I’ve seen Detour so many times since I first discovered it back in 1992 that I sometimes have dreams about it that stick to the plot but play from different viewpoints. If you thank that’s loopy, guess what? I’ve actually dreamed numerous times about writing a review of this and posting it here to the point that I even wrote a post last year saying I thought I did. Yeah, I got it bad for this one. Sure, it’s got its technical issues and every print I’ve seen from film to tape to DVD over about thirty years looks as if it’s been dragged under a bus going cross country on four flat tires. But the combined efforts of writer/screenwriter Martin Goldsmith, director Edgar G. Ulmer, actors Tom Neal, (the aptly named) Ann Savage, Edmund MacDonald, Claudia Drake along with composer Leo Erdody, editor George McGuire and cinematographer Ben Kline all add up to what I think is one of the greatest American film noir movies ever made (warts and all).
Granted, if you’re picky or looking for perfection and haven’t see this before, as an exercise in Moviemaking 101 this may not wow you much thanks to its numerous technical flaws and what could be called a one-note performance by the lead actor. On the other hand, the film’s simple story and how it’s told hits that sweet spot in the brain as it delivers its karmic blows to its principals and leaves the residue of cheap diner food, cheaper booze, cigarettes and bile swirling around in your skull. “Poverty Row” budget and short shooting schedule aside, the film’s impact is immediate and lasting thanks to the short run time and every shot meaning something (yes, even the bad ones). I bet you’ll get it bad when you see this for the first time, too…
Tom Neal plays Al Roberts, a piano player with less than a dollar and a dream to his name who gets a big tip from a customer one night and decides to hit the road. His simple goal is to reach Hollywood where his girlfriend, Sue (Claudia Drake) is trying to make it as a singer. As we meet him at the beginning, Al is narrating his own story via voice-over after he nearly gets into a fight with a trucker over a jukebox selection at a run down roadside diner. He sounds whipped to the core mentally and looks as if he’s had the worst time of his life and you know he’s probably not got a cheerful tale to spill during the next sixty-seven minutes.
Even by 1945 standards, that ten-buck tip doesn’t take him far, so Al finds himself flat broke and resorting to hitchhiking in order to get where he needs to go. Fate, rolling it’s loaded dice has other plans once he’s picked up by Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund McDonald), a happy-go-lucky blowhard bookie with a nice car and a wad of bills who spots Al a big meal before heading out on the road with him and telling the story of a gal he’d picked up earlier (“I was tussling with the most dangerous animal in the world… a woman!”). This turns out to be the last good thing that happens to both men as there’s a sudden death and an identity swap that makes no sense if you stop to think about it more than thirty seconds. However, this is the story of one man thinking too much at some points, too little in others and not enough in the grand scheme of things. In other words, Al Roberts makes himself a criminal of sorts because he believes he has no choice in the matter. Fate laughs and shuffles the cards, winking as it asks Al “Time for another game, mister?…”
“Man, she looked like she had been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world! Yet in spite of that, I got the impression of beauty, not the beauty of a movie actress, mind you, or the beauty you dream about with your wife, but a natural beauty, a beauty that’s almost homely, because it’s so real…”
It’s when Ann Savage’s Vera enters the picture that the tightly wound spring that’s been turning pops and that watch (and Al’s identity) flies into pieces. Yes, Vera was that “dangerous animal” Haskell gave a ride and she almost immediately accuses poor Al of murder, hissing at him with a look that I recall sent me jumping back in my seat. Poor Al can’t even muster up a decent defense even as he tells her the truth about what happened because Vera’s too clever for her own good, yet blind and deaf to Al’s confession because her own road to the west has been miserable. We know nothing about her but what Haskell says earlier and what she spits out during her time with Al, but you know she’s had it bad on her trip and isn’t in the mood for a sob story even is if IS true.
This odd couple to end all odd couples end up stuck together all the way to Hollywood, but Vera won’t let Al go until she sees some big money. Unfortunately for both of them, a newspaper report of Haskell’s extremely wealthy father dying sends Vera into full on greed mode as she commands Al to turn up once the old man is dead, say he’s his only son and collect his fortune (half or more of which will go to the Vera Fund, of course). Let’s just say things don’t go exactly as planned (if you can call Vera’s not so foolproof idea a “plan”), fate spins its broken, rigged wheel and the film winds up knocking you back or off what you were sitting on one more time. Without a shot fired, punch thrown or hard-boiled well-weathered detective in sight, Detour manages to hit you in the gut, make you cringe, laugh and shake your head at one man’s misery as it teaches its life lessons that only fit Al Roberts and his truly crappy fortune.
