“Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you.” So says Al Roberts, the doomed protagonist of Edgar G. Ulmer’s classic of film noir, “Detour”. Now legendary for its style and technique achieved on a “Poverty Row” budget, Ulmer reportedly shot the film in just several days on a miniscule budget. It manages to pack more punch into its lean, 65 minute running time than most Hollywood films before or since.
Tom Neal stars as Al Roberts, a born loser who plays piano in the Break O’ Dawn Club in New York for the nightly crowds. His girlfriend, Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake) sings with the club’s band, and performs the film’s haunting musical theme, “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me”. One night, Sue announces that she’s leaving to try to her luck in Hollywood. Al decides to hitch-hike out West to be with her, but he’s picked up by a traveling salesman, Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), who-lucky for Al-is heading all the way to Los Angeles. But Haskell dies under mysterious circumstances in the car that night during a rainstorm. Al panics and, fearing the police will accuse him of murder, assumes the dead man’s identity. Just when Al thinks he’s gotten past that obstacle, he picks up a young woman he finds hitch-hiking near a gas station, who turns out to be Vera (Ann Savage), who just happened to ride with Haskell several days earlier, and who immediately spots Al as an impostor. Blackmailing him for a murder he didn’t commit, Al surrenders whatever control he has left over his own life, and takes a detour onto a one-way road to Hell.
Ulmer frames this story in flashback, with Al sitting in a seedy Nevada diner where the jukebox plays “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me”, almost taunting him about the life and love he has lost forever. What really sells “Detour” is its incredible visual style, all the more remarkable considering the rushed, low-budget production history of the film. Ulmer had been trained at the UFA Studio in Germany during the 1920s, where he worked as an art director for directors such as Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau. He brings his Expressionist style to this film with memorable results. When Al begins telling his story, for instance, the background of the scene falls dark while a loan spotlight hovers around his eyes, perfectly capturing his sense of isolation from the world. Perhaps the most striking stylistic moment is in the final scene, in which the camera pans around the hotel room, racking in and out of focus on various objects lying around the room. Shot in a continuous take, the shot is a marvel of camera technique, and must have surely taken a considerable amount of time to execute, all the more remarkable when considering the extremely tight shooting schedule of the film. The story of “Detour” came from a novel by Martin Goldsmith, and the extensive use of voice-over in the film, while no doubt also an effective cost-saving measure, gives it a powerful “stream-of-consciousness” style to its storytelling. The film was produced and distributed by Producers’ Releasing Corp., one of the smallest of the “Poverty Row” studios that could be found in the underbelly of Hollywood, co-existing with the major studios during the studio era. The gritty, cheap and low-rent atmosphere suits the film perfectly.
“Detour” is perhaps the most engulfing cinematic nightmare ever captured on film. From the film’s opening titles, which roll over a long tracking shot of a lonely, deserted highway at night, to the film’s end, its protagonist is a lost soul, doomed to wander the lonely highways of the Southwest for all eternity.