BFI Classics: Detour

Author: Noah Isenberg

Dedicated fans of film noir will eventually find their road leading to Detour, totally unknown upon its release it was the writers of Cahiers du Cinema that unearthed its brilliance. Author Noah Isenberg himself admits that having its own dedicated BFI classic book is a remarkable achievement for Detour. Made for poverty row studio PRC this Edgar G Ulmer noir road movie is by today a classic tale of human desperation.

The BFI classic range of books does sometimes concentrate on films that have already well over-exposed d to their standing. Do we really need another book about Citizen Kane? Thankfully this is one release which is much needed to say the least. Ulmer has by today become a cult legend working on the poverty side of Hollywood churning out countless films a year. Isenberg makes it clear that much of what is written about Ulmer must be taken with a pinch of salt as there is a great deal of misinformation about him. Legendary stories that the film was shot in 6 days for twenty thousand dollars are by now defunct as Isenberg’s research has revealed that it took around fourteen days and cost over a hundred thousand to make.

Isenberg moves back and forth between histories, trivia and analysis which undoubtedly make for a fascinating read. The structure of his book works perfectly as he breaks down the film into sequences then adds a little point of history on top. Te writer is also generous when it comes to praise making the point that others contributed to the magnificence of Detour. The Cahiers writers were devotees of the Auter theory and so lavished praise of directors. Isenberg draws attention to the fantastic writing of Martin Goldsmith and the two leads that provide excellent performances.

The central theme of Isenberg book concentrates on the despair that underlines Detour. This noir was something new, which ultimately became termed Film Gris due to its overwhelmingly bleak view of human nature. This does set Detour apart from many other Noir films as their does tend to be some element in the film that is redeeming. Characters classically become redeemed at the end of the film or the end of their lives, whichever comes first. Detour like the films of Abraham Polonsky such as Force of Evil remain bleak through and make it entirely clear that nobody will change due to the world they inhabit.

Noah Isenberg writes with a skilful combination of academic knowledge and passion that makes this release by the BFI a wonderful read. As usual in the series you will be much better off if you watch the film again before reading the book as the analysis is very detailed. Isenberg writes that the entire cost of production for Detour was less than one scene for Double Indemnity. The even more astounding revelation is that the sequence in question was ultimately dumped from the film.

Detour has by today garnered epic status that matches its director Mr Edgar G Ulmer. Every self respecting film student knows who Ulmer is by the end of their three years at university and inevitably it’s linked to a serious amount of cool. Noah Isenberg’s delightful book matches the feel and brilliance of Detour itself as it comes across as a piece that may never have been. Essential reading for all fans of Noir, something you simply cannot call yourself until you see Detour.

Aled Jones

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