With such a small cast, Ulmer still coaxes some needed solid performances from the three main characters. Neal’s droopy, beaten Al is great as he goes from happy dreamer in one sequence in that club he believes is waiting for him in Hollywood to the out of luck loser he really is. McDonald’s Haskell is that snazzy, loud guy you sometimes see at a bar or diner who rolls in, knows everybody, tips big, talks too much and wouldn’t know how to whisper if he were missing both lungs. And as for Ann Savage as Vera? Wow. Between the makeup that makes her a pretty, but road-weary looker (and later, a prettier, but still hard-edged and angry looker) her narrow-eyed stare and wide-eyed glare (both of which could melt steel), she’s a wild, primal force of nature set on puree.
You can feel the anger rising up in her as soon as she gets into the car with Al and once she opens her mouth, it’s all fire and fury and you can’t take your eyes off her for one second even as the insults fly relentlessly. Savage plays her as someone with nothing to lose because she has nothing but wants it all and fast. Late in the film, she reveals a reason for her hard ways, then flirts with Al pretty intensely and for a hot minute you think they’ll both just ditch their differences and go for it just to knock the tension out of the stuffy hotel room they’re trapped in. But Al brushes her off (as he should) and she takes this not at all well (as she should). The words “If only” hang in the air quite a lot here as Roberts flails about in his weak way and I’m sure some viewers will have a list of “if onlys” when all is said and done. Good for you, I say.
But it doesn’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things the movie rolls out and trying to make this a “better” film by adding logic to decisions made by the ill-fated characters here is missing the point entirely. Even if you feel sorry for Vera and her situation or cheer her on as she berates weak-willed Al into submission, you have to realize that if you were there to reach out and offer her a hug or a hand, she’d take it and try to get your wallet or purse in the process. When Vera asks Al after she gets all dolled up later in the film (and she does clean up nicely) “Do I rate a whistle?”, I always chuckle because Al is so mentally drained at this point that his reply probably wouldn’t make her any nicer. Of course, Vera would glare at me and say “Shut-up, yer makin’ noises like a husband!”, so I shall do just that and change the subject slightly.
I believe this was the first film I saw Ann Savage in, but it was the only one I needed to after that. Whenever there was something on she was in and I was around to see it, I always saw any character she played as the snarling, feral Vera looking to cut a deal that went all her way at the expense of whomever she was “working” with. It’s such a singular performance that it turns her into a villain through the sheer ferocity of her delivery when she’s merely a hard woman who’s had a harder life, is up to here with it and is now trying her best to make she she goes out living it up at any cost. Well, she thinks it won’t cost her a damn dime but fate has its gaudy, cheating casino open twenty four hours a day and she happened to walk in with a first-class sucker called Al Roberts who’s only good at rolling snake eyes. Yeah, I had it bad for her… but fate had other plans.
I could go on and on about this film, but then you won’t see it and get mad at me for babbling out dialog and noting how it seems as if Roberts is making a confession to himself before the very ending, as if it’s the sob story he’s going to tell the cops when they pull up to get him. Amusingly enough, there’s a remake of this done in 1992 by Wade Williams that features Tom Neal’s son in the lead… but I don’t remember it even after I saw it in a double feature with the original when the old film was given new cinematic life some twenty-two years ago. The first film made such an impression that even though the remake added shot for shot scenes and material left out of the original and Tom Neal Jr. was a near perfect image of his pop, it wasn’t very memorable. I’d like to see it again one of these days, but it’s not on DVD and my VHS player game finally up the ghost not too long ago.
Ah well. I guess the best nostalgia is the kind you can go back to whenever you want, right? Sure, watching Detour one more time isn’t going to change how it ends at all. But that’s how fate wants it, folks. How do I know this? Because it’s been in the public domain FREE to watch for years, that’s why. If you haven’t seen this yet, you need to and you also need to bring a friend or three along for the ride, as it’s a trip not soon forgotten for all who take it…
(NOTE: This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon hosted by the not at all villainous ladies of Silver Screenings, Shadows and Satin and Speakeasy. Go check it out and get a few more flicks to catch that you haven’t yet seen or plan to experience again.