Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour begins in a diner somewhere in the middle of nowhere as Al Roberts (Tom Neal) ruminates in voice over about his life and what has lead him to this place in time. He's got a tale to tell and there's a reason because it has taught Al something about Fate. His experiences have left Al irascible and he argues sullenly with the waitress, the diner manager and a trucker who drops a nickel in a juke box and plays the song that Al and his girlfriend called their song. Al's problem becomes more apparent as he explains the events that have brought him here.
In flashback he talks about his relationship with his singer girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) as he accompanied her on piano in a New York club. When she leaves for fame and fortune in Los Angeles Al is lonely and decides to hitch hike to the coast to be with her. He accepts a ride from good-time-Charlie Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald). During their drive Haskell tells Al a little about himself, relating a story about deep scratches he has on his hand that he received when he picked up a woman who shunned his advances. When Haskell suffers an attack and dies, Roberts, fearing that he will be accused of the death takes on the man's identification and begins driving the car himself.
At a gas station Al picks up Vera (Ann Savage), who blurts out, "What did you do with the body?" It turns out that Vera had accepted a ride from Haskell earlier and she is the one who has given him the scratches on his hand. Threatening to summon the police Vera forces Al to pose as Haskell in order to collect an inheritance from the man's millionaire father. During their time together Vera causes another problem to befall Al and Fate to intervene.
Running Time: 67 Minutes
MPAA Ratings: PG
Written by Martin Goldsmith, who adapted the screenplay from his own 1939 novella in which the male and female protagonists share narrating duties within alternating his and hers chapters, Ulmer's streamlined 67 minute cinematic version focuses almost solely on the travails of Al Roberts (Roth, in the book) - a N.Y. nightclub pianist who finds himself at a figurative and literal crossroads when his singer-fiancée leaves for the coast to make it big. The moody and self-defeating lug follows suit shortly thereafter, thumbing his way west (in laughably reversed shots) to resume their romance - but "fate, or some mysterious force" sticks out a foot to trip him - or so he would have us believe.
On a lonely stretch of southwestern highway, not terribly far from his destination, Al is picked up by one Charles Haskell - a gregarious big shot who pops unnamed pills between spinning yarns of estranged relatives and hot-tempered hitch-hikers. At one point during their ride when Al takes the wheel to let Haskell sleep, the sky opens - and Al pulls over to put the top up - but waking Haskell proves difficult, especially when Al opens the passenger door and the man spills out, smacking his head on a roadside rock. Convinced that Haskell's blood is on his hands and that the police will surely put him away, Al ignores the possibility that the pill-popper was gravely ill before hitting the ground - and swaps clothes, wallets, and identities with the corpse - leaving the body, and his former life, in the middle of nowhere.
With a big chunk of change, some snazzy new duds, and a secured ride to L.A., Al then makes another ill-advised move. Picking up a prickly tumbleweed named Vera - who recognizes the car and the clothes and the name, but not the face - he is coerced down to an even lower circle of hell when his new companion informs him that she has ridden with the real Haskell and will drop dime if he doesn't agree to pose with her as husband and wife so that they may cash in on an imminent Haskell family inheritance. While spending interminable hours together in a motel room, an astonishingly unlikely twist of fate simultaneously liberates Al - and makes his situation unfathomably bleak....
Bookended by sequences in the present - and the likely future, Ulmer's pulpy tale of woe is nothing less than a staggeringly impressive feat of ingenuity over limitations. A cracked, blemished jewel - 'Detour' immerses the viewer in a celluloid comic-nightmare for just over an hour, but leaves one questioning the power of fate, of one's own choices, and the murky depths of unexamined motivations. Cheap sets and cheesy tricks aside, it is an artful piece - and one that lingers long in the memory.
The Al Roberts character should not be lumped in with other noir protagonists, as his reliability as storyteller is in question throughout. He laments his financial status, yet scoffs at a customer's generous tip. He speaks of his 'wonderful' romance with Sue, yet clearly they are of different temperaments. When debating whether to inform the authorities of Haskell's passing - doubting they'll believe the truth - he neglects to even investigate the man's medication and/or health. Al Roberts doesn't narrate the story we see - but the one he'd prefer we believe.
It's somewhat easier to swallow Al's choice to trade places with Haskell and cover up the ostensibly shady circumstances when one knows that he has already done a short stretch for theft. This plot point from the book, along with the passage detailing his reluctance to pick up any hitch-hikers while posing as Haskell (he feels sorry for Vera, and figures it will be a short, local lift) may make his actions in those filmed sequences appear more reasonable. One can only wonder if their omission was an artistic choice, or one of budgetary constraints.
Never a strong presence or memorable performer, Neal's turn as our integrity-challenged anti-hero is little more than passable. It hardly matters though - with a co-star one can't take their eyes off of anyway. With her windswept coif, (unwashed for ten days prior to filming) lacerating glare, and sped-up line delivery (a direction of Ulmer's), Savage commandeers the viewer's attention in much the same way she does Al's life. When they lock horns - it's clear who'll really man the wheel for the rest of their journey. A mere 24 at the time, Savage's uniquely sexy/repulsive powder-keg doesn't qualify as a textbook femme fatale, but remains one of the most memorable pick-ups along noir's highway - shifting from scolding shrew to seductive vixen and back again with breathtaking conviction and force. Before Al daydreams of his likely apprehension, he must first survive her - his waking nightmare. (noiroftheweek.com)
While in a highway restaurant, the bitter pianist Al Roberts listens to a song and recalls his recent past. In New York, he played piano in a dump night-club where his beloved girlfriend Sue Harvey was the singer. Sue decides to move to Los Angeles, expecting to have an opportunity in the cinema industry. She is not well succeeded and Al decides to travel to LA to meet her. Without money, he hitchhikes and he meets Charles Haskell Jr., who is heading directly to Los Angeles. When Charles unexpectedly dies, Al decides to assume his identity since the police would never believe in the truth about his death. In a gas station, he gives a lift to Vera, a woman that knew Charles and blackmails Al with tragic consequences. Written by Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
After his girlfriend Sue has left for the West Coast, Al Roberts decides to join her and starts a journey hitchhiking westwards. When he finds a driver who'd given him a lift dead, he decides to get rid of the body and take the man's identity, fearing he'd be accused of murder if he would go to the police. However, Vera, a hitchhiking girl Al picks up, sees through him and starts blackmailing him into going along with her schemes which get him deeper and deeper into trouble. Written by Leon Wolters
Edgar G. Ulmer
National Film Preservation Board
National Film Registry
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