Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is probably the best of the economy noirs. Made on a dime and condensed on a song, this 1945 picture is based on Martin Goldsmith’s 1939 novel of the same name and features some of the leanest and meanest turns of fate and phrase in the genre.
If Ulmer’s “poverty row” filmmaking is a study in making a lot out of a little, Detour is the answer to every question on the final exam. The flick masterfully weaves its way down the highway as the haunted embodiment of every hitchhiker with a game to run and a lie to tell. All the while, Ulmer plays with perception and explores greed, desire and even masochism.
Tom Neal is Al Roberts, a pianist who finds himself hitchhiking from California to somewhere out east. He’s having coffee in a wayside dump when a song comes on the jukebox that triggers a near-violent reaction. He tells the audience about his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake), a nightclub singer who left for Los Angeles to make it big.
Al follows her and catches a lift with Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), a pill-popping bookie. One night, Charles passes out in the passenger seat and somehow hits his head on a rock. Al panics, knowing he’ll be framed for the crime. He hides the body and assumes Charles’ identity. All is well until he meets the cunning Vera (Ann Savage).
Al’s account, if it is to believed at face value, is one of fate always having its way. He’s a good man, more or less, but there’s something around the edges that keeps him sinking in the roadside muck. He has a darkness to him, something Ulmer explores with Benjamin H. Kline’s cinematography and a blaring light in the face.
Al is the kind of guy who couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag but wants to swing at everyone he meets. His roughness is all inside, all braided through the person he wants to be rather than the person he is. When Sue leaves, he’s impotent. When he meets Haskell, he admires him. When Vera enters his life, he’s done for.
Vera is the force of nature to Al’s acquiescent fool. She’s got a mouth, but she’s also got claws. Ask Haskell. She’s also been touched by the hand of fate enough to know that Al isn’t Haskell. Vera wastes no time cooking up a money-making scheme that’ll put her in furs for a long time.
Savage plays Vera without a wrong note. She exudes cruelty and is one of the nastiest figures in film noir, which is saying a lot. She cracks off every word like the tip of a cigar and rakes Al over the coals to the point that sympathy isn’t an option. She’s made a fool out of him and he’s loving every minute of it.
Al has every chance to escape his scenario, but he doesn’t. He’s terrified of what life could hand him. He’s crippled by defeatism. He’s sure that destiny is just waiting to stick its foot out to trip him. And so on. Neal does his part to fill Detour with ceaseless wallowing.
But much of Detour hinges on how frankly one takes the psychology. Arguments have been floated for the exclusiveness of Al’s account, which seem to match up with the weighted monologue. Given this perspective, the protagonist is the unreliable narrator and the audience is the foil.
Or is it all part of the same nightmare? Ulmer infuses Detour with a surreal quality, in part because of economics and in part because the strange phantasms at the edge of the world don’t go away so easily. How much value one should put on Al’s testimony varies and, just like all good films noir, the implications are as lethal as a kiss with a wrench.