Detour (1945)

A seminal fleapit noir that feels like it was found in an ashtray among cigarette stubs smeared with lipstick stains. Lots of textbook frugal mastery here with an excess of voice over, shaky opticals, rear projection – basically every trick in the damn book – utilised to get this story told as cheaply as possible. It’s no wonder Roger Corman shows up in the extras on the Criterion disc. For all its rough edges, Ulmer achieves an aesthetic to die for. Dreamy and strange one minute, nihilistic and brutal the next, with the entire noir framework totally stripped down to its bare essentials like a skeleton, with the terrific hardbitten wordplay there to keep the teeth chattering.

There’s so much evocative imagery and location work on display: the swirling smoke, the dingy diners, the fateful drive to Hollywood, even the leaps in continuity work in favour of the film’s disquieting nightmare logic. At one point a convertible is stuck in a hellish downpour and the hood is stuck down, an image which doubles up as the perfect summation of the film’s doomed protagonist, Al Roberts, who seems trapped in a purgatorial cycle of bad decisions, cruel coincidence and punishing fate. Or maybe that narration really is unreliable and the film is little more than the pathetic ramblings of a twisted psychopath trying to justify his sick actions. Detour also features one of the greatest femme fatales ever spat onto the screen, vividly vitalised by Ann Savage who completely lives up to the promise of her name. This one really has it all, nasty, seedy and sexy in equal doses. Best watched after hours. Also wouldn’t feel out of place in a double bill with Carnival of Souls.

Watched on Criterion blu-ray

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