Hollywood is really missing out, because with the direction that the industry has gone there really is no space for a film like Detour to be made by conventional methods anymore. It was shot in less than two weeks. It cost a minuscule amount compared to the contemporary A-Pictures, and yet it used its low production values as an advantage not a curse. Director Edgar G. Ulmer was the king of so-called B-films of Poverty Row and Detour was his shining gem. It feels a lot like the later film-noir D.O.A., because both have a main conceit that might be hard to swallow at first, but if you do that initially, you quickly find the film thoroughly rewarding on its own merit.
The sets are simple. A diner, a car, a hotel room, and that’s honestly about it. The actors are pretty obscure by today’s standards. Tom Neal was made for this role of the fateful victim Al Roberts, with his constantly pouting face and a pair of despondent eyes. As he sits glowering in a roadside diner it’s hard to imagine he’s ever smiled in his life. He’s a real sourpuss.
There was a time, back in the day, when he made a modest living as a piano player in a New York club. He had a girl named Sue, and he was relatively content playing the bouncy tune “I Can’t Believe You Fell in Love With Me” while making a few bucks. Now the song haunts him wherever he goes. Sue left to try her luck in Hollywood and soon after Al began his long hitchhike to California to rendezvous with her. On one unassuming evening all his luck changed. Just like that.
An obliging fellow offered him a ride and they get on well enough. He’s a bookie, but not a bad fellow, so Charles Haskell and Al get on fine. Then they switch up driving duties and a little light rain starts coming down into the convertible. Al goes to put up the top, because he assumes Haskell’s only asleep. But when he opens the side door, Haskell falls to the ground. DEAD! Al does what any normal human being would do and he freaks out. Should he dump the body? What should he do with the car? Did anyone see him? Will the people back at the rest stop be able to I.D. him? What will the cops say if they hear his story?
And so he ends up getting rid of Haskell (in a sense playing the role of guilt) and takes on the man’s identity. But wouldn’t you know it, the first person he picks up is the fiery Vera (Ann Savage), who looks apt to claw your eyes out. Of course she too got a ride from the real Haskell and isn’t buying Al’s story. She’s got him on the rack and she’s not about to let him get off easy. She wants a cut, she wants to sell the car, and Vera’s the only one who is going to call the shots. Al is a stuck, trapped, and paranoid, as Vera waves blackmail in front of his face and won’t let him breathe. She’s got him around her finger and there’s absolutely nothing he can do. After all, who would believe his story?
But whether it’s fate or whatever you want to call it, he gets out of it much in the same way he got into it. The resolution makes me grin because it’s so wonderfully contrived. There’s a tacked on ending to mollify the Production Codes (because Al couldn’t get away with his crime), but although it is an easy fix, it hardly takes away the potency of Detour. I long for the days they made films like this. Ann Savage somehow is nastier and crueler in a few minutes than most any character is in an entire film. It’s a brilliant role and honestly she’s not my favorite femme fatale, but she has to be one of the most notorious. She seriously sends shivers up the spine.
“Isn’t that a laugh? Haskell got me into this mess, and Haskell was getting me out of it. The police were searching for a dead man. I keep trying to forget what happened, and wonder what my life might’ve been if that car of Haskell’s hadn’t stopped. But one thing I don’t have to wonder about; I know. Someday a car will stop to pick me up that I never thumbed. Yes, fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” – Al Roberts