Detour – 1945
Director – Edgar Ulmer
Starring – Tom Neal, and Ann Savage
Most movies have a fairly common structure. Introduce main character, introduce obstacle, main character struggles, main character overcomes obstacle, main character succeeds, lesson learned. Now these steps can be repeated over and over again as needed, but generally this is the standard flow that a linear movie follows. There is, however, always an exception to the rule that eschews this set up in favor of either of two scenarios. The first, is that nothing happens to the main character, and they live happily ever after. Boring. The second is that everything possible happens to the main character. They are so weighed down with the overwhelming hopeless circumstances that they may not ever recover, and there is no happily ever after stage in that equation. Detour resides in this second, depressing as hell movie category.
Everything starts out fairly well for Al Roberts (Tom Neal), he’s young, he has a job that he loves, and he has his best girl by his side. Pretty quickly though, things begin to tarnish for him. His girl wants to take a break from their relationship and move out to Los Angeles to chase her dream of being in the movies. Distraught, Al plans to follow her, win her back and marry her. So it is about this point in your standard movie following my previously outlined formula that our hero would struggle, and endeavor against all odds to do just that. He may run into trouble along the way, but with pluck and ingenuity fueled by this goal, he’ll no doubt find a way. So that is exactly what Al sets out to do, so far so good.
So he starts hitchhiking across the country towards LA, and towards his dreams of happiness and the future. Of course the problems start right away, but that’s to be expected, right? Challenge gives way to frustration, and eventually to desperation as one problem turns quickly into many. Al is picked up by a shady gambler, Charles Haskell, who is also on his way to Los Angeles, but the weather changes, things go wrong, and the man ends up dead, accidentally maybe, but dead none-the-less. Afraid of blame and retribution from the police, Al steals the mans identity and becomes Charles Haskell Jr. At this point, things go from bad to worse, not only for the character, but also for the audience who is stuck watching him make the dumbest decisions that he possibly can.
In an attempt to appear normal, and change his luck for the better, Al decides to pick up a hitchhiker himself. Enter, Vera (the very appropriately named Ann Savage). Distrusting, brash, opportunistic, with a little touch of crazy, that would appropriately describe, Vera. Oh and one other thing, Vera knows that Al isn’t who he says he is. Much as I might like to elaborate, to do so would give away too much of the plot. Needless to say the situation goes from bad to worse. What started as simple, easily explained, accidental death, continues to spiral downward along a path of deception, greed, and desperation.
This bat-shit crazy pair of travel companions simultaneously need, and can’t wait to be rid of the other. It’s nearly excruciating watching them make worse and worse decisions, swinging them ever closer to the final reel of the film (which by the way you can see their fate coming from a mile off).
Strangely, and tragically enough, this events of this film (Success, murder, money, double crossings, etc…) were mirrored, in a way, in Tom Neal’s (Al) real life. Violence led to his being black-balled from Hollywood, causing him to take up landscaping work, and he ended up serving 6 years of a 7 year sentence after being convicted of manslaughter in the murder of his wife. This knowledge of what has become of our main actor sort of colors the impact of the film, making it seem even darker, which is quite a feat considering how dark it is already.
This film, while interesting and definitely unique, is not nearly as engaging and warm as other studio system films of the same era, and as a result seems out-of-place. Bleaker than other, similarly plotted movies, this film seemed like it was trying to alienate and shock audiences of the day much in the same way a movie like “Kids” did in the early nineties, or anything that Lars Von Trier has ever done ever. Detour, like the film “Peeping Tom” fifteen years later, seemed to be a film that went to a point that audiences weren’t ready to go just yet. Themes like this would later be explored and realized more fully and successfully in films of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. At that point the glow of a war winning, wholesome Americana was just wearing off and we were ready to have doubt, fear, and loathing creep in again.
“Bitch is crrraazy” – Ashley