Crime, Drama, Mystery | 68 Mins | Released: 1945
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Starring: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonnald, Tim Ryan, Ester Howard, Pat Gleason
Our Rating: 8
Black & White
In Detour, piano player Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is drinking coffee at a roadside diner in Reno, hitchhiking east from California, when a fellow patron plays a song on the jukebox that reminds him of his former life in New York City. He remembers a time when he was bitter about squandering his musical talent working in a cheap nightclub. After his girlfriend Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), the nightclub vocalist, leaves to seek fame in Hollywood, he sinks into depression. After some anguish, he decides to go to California and marry her; but with little money, he is forced to hitchhike his way across the country.
In Arizona, bookie Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald) gives the tired and disheveled Al a ride in his convertible car and tells him that he’s in luck: he’s driving all the way from Florida to Los Angeles to place a bet on a horse. During the drive, he has Al pass him pills on several occasions, which he swallows as he drives. That night, Al drives while Haskell sleeps. When a rainstorm forces Al to pull over to put up the convertible’s top, he is unable to rouse Haskell. Al opens the passenger-side door and Haskell tumbles out, striking his head on a rock. Al then realizes the bookie is dead. Fearful that the police will believe he killed Haskell, Al drags the body off the road. After considering his options, and with fear of arrest his greatest concern, he takes the dead man’s money, clothes, and identification, and drives away intent on abandoning the car near Los Angeles.
He crosses the border into California after answering questions posed by the police and spends a night in a motel. The next day, as he leaves a gas station, he picks up a hitchhiker, Vera (Ann Savage). At first she travels silently with Al, who has identified himself as Haskell, but then suddenly challenges his identity and ownership of the car. She reveals she had been picked up by Haskell earlier in Louisiana; she got out in Arizona after he tried to force himself on her. Al tell her how Haskell died, but she blackmails him by threatening to turn him over to the police. She takes the money that Al retrieved from Haskell’s wallet and wants whatever money they can get by selling the car.
In Hollywood, they rent an apartment, posing as Mr. and Mrs. Haskell to provide an address when they sell the car. They spend a fractious time together in the apartment; Al resentful of the situation but Vera reveling in having the upper hand. When they are about to sell the car, Vera learns from a newspaper that Haskell’s wealthy father is near death and a search is under way for his long estranged son. Vera demands that Al impersonate Haskell once the father dies and position himself to inherit the estate. Al refuses, arguing that impersonation requires detailed knowledge he lacks.
Back at the apartment, Vera gets drunk and they begin arguing again. In a drunken rage, she threatens to call the police, running into the bedroom with the telephone and locking the door, falling on the bed with the telephone cord tangled around her neck. From the other side of door, Al pulls on the cord in an effort to break it from the phone. As Vera fails to respond as he tells her name, he breaks down the door and discovers Vera strangled by the telephone cord.
At the end of Detour, ,Al gives up the idea of contacting his girlfriend Sue again and returns to hitchhiking instead. Back in the framing narrative in the diner in Reno where the film opened, he imagines his inevitable arrest by the police.
In 1972, Ulmer said in an interview that Detour was shot in six days. However, in a 2004 documentary, Ulmer’s daughter Arianne presented a shooting script title page which noted, “June 14, 1945-June 29. Camera days 14.” Moreover, Ann Savage was contracted to PRC for the production of Detour for three six-day weeks, and she later said the film was shot in four six-day weeks, with an additional four days of location work in the desert at Lancaster, California.
While popular belief long held that Detour was shot for about $20,000, Noah Isenberg, in conducting research for his book on the film, discovered that the film’s actual cost was upwards of $100,000.
As detailed in Savage Detours: The Life and Work of Ann Savage, great care was taken during the post-production of Detour.
The final version of Detour was tightly cut down from a much longer shooting script, which had been shot with more extended dialogue sequences than appear in the final film. The soundtrack is fully realized, with ambient backgrounds, motivated sound effects, and a carefully scored original musical soundtrack by Leo Erdody (who had previously worked with Ulmer on Strange Illusion (1945)). Erdody took extra pains to underscore Vera’s introduction with a sympathetic theme, giving the character a light musical shading in contrast to her razor-sharp dialogue and its ferocious delivery by Ann Savage.
Detour was completed, negative cut, and printed throughout the late summer and fall of 1945, and was released in November of that year. The total period of pre-production through post-production at PRC ran from March through November 1945.
In contrast, during the period Detour was in post-production, PRC shot, posted, and released Apology for Murder (1945), also starring Ann Savage. Apology was given a shorter production period and a quick sound job, and used library music for the soundtrack. Clearly, Detour was a higher priority to PRC, and the release was well promoted in theaters with a full array of color print support, including six-sheet posters, standees, hand drawn portraits of the actors, and a jukebox tie-in record with Bing Crosby singing “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me” (1926).
With re-shoots of Detour out of the question for such a low-budget movie, director Ulmer put storytelling above continuity. For example, he flipped the negative for some of the hitchhiking scenes. This showed the westbound New York City to Los Angeles travel of the character with a right-to-left flow across the screen, though it also made cars seem to be driving on the “wrong” side of the road, with the hitchhiker getting into the car on the driver’s side.
The Hollywood Production Code did not allow murderers to get away with their crimes, so with Detour, Ulmer got through the censors by having Al picked up by a police car at the very end of the movie, after foreseeing his arrest in the earlier narration.