‘Detour,’ a worthy B picture
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Starring Tom Neal, Ann Savage, and Edmund MacDonald
USA, 67 min – 1945.
“Money. You know what that is. It’s the stuff, you never have enough of. Little green things with George Washington’s picture that men slave for, commit crimes for, die for. It’s the stuff that’s caused more trouble in the world, than anything else we’ve ever invented, simply because there’s too little of it.” – Al Roberts
Stripped of the glamorousness that gives other film noir pictures their appeal, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour presents us with the genre, in its rawest form. This B picture, from PRC (Producer’s Relations Corporation) has every element of classic noir films, from the use of flashback, to a doomed romance, to the femme fatale, and of course, a murder. Unlike Detour’s larger budgeted, star-studded counterparts, these elements aren’t seamlessly disguised, behind a shroud of intrigue.
Detour begins in flashback. New York City nightclub pianist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) loses his girlfriend, Sue (Claudia Drake) to the allure of the west coast. Determined to join her across the country, in LA, and live out his dreams, Al hitchhikes to Hollywood. He is picked up by bookie, Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald). When Charles unexpectedly dies, Al believes the the police will suspect him and takes Charles’s identity. Al then takes on another hitchhiker, Vera (Ann Savage), who knew Charles, and she blackmails him.
The plot is straightforward noir, but Vera and Al are darker than your average protagonist, and femme fatale. Both characters know that Al’s situation is bleak, and slowly Al feels his American Dream slip away, while he’s kept ‘prisoner,’ under Vera’s blackmail. Through sometimes excessive narration, all of Al’s anxieties are put forth, illustrating his pessimistic view of life, both before and after Vera: “You can change the scenery, but sooner or later, you’ll get a whiff of perfume, or somebody will say a certain phrase, or maybe hum something. Then you’re licked again.” Vera, for her part, is no seductress. She’s obnoxious, outspoken about her dislike of Al, a heavy drinker, and just plain mean (“Just remember who’s boss around here” she says). There’s no softness in Vera, as in the entire film.
This noir gets even blacker, when its themes are understood. All the characters, with the exception of Sue, ruin their lives in pursuit of money, as if their dreams do not exist. Detour focuses on this idea of pursuing dreams. Al ponders a future, where Sue is successful, when he’s driving Charles convertible. The film immediately cuts to Sue, singing, presumably married to Al. In just above an hour, Detour manages to show and subsequently crush a man’s dreams. This alone should garner the film recognition.