(director: Edgar G. Ulmer; screenwriters: Martin Mooney (uncredited)/ Martin G. Goldsmith/from book by M.M. Goldsmith; cinematographer: Ben Kline; editor: George McGuire; cast: Tom Neal (Al Roberts), Ann Savage (Vera), Claudia Drake (Sue), Edmund MacDonald (Charles Haskell, Jr.), Tim Ryan (Diner Proprietor, Gus), Esther Howard (Hedy), Don Brodie (Used Car Salesman), Roger Clark (Dillon), Pat Gleason (Joe); Runtime: 69; PRC; 1945)
“For some, being outside the system is as natural as walking in the fog.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: spoilers throughout.

Ulmer’s protagonist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) looks back at his brief life and wonders out loud to himself, “How fate could put the finger on you and me for no good reason at all.” And so “Detour,” a Poverty Row quickie film, in its roundabout way, exploits the premise of a person coming apart psychologically because of the bitterness in his life and all the odd coincidences that keep going against him.

The film was shot in six days on an extremely low budget without an attempt to get any location shots for a story that centers around a cross-country hitchhiking trip, and yet it remains gritty and realistic even if the film is full of technical errors. It is an example of a quality indie film, relying on a quirky story to sell the film and not on big name actors. The big studios just can’t seem to do this type of film well. “Detour” was so much applauded by film buffs, it has now reached classical cult status in film lore and is even revered by noted directors such as Martin Scorsese. It was first held-up by the French movie critics as a work of true art, when they discovered the neglected film in 1950.

Al Roberts is a piano player in New York City who is in love with Sue (Claudia Drake). She sings in the dive he plays at. But Sue is ambitious and breaks off their marriage, telling Al that she is going to Los Angeles to try to make it to the big-time. Despondent, Al phones Sue after she is there for awhile and learns that she is working as a waitress. Al tells Sue that even if he’s broke, he will still hitch out there to be with her.

The film opens with Al hitching a ride to a Reno diner, telling people at the counter that he wants to go to the East Coast. The story is told in flashback as the grousing hitch-hiker hears the song ‘I Can’t Believe You Fell in Love With Me’ played on the jukebox, and we soon find out what happened to make him so desperate and resigned to losing all hope. In a voiceover Al asks, “Did you ever want to forget anything and can’t because there is always something that comes up to remind you of what you were trying to forget?”

The film goes into flashback and the start of his trek west. Al’s bad luck in getting rides changes when a fancy convertible stops to pick him up in Arizona and the driver, Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), an affable bookie, tells him that he’s in luck because he’s heading to Santa Anita racetrack.

After Haskell treats him to a meal they are on the road again when it starts to rain and when Al tries to awaken him to get him to help pull down the convertible top, he is surprised to find that Haskell has died from a heart attack. The most memorable part of the film, the part that seemed the eeriest, was watching Al as he starts to panic and stops thinking clearly. Al panics over what to do with the dead man and then he goes over in his mind the choices he has, as he keeps saying to himself who would believe me if I told them what happened: “My first instinct tells me to run. The next possibility is to sit tight and wait for the cops.”

Al decides to hide the body and take off with the car, and he also keeps Haskell’s wallet and driver’s license. Unfortunately when he tries to get him out of the car to dump his body Haskell’s head hits a rock, making Al more certain that he made the right decision to run away.

Seemingly home-free, entering California, Al picks up a woman hitch-hiker, the femme fatale, Vera (Ann Savage), and she turns out to be the hitch-hiker that Haskell told him about, the one who badly scratched him after he tried to make a pass at her. Vera is a truly rotten person and holds him prisoner in her attempt to make a killing on this fortuitous turn of events for her. Vera threatens Al that she will go to the police unless he gives her all of Haskell’s money, which he does without a fight. But when Vera insists they go to Los Angeles and sell the car, he stalls. Al just wants to get away from her.

Haskell had told them both the same sad story, about running away from home at 15 after putting a friend’s eye out in a duel with his dad’s Franco-Prussian sabers. While trying to sell the car in Los Angeles Vera reads that Haskell’s rich father is dying, and she schemes for Al to impersonate the long lost son and inherit the estate. While waiting for the old man to die they sit in a dinghy hotel room and argue, until the drunken Vera goes in the other room to call the police after he refuses to go along with the scheme. Al accidentally kills her when he pulls on the telephone cord, not seeing that it was wrapped around her neck.

Al takes a detour from his original destination as he decides he can’t see Sue like he is, and turns back to the diner in Nevada where he was first seen before the flashback started and he was hitching a ride in the rain back east. Al’s bad luck continues, as he is picked up by the police in the film’s closing shot.

Life has kicked Al where he is most vulnerable. His weak character and not his criminal act of stealing Haskell’s identity are the cause of his downfall. His struggle against fate, is doomed from the start of his journey. His doom begins when he is rejected by the girl he loved. What makes the film so pessimistic, is the mixture of passion and foolishness that follow the hero wherever he goes. Al sees before him how the Left and Right coast hold the same dim promises for his future; that the road is dark even when it is sunny outside.

Since fiction is not necessarily stranger than life, this nightmarish tale echoes the tragedy that happened to Tom Neal in real life: He would serve six years in prison for killing his wife.

Ulmer has created an unusually bleak character study. It is about a luckless man whose natural inclination is not to trust the authorities, even when that seems to be the most rational thing for him to do. For some, being outside the system is as natural as walking in the fog. To understand that, is to begin to understand the power of a noir film. The noir hero is just not like the other Hollywood heroes; he does not see the world as favoring him. This film is an excellent example of that, therein lies its power.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”