Detour (1945): Ulmer’s Atmospheric Film Noir, Starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage

Edgar G. Ulmer directed Detour, a moody film noir, starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage, adapted by Martin Goldsmith and Martin Mooney from the former’s 1939 novel.

Made on an ultra-low budget, the film was released by the Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), a Poverty Row studio.

Status

In 1992, Detour was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

A 4K restoration by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences premiered in L.A. at the TCM Festival in April 2018. A Blu-Ray and DVD was released in March 2019 from the Criterion Collection.

Tom Neal plays piano player Al Roberts (Tom Neal), at a roadside diner in Reno, hitchhiking east from California, when a patron plays on the jukebox a song that reminds him of his former life in New York.

He remembers being bitter about squandering his musical talent working in a cheap nightclub.  His girlfriend Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), the nightclub singer, leaves for Hollywood, which leads him into depression.  He decides to go to California and marry her; but with little money, he is forced to hitchhike his way.

In Arizona, bookie Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald) gives Al a ride in his convertible, driving from Florida to Los Angeles to bet on a horse. During the drive, he has Al pass him pills, which he swallows as he drives.

That night, Al drives while Haskell sleeps. When rainstorm forces Al to pull over, he is unable to rouse Haskell. Al opens the door and Haskell tumbles out, striking his head on a rock and dies.

Fearful he would be accused of killing Haskell, Al drags the body off the road. He then takes the dead man’s money, clothes, and identification, and drives away.

He crosses into California and spends a night in a motel. The next day, leaving a gas station near Desert Center Airport, he picks up a hitchhiker, Vera (Ann Savage). At first she travels silently, but then suddenly challenges his identity and car ownership.

She had been picked up by Haskell earlier in Louisiana, but she got out in Arizona after he forced himself on her.  She blackmails him by threatening to turn him over to the police. She takes the money Al retrieved from Haskell and wants whatever money they can get by selling the car.

In Hollywood, they rent an apartment, posing as Mr. and Mrs. Haskell.  Al is resentful of the situation but Vera revels.  About to sell the car, Vera learns from a newspaper that Haskell’s wealthy father is near death and a search is under way for his long-estranged son. Vera demands that Al impersonate Haskell once the father dies to inherit the estate. Al refuses, arguing that impersonation requires detailed knowledge he lacks.

In a drunken rage, Vera threatens to call the police. Running into the bedroom, she falls on the bed with the phone cord around her neck. Al pulls on the cord to break it from the phone.  He breaks down the door and discovers Vera strangled by the telephone cord.

Al gives up the idea of contacting his girlfriend Sue and returns to hitchhiking. He finds out that Haskell is wanted in connection to murdering his wife, Vera.

The feature ends back in the framing narrative in the Reno diner, where the film began, with Al imagining his arrest by the police.

There has been dispute over the budget and length of shoot of Detour. Estimates range from $20,000 to $100,000, and though Ulmer claimed that the picture was shot in 6 days, other evidence suggests that it lasted at least two weeks.

The original musical soundtrack is by Leo Erdody, who had worked with Ulmer on Strange Illusion.

Since the Production Code did not allow murderers to get away with their crimes, Ulmer shot a scene in which Al is picked up by a police car at the end, after foreseeing his arrest in the narration.

Edgar Ulmer died in 1972, before the revival of Detour and the critical re-evaluation of his career. Tom Neal died the same year, but Ann Savage made live appearances with the film for decades.