Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Tom Neal (Al), Ann Savage (Vera)
In a phenomenon akin to the one wherein refrigerated leftovers seem to taste better when devoured well after midnight, many a 'B' noir programmer will seem infinitely more enjoyable when viewed in the wee-small-hours - when the time is just right for dashed dreams, and nightmarish scenarios. Edgar Ulmer's dimestore-doom classic casts it's spell irrespective of showtime, but a good 3am screening will convert almost any detractor, and fortify it's reputation as one of the sub-genre's purest distillations - and most perversely entertaining triumphs.
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-fiance 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.