That’s life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.
Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a down on his luck piano player from New York, who’s trying to get to LA and his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake). Hitchhiking your way across the country is tough and Al thinks he’s hit the jackpot when gambler Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) picks him up and offers to drive him all the way to LA.
Unfortunately for Al, he seems to have the worst luck I’ve ever seen in a film. When Haskell dies under suspicious circumstances, Al decides the only way to avoid being arrested and charged by the police, is to take Haskell’s car and identity and ditch the vehicle further down the road.
This initial run of bad luck is compounded when he picks up hitchhiker “Vera”, who had ridden with Haskell earlier and knows Al ain’t him. She uses this knowledge as leverage to force Al into a series of schemes involving Haskell’s murky past. Will Al be able to break free from the dangerous and intelligent Vera before it’s too late?
Detour is famous as one of the quintessential film noir B-movies. Shot for about $100,000 in 28 days with a minimal cast and sets. Many shots are location shots on what is now Highway 14 between Mojave and Lancaster California. Still a desolate spot today, it’s used to great effect in the film.
The budget was so low on this one that the 1941 Lincoln used in the film is actually Director Edgar G. Ulmer’s personal car. This low budget is also seen in certain scenes where the film is reversed rather than reshot to show travel in opposite directions (most obviously it looks like the cars are right hand drive, English style in some scenes.)
The film was ruthlessly cut down to a little over an hour (standard B movie length) from a much longer shooting time. The editing is extremely effective in this one and there is not a lot of wasted time or filler. Directors of some modern, bloated 2 hour+ extravaganzas would do well to study this film. It starts slowly and builds to an intense pace towards the end. All without being obviously rushed.
The best part of the film is the interaction between the two leads and the interesting way certain Hollywood clichés are turned on their heads. One critic described the pair as “a woman who can only sneer and a man who can only pout.” That is a pretty good description of the interaction between Al and Vera. A nice reversal of the usual roles in suspense films.
This time the woman is the one in complete control and the man is helpless against her superior knowledge of crime and its various skills. Al is basically a complete rube acting out of fear and going by the seat of his pants. Vera is obviously an experienced, if small time criminal and grifter and she sees a fat pigeon in poor Al.
Any time it looks like he might escape her control, she reminds him of what will happen if she informs the police of his activities. No misdemeanor charge, that’s for sure, the rope or the gas chamber are frequently mentioned.
Supposedly stars Ann Savage and Tom Neal couldn’t stand each other and I think some of that wore off in some of the scenes. The tension crackles, especially later in the film when, trapped together in an apartment, they pace like trapped animals, slinging increasingly vicious insults at each other.
While Neal is good, the film is definitely Savage’s show. Despite not appearing until half way into the film, she dominates all of the scenes she is in as the ruthless and controlling Vera. A standout performance as one of the nastiest bad girls of film noir.
The film has a haunting melancholy feeling to it, you figure out pretty early on that there won’t be any happy endings in this one. The large amount of monologue by Al, combined with the spare sets and minimal cast give the film a nightmare feel. Especially as the tension ratchets up towards the end,
Verdict 4 Gavels out of 5 Impressive film noir, shot on an incredibly tight budget. Detour does more with its $100,000 than many A list films costing many times that. Good camera and lighting combined with tight editing and an impressive performance from Ann Savage make this one an iconic example of the film noir style.