Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945
Starring: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald
“Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.”
Al Roberts is a bitter piano player working in New York, but hoping to join his singer girlfriend, who has recently moved to L.A. to find fame. He begins hitchhiking cross country and is eventually picked up by a questionable, but kind bookie, Charles Haskell Jr. He takes undisclosed pills during their time together and has some nasty scratches on his hand, which he says are from a woman he met on the road. One night, during a rainstorm, Haskell never wakes up from a nap and Al discovers that he is suddenly dead. Terrified that the police won’t believe him, he hides the body and takes the car, assuming Haskell’s identity. Unfortunately Al soon picks up Vera, a vicious young hitchhiker who met Haskell and knows that Al is a phony. She begins blackmailing him and Al’s trip becomes a hellish journey with no end in sight.
Incredibly bleak, Detour benefits from its brief shooting time (less than a month in more generous estimates) and sparse sets. The film’s limited actors and basic car or hotel room settings manage to be incredibly claustrophobic. This is essentially a film about guilt and existential despair. The glamour found in many other early noir films is absolutely lacking here and there is nothing special about the film’s central protagonist – a drifter trying to get to his girlfriend in L.A. – or its antagonist – a bitter, dirty, uneducated young woman trying desperately to survive. This isn’t even really a story about people whose lives are destroyed by crime – it’s about ordinary men and women beaten down by life, nothing more and nothing less.
Released by PRC – Producers Releasing Corporation – a poverty row studio known for churning out cheap B-grade horror films, the studio allowed director Edgar Ulmer a certain amount of freedom that went hand-in-hand with the low budget. Ulmer had worked for bigger studios – he began in Germany as an assistant to F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang and later went on to direct horror classic The Black Cat (1934) with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff for Universal Studios. Though his career was on the rise in the ‘30s, an affair with a producer’s wife allegedly dashed any further association with a major studio.
Detour has received positive reviews and grown in stature over the years until it was finally recognized as a classic in the ‘70s, around the time of Ulmer’s death. The film is full of flaws, but either overcomes all these or uses them to its advantage. Detour has some things in common with Ulmer’s horror classic, The Black Cat (1934). Both films begin with a journey gone wrong where the protagonist is forced to take up with an unsavory character to continue onward. Blackmail and corruption follow. Though Detour lacks the fantastic spectacle of evil present in The Black Cat, the former film is incredibly grim and nihilistic.
Al Roberts, the protagonist, is the definition of what Thomas Ligotti called “malignantly useless” in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Al is ordinary, banal, helpless, ineffectual, and unlikable. He’s not the honorable “Everyman” with a heart of gold that merely wanders down the wrong path, so often played by Jimmy Stewart; he is, in a way, despicable. Using a noir cliché, he’s a piano player working at a bar, but is not successful enough to help support his girlfriend’s career or get himself safely out to L.A. Music also oddly becomes his Achilles’ heel and hearing even one bar of a certain song puts him in a black, foul mood, and serves as a constant reminder of his own failure. Unlike other films from this period that also use a leitmotif, such as Casablanca, the source of this musical anxiety remains unresolved.
Almost everything that happens to Al is ridiculous and somewhat preposterous – two accidental deaths? I think this was an intentional choice meant to alienate us from him and make him seem like more and more of an unreliable narrator, relating events as he wishes they would unfold. Things don’t quite match up with what we see unfolding on screen. He makes one incredibly stupid decision after another and is impossible to relate to. Actor Tom Neal’s life would make an effective noir tale. After being blacklisted from Hollywood for beating another actor, he went through a handful of marriages, had an affair with married actress Barbara Payton (another person with a crash and burn life story fit for a noir film), and went on to kill his last wife by shooting her in the back of the head. He was only charged with manslaughter.
While Tom Neal is fitting as the weak, unlikable Al, he is upstaged by Ann Savage in nearly every scene they share. She is wonderful as Vera, a twisted and terrifying young woman. Vera is truly one of noir cinema’s most fearsome and desperate femme fatales. From her dirty hair to her acidic, hardboiled dialogue, she’s unforgettable. She’s both sexually threatening and physically repulsive; she is also hovering at the edge of death, thanks to some unknown, though fatal disease.
Based on a novel of the same name by Martin M. Goldsmith (The Narrow Margin), he also wrote the screenplay. As with other noir cinema, there’s a sense of fate or destiny at play, a feeling that everything is going to end badly, no matter what Al tries to do. This is also an early example of what could be described as highway terror. Though spree killer Charles Starkweather wouldn’t begin his rampage of highway violence for another decade, the expanding U.S. highway system was already a place of fear, unpredictability, and represented the best – freedom, industry, and expansion – and worst – murder, poverty, blackmail, and failure – of the American dream.
Detour comes highly recommended, though it may seem a little jarring at first, particularly for audiences unfamiliar with the truly low budget B-films of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Available on DVD in a remastered edition, this has fallen into the public domain. Hopefully it will be restored for Blu-ray sometime soon.