Some films seem able to embody an emotion or state of mind: with Singin’ In The Rain it’s joy, with The Shawshank Redemption it’s hope, and with Detour it’s fatalism. Time magazine, which included Detour on its (admittedly idiosyncratic) list of ‘The 100 Top Movies of All TIME’, said ‘no film is noirer’ – and certainly it’s impossible to think of one that is. An inescapable pessimism flows from the script and infects every aspect of a production that – shot in six days for a cost, depending on who you believe, of either five- or twenty-thousand dollars – is in budgetary terms a featherweight of film, but that punches like the heavyweight champion of the world.
Deadbeat piano player Al Roberts (Tom Neal) hopes to walk down the aisle – or rather ‘make with the ring and the licence’ – with his curvy, nightclub singer girlfriend, Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake). She isn’t so keen and, convinced she can make it in Hollywood, moves to California, leaving him to hitchhike after her. Eventually an amiable, if unlikely, character called Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald) gives Roberts a ride and, for a while, things are going well. Then, suddenly, Haskell dies and, in trying to revive him, Roberts accidentally lets Haskell’s head fall heavily against a rock. Sure that anyone to whom he tries to explain these events will think him a murderer, he swaps clothes with the corpse, and steals not only Haskell’s wallet and car, but also his identity. Once he gets far enough away, he reasons, he can dump the car and clothes and revert to being Al Roberts. And perhaps he could have, had he not picked up a shapely and sarcastic passenger named Vera (and played by Ann Savage). Unfortunately for Al, she had met the original Haskell and understandably smells a sewer rodent. Immediately, Roberts finds himself ‘tusslin’ with the most dangerous animal in the world – a woman’, and, naturally for a noir character caught in such a contest, plummeting into a personal Hell of blackmail, betrayal, crime and killing.
Although, as Roger Ebert wrote, Neal is ‘a man who can only pout’ and Savage ‘a woman who can only snarl’ their interaction is as riveting as that of any of the great onscreen couples. While many noirs allow their characters to face their fates with someone they love, or at least lust after, Detour’s spirit is far too malign for that: here the two main characters are locked together only by enmity. They scratch and stab at each other in a hate-fuelled perversion of the kind of words Bogart and Bacall characters use to flirt, and the scenes they share are as unforgettably electric as any between Lauren and Humphrey.
By including Detour in this selection of often faultless films, I don’t mean to imply that, as some low-budget classics do, it manages to be miraculously unlimited by its restrictive funding and shooting schedule, and emerges every bit as good as it would have been had it been given a blockbuster budget. A sub-student-film shonkiness is evident in every scene and there are a dozen jarring moments – my favourite of which comes when Roberts is shown ‘playing’ piano and the hands on the keys are so obviously not Neal’s they might as well be black and have an extra three fingers on each hand – that would have been lethally laughable in a lesser film. In Detour, though, the false-seeming sets and awkward acting enhance the eerie unreality of the story they showcase – and this is central to our understanding of the film.
The circumstances of the first death in which Al Roberts is involved – and from which he profits – are unlikely but believable; those of the second, however, are so improbable they are difficult to accept. Watching them we begin to wonder, if we have not already, if Al isn’t telling us porky pies. Crucially, because the film unfolds in flashbacks narrated by Roberts, we are not shown events as we are sure they occurred, but as he tells us they did – and, the more he talks, the more we wonder if Detour’s story isn’t so much a plot as an alibi. It is, more than any other aspect of the film, our doubts about the validity of what we have witnessed that explain why Detour survives in the memory much longer than many more famous and expensive efforts. Days after watching the film, you’ll likely catch yourself still puzzling over whether Al Roberts is a liar, or just the unluckiest lunk in hitchhiking history.
Even if you’re in search of a black and white classic, Detour is easy to overlook. Despite its cult status and critical acclaim, its name still has little of the cache of those of other standouts in its genre. But, runt of the film noir litter though it is, Edgar Ulmer’s brilliantly bleak 68-minute thriller deserves just as much attention as its more robust brothers like The Maltese Falcon or Double Indemnity. Crammed with the kind of cynical 1940s dialogue that must have tasted sour to say, Detour is a dark little gem and, as those idiosyncratic critics at Time pointed out, unquestionably the noirest of noirs.