dead, making Al look like a murderer—a problem compounded by Al’s decision to pose as Haskell and then pick up Vera (Ann Savage), a temptress who knows he isn’t who he says he is. What ensues is a blackmail scheme by Vera, a perpetually scowling femme fatale who spits nothing but venom, and whom Savage embodies with a primal hunger for a better life. Determined to use Al as her meal ticket to wealth, she winds up shoving him even further down a path to hell. Ulmer wastes little time on psychodrama, instead allowing Al’s narration to make clear his hopelessness and desperation—not that his inner thoughts ultimately matter. As if wielding a knife with a dull blade, Detour carves up its characters roughly and unsympathetically, casting their demise as part and parcel of a world that destroys people “for no good reason at all”—a prototypically gloomy noir worldview that’s dramatized here with a stark pessimism.
(Read Ebert’s take here.)
Availability: Detour is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to rent or purchase digitally through Amazon Instant Video. The film has fallen into the public domain, and can thus also be easily found online, on YouTube and elsewhere.