For those who are unfamiliar with this 1945 classic film noir (and I hope there aren’t too many), it’s all told in flashback by an unshaven, despondent Tom Neal, who laments everything that has happened to him in recent weeks. All he wanted was to hitchhike from New York to Los Angeles to be with his cutesy-poo girlfriend who was trying to “make it in pictures”, but wound up slinging hash instead. That’s all he wanted.
But what he got was Ann Savage. I’ll just leave it at that.
Detour was directed by Edgar G Ulmer, and was made at PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) Studio, the last stop on poverty row in 1940s Hollywood. Filmed in six days on a budget of $30,000, and using the cheapest sets and production values imaginable, Ulmer crafted a haunting tale of people at the bottom of society’s pyramid. To put this budget into perspective, Avatar, the new James Cameron bloatbuster, cost 10,000 times as much.
Drowning in desperation, the characters try to hold on to what they have, and never seem to have enough. When these people are confronted with extraordinary circumstances and emotions, they, like all of us, will alter their mode of behavior. Some will even cross the line, the line that separates legal from criminal, moral from immoral, good from evil, Tom Neal from Ann Savage.
Film noir is generally associated with sinister characters moving through shadowy lighting. Much of Detour takes place under bright light: sunny rides in an open convertible, a well-lit apartment, and so on, but Ulmer’s direction and the interplay between the two leads give the film a very claustrophobic feel, like it was shot in a phone booth. The relentlessly grim story line follows Neal’s character as his life spirals ever downward to the unusual finale.
While Detour might be considered classic crime fiction, it’s important to note that no crime was ever committed during the movie. There’s a scene where Neal takes money and clothes from a dead man, but you know that if he didn’t take the dough, the cops would when they found him. I don’t put that in the crime category.
This is definitely a movie that’s worth another look, noir fans. A great story, with both Neal and Savage delivering unforgettable performances in what has to be the finest hour for each of them. And if you haven’t seen it, by all means buy it. You can get it online for six or seven dollars. You won’t be sorry.
And you’ll never pick up another hitchhiker again.