Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Screenplay: Martin Goldsmith
Producers: Leon Fromkiss, Martin Mooney
Starring: Tom Neal, Anne Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald
Country: United States
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Running time: 67min.
There are spoilers in this post, but if you’re familiar with noir, you won’t really expect it to end differently, and there’s a lot more to the ending than what I give away.
You couldn’t make a more quintessential noir film than Edgar G. Ulmer’s low-budget Detour if you’d known all the rules and tropes ahead of time. And he didn’t, because film noir wasn’t defined until the mid-1950s. Yet, just about all the elements that would eventually be considered definitively film noir are here: high-contrast lighting with lots of shadows, a defeated narrator telling the story of how fate continued to pile terrible circumstances on him no matter what he did, and a femme fatale who only made things worse for him at every turn.
Our main character arrives at a diner, obviously rundown and weary – a fellow diner strikes up conversation, wondering where he’s headed (“east”) and where he’s come from (“west”), but soon our man snaps at him. He’s not out to make friends. The other diner puts a coin in the jukebox, but the song that comes on angers our traveler, who jumps up wild-eyed, screaming not to play that song. Why, we wonder? What has happened to this man that causes him to be so standoffish and crazed by a song on a jukebox? Don’t worry, he’s going to tell us.
Flashback to the same man, Al Roberts, looking much less unkempt, jamming away on a piano in a club as a pretty girl sings the song from the jukebox. As Al continues narrating, we learn that he and the girl, Sue, are a couple, but they’re soon to be separated as Sue leaves for Los Angeles to pursue her singing career while he stays in New York, lacking the confidence to go with her immediately. Already Al is a revealed to be far from a hero – heroes do something with their lives, act to get what they want, and become the catalyst for change and movement in a story. But Al is simultaneously frustrated with his position in life and reluctant to do anything to change it, though he’s dating the most beautiful girl around and his talent as a pianist is undeniable and appreciated more than he realizes (or can accept). His piano solo soon after Sue leaves suggests that he could be a great classical pianist or maybe even a composer if he had the determination to go for it. But instead he seems to belittle his talent and think of himself as a loser. Perhaps he is right – for when he does decide to do something, head west to join Sue in LA, everything goes horribly wrong.
After hitchhiking his way across country as far as Arizona, he lands a jackpot ride – a well-to-do man with a nice car and a generous enough wallet to pay for Al’s food, going all the way to Los Angeles. Al rides with Mr. Haskell long enough to hear about another, less grateful hitchhiker, a woman who ended up physically assaulting Haskell before he dumped her back out on the road. But Haskell’s part of the story ends long before Los Angeles. After Al drives for a spell so Haskell can sleep, he reaches over only to find that Haskell is dead. Afraid he’ll be accused of killing Haskell for his money and nice car, Al does the only thing he thinks he can do – takes Haskell’s identification, hoping to get to LA and sell the car before anyone finds the body in the desert. But when Al plays the good Samaritan and picks up a lone hitchhiker soon after, who should it turn out to be but Vera, the very woman that Haskell had thrown out earlier.
This can’t end well, for Vera knows good and well that Al isn’t Haskell, and she schemes to use his bit of mostly innocent subterfuge to their mutual (but mostly her own) monetary gain. Vera’s a total she-bitch of a woman, shrill and demanding, yet Al can’t get away from her without fear that she’ll tell the police about Haskell. And by now his actions have made him even more suspect than he was in the beginning. It begins to look as though he’ll never get back to Sue, and the cruel hand of fate will dog him at every turn.
In fact, every thing Al does try to do to gain the upper hand and get back on track only enmeshes him deeper and deeper onto the unwanted detour his life has taken. He doesn’t really do anything to cause any of the events that overtake him, he merely reacts to the circumstances in which he finds himself – usually by taking the path of least resistance, the path that seems safest and least risky at the time. It could be that his tendency to react instead of act and to never take responsibility for anything is his downfall, the character trait that continues to get him deeper and deeper in trouble. Or it could be that fate really is against him – after all, the times he does take action (heading west in the first place, standing up to Vera) don’t do anything positive for him either.
By the end of the film, you’re practically longing for the guy to get a break, but no. Al finishes his story, leaves the diner, and continues on his way – headed back east, now an aimless drifter with no place to go, and no place to stay. It would be easy to call such a story depressing, but it feels more tragic than depressing. Al is a good man pulled into situations beyond his control – perhaps he could have made better choices in the situations he was given, but at each stage of his journey, his decisions seemed either sound or at least inevitable. And that’s really the sense you get from the film. The unrelenting, uncompromising march of inevitability. The fatalism so indicative of noir, of the 1940s films that refused to show an escapist version of life, but instead showed the grittiest, darkest, and most existential side of post-war reality. Al fails because he drifts; he drifts because he fails. And yet, there is a poetry in his failure, and a purity in his suffering that ties Detour, a tiny slip of a 1940s B-movie, to the tragedy of Greek drama, which is also filled with men who fail either simply because the gods are against them or because of a fatal flaw that prevents them from fulfilling their potential and averting tragedy – just as Al is beset by both his own character flaws and unyielding fate, his doom sealed from the opening credits.