Monday, March 31, 2008

The Great Movies: "Detour"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945.

The important thing to realize about The Great Movies, the Roger Ebert book that I've been serially second-guessing on this blog, is that it doesn't claim to list the 100 greatest movies of all time. It's just a list of 100 movies that Ebert really likes or admires, for one reason or another. It includes a healthy handful of films that, Ebert is quick to admit, are a long way from total cinematic excellence.

Such a movie is Detour, made in six days on what was very obviously the sparest of budgets. Detour features cinematography that could best be described as "affordable," acting that is only a notch away from the soap operas, and editing that calls attention to itself. It has an abrupt, ungainly beginning, and it ends abruptly just when things seem to be getting interesting. And yet, Mr. Ebert finds it memorable and charming.

Well, so do I. The story line is a fairly simple and well-trod ~Guy Gets In Trouble, and Then Gets In Deeper~ sort of formula, but it is an effectively crafted (although not especially plausible) version. Plus, we are yet again in film noir territory, and there's something about cheap production values that is kind of ennobled by noir, or vice versa. It brings out the grit. You've got the jazz, the weak man, the femme fatale, the dark secrets, all told with a hard-boiledness that you can either enjoy on its own terms, or take as campy fun, depending on your preferences.

Plot: A guy hitchhiking out to the West Coast to get back together with his girlfriend gets picked up by a mysterious stranger. Dark things happen, a woman with a wealth of inconvenient knowledge shows up, and pretty soon they face that question that we all must so often deal with: whether to just ditch the evidence, or to try for the big score.

The movie is told in flashback, and can accommodate two readings. The narrator could be telling the truth, or, he could be lying through his teeth. You assume the former while you are watching, since you are seeing the action that goes with his story, but the plot actually makes more sense if he's lying.

Visuals: Cheap! Cheap! But competent.

Dialogue: The great thing about B-movie noir dialogue is that it is so darn euphemistic. Characters who would in a natural setting be swearing like rappers couldn't say so much as a "damn" in 1945, so screenwriters had to get really inventive to come up with invective for them to hurl at each other. It's fun to watch.

Prognosis: You can live without seeing this one, and if you are allergic to black and white, you might as well. If you like noir, though, this is (as I just found out myself) a good entertainment for a rainy day.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. I just added Detour to my Netflix list. This is a very enjoyable blog. I am a subscriber.

Michael5000 said...

@parker: Thank you sir, I appreciate that. Hope you enjoy Detour; keep your expectations modest and you should be in good shape.