By Christopher Kennedy
With the coming of spring, the land seems to open up and encourage travel, especially travel by car. Accordingly, I recommend one of the best – and under-the-radar – road movies, “Detour (1945),” starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage.
The film opens in a roadside diner in the southwest, and is told in flashback by Neal, who plays Al Roberts, an affable Manhattan piano player whose singing fiancée splits New York to try and make it big in Los Angeles. Lonesome, Roberts eventually follows her out to the coast, making his way across the country by hitchhiking. Roberts soon gets a ride from the gregarious Charles Haskell Jr., who happens to be going all the way to Los Angeles. The pair engages in easy conversation up until the point when Haskell dies, apparently from natural causes. Roberts disposes of the body and continues the journey in Haskell’s car, assuming his identity. At a nearby gas station, he picks up a woman, Vera, who appears to be hitchhiking. This ultimately proves to be his undoing and provides the spark for the rest of the film, as Roberts slowly loses control of the situation, until he’s mired in a web of lies, half-truths and double-crosses.
Director Edgar G. Ulmer’s classic B-movie could easily be a template for the “hard-boiled” film-noir genre: it features an affable everyman in Neal’s Al Roberts, a set of circumstances which cause him to deviate from what we believe were his heretofore sound scruples, and the ultimate La Belle Dame Sans Merci in Vera, a streetwise – and wisecracking – woman whose dual purpose in life is financial gain and exuding her will on the hapless Roberts.
The film clocks in at a tight 67 minutes. There are no lulls, no pointless subplots or extraneous character development. The film simply flies along, and we are carried along with it. The dialogue crackles, as when Roberts opines, “That’s life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” Or when Vera, after listening to Roberts’ complaints, shoots back, “Stop makin’ noises like a husband.”
Based on the Martin M. Goldsmith novel of the same name, and made on a shoestring budget of $30,000, “Detour” is an absolute delight. And it makes plenty of noise of its own.