Roger Ebert opens his review of Detour by saying that it’s so full of amateurish errors it probably wouldn’t get the director a passing grade in a film class — which is probably an exaggeration but, nonetheless, I’m taking that perspective (a more studied one than my own) and comparing it with what I noticed — which is that the movie looks cheap, that there are very few sets and that they’re all sparsely furnished, and I see that the cast is small and the runtime is brief and the camera isn’t all that dynamic. I see the signs of a director struggling to put something together despite limited means.
But I don’t see mistakes. The whole thing actually looks pretty competent to me. (Although, to be fair, this is one of my boss’s pet peeves is that I don’t have an eye for things that aren’t as they should be. Like he’ll send me a document to review and, in seeing that a section heading is a different font from other section headings, I won’t change it because I’m just assuming that he had a reason for making it different. So maybe I am actually seeing mistakes in Detour and just assuming it’s a deliberate quirk on by the director.) More importantly, it’s enjoyable. I’ll definitely be coming back to it.
And when I do come back to it I’m wondering if my eye toward these “mistakes” ill be any sharper. I’ve been pretty studious throughout Thousand Movie Project and I’ve definitely learned a lot but, fundamentally, I don’t think I’ve got a critic’s eye. Seems I’m always sitting down and watching these movies from the perspective of somebody who wants to be entertained, and then have ea conversation, rather than a critic who’s looking to study craft and form and to afterward engage int eh sorta discourse that advances the medium.
I’m still at a point where, when I’m not quite sure of what t take from a movie, and I’m wondering why the List has deemed it one of the 1,001 most important titles int he medium’s history, I go immediately to Roger Ebert, or some database of reviews, and I try to find some kind of instructive voice that blends personality, brevity, charm and maybe some humor with a good critical eye, a historical framework, an understanding of the medium’s mechanics and key plays and limitations and agendas.
Somebody who’s gonna explain this shit to me.
And Ebert, as I’ve probably mentioned before, was so prolific that there’s hardly a movie on this List for which I can’t turn to his website and get some counsel on it. He’s almost become a friend. It’s such a recognizable and effortless voice at this point. Dependable.
And it’s especially valuable for somebody in my situation, who could really benefit froma guide who’s constantly on call, and who’s more interested in studying and understanding a medium than he is in expounding on it. My friend Steve Donoghue writes book reviews and refers to himself as a “watchdog,” saying that he isn’t trying to write deep trenchant analyses of the culture. He isn’t doing think pieces. Says that he’s happy to provide a context for this particular book he’s discussing but isn’t so keen on digressions (he saves that for his conversation — which, good lord, if ever a man could digress…). His goal, he says, his function as a critic, is to read a book before it comes out and let you, the prospective reader/buyer, know if it’s worth your time/money. His version of criticism is a service, he says, not an art.
So now I’m thinking about my own essays here on the site, which are purely expressive and mostly just regurgitate the insights I’ve picked up from a biography or some more-astute critic than myself, but I get good vibes when I imagine some peopel embarking on their own version of Thousand Movie Project and maybe using these essays as a guide or a companion. Another voice to converse with in their own response pieces.
The topic at hand is Detour, a low-budget and, according to Ebert, flaw-ridden noir from the mid-’40s, when the subgenre was still taking shape; a movie that, for all of its smallness or thrifty charm or simplicity, is also kinda great. Almost inadvertently great.
It’s about a guy who’s hitchhiking from Florida to LA and just happens to hop into a car with an older driver who’s taking the same route. They take turns at the wheel and when the car’s owner dies in his sleep of an apparent overdose, then falls out of the car and smashes his skull on a rock, our hero panics. Obviously. Convinced he’ll be blamed for the guy’s death, he leaves the body on the side of the road and steals the car. Carries on toward LA. Along the way he picks up a hitchhiker, a woman about his age. Turns out she was in this car earlier, with its previous owner, and after deducing that the driver is dead, she accuses out hero of murder, and threatens to turn him over to the cops.
She’s doing all this because she wants to fuck him. Sinister shit. The most odious fatale of the subgenre’s femmes to date. But there’s also something earnest and yearning about her when the two end up sharing a motel room. Yes, she’s vindictive, and yes she’s greedy and crude and cruel. But she also really wants to be loved by him. Flashes a bit of tenderness when the conversation starts going that way.
The movie’s got a dark ending. I’ll defer to Ebert here because he invokes something I hadn’t even considered: given that the movie is framed, in the first and final scenes, with our hero recounting the whole thing, we’re to interpret the events — and his narration — as a potentially unreliable account. I’m super vigilant about a narrator’s reliability when it comes to fiction but seldom consider it when I’m watching movies. I guess I’m just way more inclined to belive that this is how it went down when I’m actually watching it unfold. [Editor’s Note from the Future: Rashomon will play with this beautifully. The same event, being explored in trial, is re-told from the perspectives of everyone involved, and the audience is never told whose version is correct.]
After pointing out that most viewers take the story at face value, and believe that our hero just endured a freak series of unfortunate events, Ebert suggests there’s reason to doubt it.
For one thing, there’s the freakishness of it. Because the hero is recounting the story just as he’s being arrested in the last scene. Are we really to believe that all this crazy shit happened? That he got picked up by a drug addict who overdosed and then hit his head on a rock, thus making it look like he’d been murdered, whereupon our petrified hero not only drove off in a panic but had the presence of mind to pick up another hitchhiker? A hitchhiker who just happened to’ve been a passenger in this same car a few days prior? And that she wasn’t just any old hitchhiker but a manipulative greedy femme fatale who blackmails him?
On and on. I see where a critic could say with legitimacy that the narrator is unreliable but I’ve just never thought to question a movie. I thought the whole point of enjoying a movie was the suspension of disbelieve. And outlandishly coincidental shit happens all the time. Have you seen that picture of the woman who’s standing out in public somewhere, it’s like the mid-’90s, and in the back of the photo is the man she’ll marry several years down the line, both of them oblivious of one another? The fuck is that? If somebody makes a movie about how those two people come together, are we to suspect we’re in the hands of an unreliable narrator?
It’s unique in Detour, obviously, because the last scene leads us to believe that this is the confession he’s giving to the cops, so he’s got a definite interest in making himself look innocent.
Ahdunno. Anyway. One for the books.