Al (Tom Neal) is a talented piano player who is unhappy with his job in a New York nightclub. The job is slightly sweetened by the fact that he performs with a pretty lady named Sue (Claudia Drake), and they’ve fallen in love.
When Sue leaves New York in search of Hollywood fame, Al decides to follow her. Since he doesn’t have much money, he saves himself the bus fare and instead hitchhikes across the country.
In Arizona, Al is picked up by a bookie named Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), but that doesn’t make the journey any easier: an unfortunate surprise and a scheming second hitchhiker named Vera (Ann Savage) bring trouble for Al.
Edgar G. Ulmer directs 1945’s Detour, from a novel and screenplay written by Martin Goldsmith.
Detour doesn’t grip the viewer from the very first frame, but within a few minutes it picks up and launches into what remains a very compelling film for the rest of the running time.
Viewer interest is bolstered by the storytelling technique. Al sits in a restaurant, and the shadows around him get darker. Suddenly we’re in his mind, where he speaks directly to the viewer about the past before the film launches into each flashback. It almost feels like a novel, giving us Al’s direct point of view and letting him tell us what happened.
The performances in the earliest flashbacks are a bit stiff, but they seem purposefully so. There are a number of ways this film can be interpreted, but I tend not to go with a straight-forward interpretation that buys into everything Al shows us. I question the information he gives us. Are we getting the truth from this man’s words and flashbacks, or are his delusions being passed on to us?
The contrast between Tom Neal’s delivery in these stiff, early flashbacks and his more natural delivery in the narration is striking, but his performance in the flashbacks isn’t simply stiff due to bad acting. It has a contrived, dreamlike quality that led me to the question above almost immediately after the first flashback began.
If my hunch is at all on the right path, Neal proves himself as a very talented actor here, subtly cluing the viewer into the fact that they can’t completely trust the information that is being placed in front of them.
The flashbacks do become less stiff as the film moves along, and as the character buys further into what I see as his own mislead memories.
Not only is the storytelling of Detour interesting, but the script itself is quite well-constructed. There are a few surprises and the characters are often very mysterious, making it nearly impossible for the viewer to look away from the film.
A wonderful score by Leon Erdody (who also worked with director Ulmer on Strange Illusion) does a lot for the film as well. Aside from Erdody’s work, the film also includes a soundtrack of great songs by others, including “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me.”
Detour is a surprisingly solid noir effort from Producers Releasing Corporation, a studio that sat at the bottom of the Poverty Row barrel. This film is up to par with some of my favorite major noir releases of the time, which were produced on much higher budgets and with bigger names attached.
That’s not to say that Detour completely lacks faults. There is a tacked-on ending forced by the censors, and there are a few small holes in the story due to the fact that the original shooting script was much longer than the final product.
But it is, at the same time, a textbook example of everything that’s wonderful about the noir genre. It blurs the lines between fact and delusion, making for a film that sticks with the viewer and keeps us analyzing the story long after viewing it.
The score: 4.5/5
This film is available for viewing on Netflix and the Internet Archive. It is in the public domain, so the quality isn’t stellar, but it’s decent and doesn’t ruin the film’s watchability. You can also find the DVD version on
Amazon for less than $10 if you’re interested in adding it to your collection.
I’d taped this off TCM years ago, and remember it being pretty cool; I’ll have to check out my burned copy again soon (after my recently-arrived copy of Possessed!). Have you ever read anything on Tom Neal’s life? Quite interesting, to say the least!
I read a little bit while looking him up for this review but I’d definitely like to read more about him and see more of his films. He impressed me so much here!
I never realized he did so much work…I remember him from Detour, and that’s it. He was in a Thin Man movie, and played a ‘frat boy’ in Pride of the Yankees, and a bunch of other movies and TV shows. If he has a biography out there, I’d love to read it.
I haven’t been able to find any bios on him, unfortunately. There are a couple of websites with pages dedicated to him, but those mostly focus on his crimes. I didn’t even realize he’d been in one of the Thin Man films until I looked him up on IMDb! I had no idea he led such a troubled life, either, but I guess it isn’t very surprising since a lot of the greatest actors had rough off-screen lives.