Detour, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, is a classic “B” movie in the Film Noir genre straight out of Pulp Fiction Hell. Shot on the cheap in four weeks it packs a wallop! This Criterion edition film is beautifully restored in glorious black and white. It is worth seeing just for the visuals alone. The story is as cheap as the characters it portrays. The writing is a little weak but the performances of the unknown actors more than compensate.
The story is told in flashbacks from an opening scene in a diner somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
The main character, Al Roberts (Tom Neal), is an out of work down on his luck pianist from New York City. He hitchhikes out to Hollywood to join up with his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) who is a chanteuse, also from New York City, who went out west earlier to find her fame and fortune. Along the way he is picked up by a guy named Haskell (Edmund McDonald). Haskell tells him about another hitchhiker he had picked up earlier. A young female who turns out to be a real hell cat who put some deep scratches in his hand when he had tried to make advances on her. “There oughta be a law against dames with claws,” he says. Later he dies of a heart attack. Al panics as he thinks the cops will think he killed the guy. He hides the body and takes Haskell’s clothes, money, identification and drives away in his car.
He meets a girl at a gas station and offers her a ride. She falls asleep in the car then suddenly sits bolt upright and demands, “Where’d you leave his body? Where did you leave the owner of this car? Your name’s not Haskell!” About this time Al realizes he has picked up the same girl that Haskell had picked up and she turns out to be the femme fatale of all femme fatales. She berates him all the way to Los Angeles.
When they get to Los Angeles, they cook up a scheme for Al to impersonate Haskell, the long-lost son of the elderly rich father who they read about in a newspaper is dying. They plan to inherit his estate when he dies. Waiting to execute their plan, they sit around in an apartment, drinking, playing cards and fighting. Al’s not playing ball to suit the drunken Vera and she threatens to call the cops. She runs to another room with the phone and slams the door. Al grabs the phone cord and pulls on it. He pulls and pulls. Finally, the line goes slack. He goes in the room to find Vera has become entangled in the cord and is accidentally strangled on it. Now Al has another corpse on his hands that just might point to murder.
That’s when he heads back east and we find him in the diner. In the final scene he is walking out on the desert highway and gets picked up by the cops. His last line is delivered in a voice over, “Fate, for some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all.”
Most reviewers of Detour take Al’s story at face value. But I have a different view. Al is an unreliable narrator and tell us what he wants us to hear to make himself look good. He more likely is a psychopath who has committed both murders and is caught by circumstance or fate as he likes to say.
Famed film maker Errol Morris said of Detour, “It has an unparalleled quality of despair, totally unrelieved by hope.” A pretty apt description.