Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a piano player in a nightclub called “Break O’ Dawn Club”. He plays piano while his girlfriend Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake) sings. At least he was a piano player with a girlfriend. Now he’s in the twilight zone somewhere in Reno at a coffee shop. Al is hitchhiking from California back to the East Coast. Someone plays a song on the juke box that reminds him of where he came from and how it all began. His mood as black as pitch, he remembers.
One night after work Al and Sue are walking home when Sue tells him she wants to go to California to become famous in Hollywood. Al tries to talk her out of it but she goes anyway. Not exact happy about how his life has worked out so far his depression gets worse. He decides to go to California to be with Sue and get married.
Without any money Al resorts to hitchhiking to California. In Arizona he is picked up by a bookie named Charles Haskell Jr. Haskell is also going to California and promises a ride all the way. From time to time Haskell has Al pass him some prescription pills. Eventually Haskell switches places with Al. Al drives and Haskell goes to sleep in the passenger seat.
When it starts to rain Al stops to put the convertible top up. He tries to waken Haskell but can’t. When he opens the passenger door Haskell falls out hitting his head on a rock. Haskell is dead. Al doesn’t know if Haskell was dead when he fell out of the car or if he accidentally died when he fell on the rock. In a panic Al pulls Haskell’s body off the roadside and hides it behind some scrub brush. He decides to take Haskell’s place and drive to Los Angeles where he can dump the car.
After crossing into California he spends the night in a motel. The next day he picks up a woman hitchhiking. She says her name is Vera. Vera says she knows he isn’t Haskell. She had ridden with him from Louisiana and knows his car. She accuses him of killing Haskell and threatens to turn him in to the police. Vera takes the money that Haskell had on him, which Al now has. Her greed not sated she then drags Al down into a spiral of threats, identity theft, and schemes that ultimately result in another death.
“Detour” was released in 1945 and was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. It is a crime drama and a film noir. The movie is based on the novel “Detour: An Extraordinary Tale” by Martin Goldsmith written in 1939. It is a low budget film from poverty row producer Producers Releasing Corporation. In 1992, Detour was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
The ultimate ending of the film is not what was in the script. The Production Code Administration had an issue with what the script called for so the last few seconds of the film were added to make the ending appear differently than what was intended. The film would have been slightly better without those few seconds. The original stopping point would have been more artistic and more noir but the Code Administration insisted on the change.
To illustrate direction the movie pans right to left when Al is hitchhiking to California and left to right when he is hitchhiking east. To save money Ulmer took shots that panned left to right and reversed them to make it seem as if Al was hitchhiking to L.A. You can see this in some of the shots. This is why Al is using his left thumb in some scenes and the cars he gets into have the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car.
As far as Al’s state of mind is concerned, he was basically already depressed before Murphy’s Law took over his life. He may have been just a piano player but he had a steady job and a beautiful girlfriend. Instead of going with her he hangs around New York City whining. When he does decide to go after her he makes every bad decision possible.
Although it’s not my favorite noir film it is a great example of the fact that big budget doesn’t necessarily make better film. Director Edgar Ulmer made every cost saving effort he could think of and still made what most people think is the best noir film ever. I will say it is a haunting film. Many people have pointed out that the way it is presented, since Al is the one telling the story, you are not sure if Al is telling the truth or not. Does he have the worst luck in the world or is he justifying what he himself has done. That question is what has elevated this film to the status of the perfect noir movie. Noir is nothing if not ambiguous.