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It might be extremely low-budget and it might not have any major stars but Detour (1945), with a brisk running time of only 68 minutes, may be the most bleak and nihilistic film noir thriller ever made....and that's a compliment. The film has long enjoyed a cult reputation in Europe and among American film buffs for its existential tone. The main character, Al Roberts (Tom Neal), is an unemployed piano player intent on hitchhiking from New York to Hollywood where his girlfriend is a singer. When he reaches Arizona, he thumbs a ride with a dissipated gambler who relates a disturbing tale about a female hitchhiker he recently encountered. From that point on, the film travels quickly into nightmare territory with border crossings into paranoia, death and despair.
Edgar G. Ulmer, one of the most resourceful and artistic directors working in low-budget films, shot Detour in six days with a cast of seven actors, one outdoor desert location, and only six minimally furnished indoor sets. New York City is represented by a streetlamp on a fog-enshrouded sound stage while Los Angeles is symbolized by a drive-in restaurant and a used car lot. As for the script, Ulmer pared it down from a 144-page screenplay by Martin Goldsmith (the brother-in-law of Anthony Quinn) and captured a hard-boiled quality that actually surpasses the thrillers of James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and Cornell Woolrich (The Bride Wore Black) in terms of toughness.
Ulmer also deserves credit for casting Ann Savage as the venomous Vera. Looking like a bird-of-prey and spitting out bitter one-liners such as "If I'm hanged all they'd be doing is rushing it," Savage may be the most frightening femme fatale in the history of film noir. Originally signed by Columbia while they were in the process of transforming Rita Hayworth into their "Love Goddess," Savage was groomed for glamour roles but eventually ended up in grade-B fare like Klondike Kate (1943) and Pygmy Island (1950). If it wasn't for Detour, she'd probably be forgotten now.
In regards to Tom Neal, his real life story is probably even sadder and stranger than the luckless character he plays in Detour. From his involvement with Inez Martin, the mistress of the notorious racketeer Aaron Rothstein, to his three unhappy marriages, Neal's off-screen life would probably make a sordid bestseller. He made tabloid headlines in 1951 when he got into a brutal fistfight with Franchot Tone over Barbara Payton. Tone was beaten unconscious and rushed to the hospital with a fractured cheekbone, broken nose, and brain concussion. Neal's Hollywood career collapsed after that so he tried to eke out a living as a gardener. His attempt at a landscaping business ended in bankruptcy and in 1965 he made the headlines again. This time he was accused of murdering his third wife, Gail Evatt, with a .45 caliber pistol. Neal was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to ten years in prison. He was paroled in 1972 but was found dead in his North Hollywood apartment eight months later. Cause of death: congestive heart failure.
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Producer: Leon Fromkess, Screenplay: Martin Goldsmith, Martin Mooney (uncredited), based on the novel by Martin Goldsmith
Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline
Editor: George McGuire
Art Direction: William A. Calihan, Jr., Edward C. Jewell
Music: Leo Erdody
Cast: Tom Neal (Al Roberts), Ann Savage (Vera), Claudia Drake (Sue Harvey), Edmund MacDonald (Charles Haskell Jr.), Tim Ryan (Diner Proprieter).
by Jeff Stafford