It’s rough and tough and whittles away everything so that the only remaining parts of the film are the connective tissues and bones of the tropes in film noir. This is great B-movie territory with a lot of caveats from me, yet none of them have to do with the stock footage or low budget novelty of the whole thing.
In fact, what I enjoyed most about Detour was the lo-fi rock and roll spirit of the film, the fact that they had a dream, a few dollars and a couple feet of film and made a movie. It packs a mighty punch in a little over an hour, and I can see why many claim this to be a masterpiece and genre-defining piece of work. Yet much of the first half just didn’t work for me.
I think Detour is a perfect example of a movie where narrator is largely unnecessary. Describing one character falling asleep only to awaken with a start and begin making accusations while the action plays out is hokey. It’s too literal minded for a film that prefers to submerge us into a world in which subjective values are crushed by those willing to exploit weaknesses and doll out punishment with masochistic glee.
Detour really perks up once Ann Savage enters the film, and if she doesn’t live up to that last name by the time all is said and done I don’t know who else possibly could. She’s all hard edge, steamroller tenacity, bulging eyes and lacerating verbal sparring. It’s a great undervalued performance in the genre. Her character is like every hardboiled femme fatale distilled down into one twisted, disturbed persona. She represents the outside world willing coming along to crush the man stuck in the car and hotel room with her.
I firmly believe I would’ve appreciated Detour more if it had been blessed with a leading man who gave me a reason to care about this man’s downfall and eventual preordained destruction. Tom Neal is not that leading man. He’s anemic and blank enough, but there’s nothing much else there. He doesn’t sell the haunted or weary nature of the character. He just blankly moves from one scenario to the next. His character should willingly, almost gleefully surrender to Savage’s, but he doesn’t sell that moment, the ending or anything in-between, really.
So while the self-pitying whine of the narration and the mannequin-like performance of the leading man harm the film, there’s still a lot of beautifully acidic poetry in the dialog. And better yet is the fact that this world is a nightmarish creation, almost as if Neal’s character is trying to reassemble the pieces in his drunken stupor in which he does come out the victim of circumstance to forces outside of his control. He’s displayed early on as a freakishly talented piano player, only to lose that job/girl and descend into Hell on his way to recapture the singer he fell in love with. If Hell is alternately being locked in the room with someone and a design of our own making, I present to you the film example of both arguments.