theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Edgar G. Ulmer|
|Produced by||Leon Fromkess|
|Screenplay by||Martin Goldsmith|
|Based on||Detour: An Extraordinary Tale|
by Martin Goldsmith
|Narrated by||Tom Neal|
|Music by||Leo Erdody|
|Cinematography||Benjamin H. Kline|
|Edited by||George McGuire|
|Distributed by||Producers Releasing Corporation|
Detour is a 1945 American film noir directed by Edgar G. Ulmer starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage. It was adapted by Martin Goldsmith and Martin Mooney (uncredited) from Goldsmith's 1939 novel of the same name, and released by the Producers Releasing Corporation, one of the so-called Poverty Row film studios in mid-20th-century Hollywood.
The film is in the public domain and is freely available from online sources. A 4K restoration by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences premiered in Los Angeles at the TCM Festival in April 2018. A Blu-Ray and DVD was released in March 2019 from the Criterion Collection.
Piano player Al Roberts (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; with little money, though, 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 and tells him that he is in luck: he is 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 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 near Desert Center Airport, he picks up a hitchhiker, Vera (Ann Savage). At first, she travels silently with Al, who has identified himself as Haskell, 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 tells 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 yells her name, he breaks down the door and discovers Vera strangled by the telephone cord.
Al gives up the idea of contacting his girlfriend Sue again and returns to hitchhiking, instead. He later finds out that Haskell is wanted in connection to the murder of his wife, Vera. 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 the film 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 Producers Releasing Corporation (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 postproduction of Detour.
The final picture 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.
The film 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 preproduction through postproduction 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 reshoots 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 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.
Contemporary screenings of Detour were not confined to grindhouse theaters. In downtown Los Angeles, it played at the 2,200-seat Orpheum in combination with a live stage show featuring the hit Slim Gaillard Trio and the Buddy Rich Orchestra. Business was reported to be excellent despite a transit strike.
Detour was well received upon initial release, with positive reviews in the Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, and Variety. It was released to television in the early 1950s and ran in syndicated TV markets until the dawn of mass cable systems in the 1980s. TV reviewers casually recommended it in the 1960s and 1970s as a worthwhile "B" movie. Detour began to be seen as a prime example of film noir during the 1970s and critics began writing about it at increasingly great length. During the 1980s revival houses, universities and film festivals began to honor Edgar G. Ulmer with retrospective tributes to his work.
Edgar Ulmer died in 1972, before the full revival of Detour and the critical re-evaluation of his career. Tom Neal died the same year. Ann Savage made live appearances with the film from 1985 to 2006.
Critical response to the film today is almost universally positive.
Most reviewers contrast the technical shoddiness of the film with its successful atmospherics as film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his essay for The Great Movies, "This movie from Hollywood's poverty row, shot in six days, filled with technical errors and ham-handed narrative, starring a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer, should have faded from sight soon after it was released in 1945. And yet it lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir. No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it."Sight and Sound reviewer Philip Kemp later wrote, "Using unknown actors and filming with no more than three minimal sets, a sole exterior (a used-car lot) to represent Los Angeles, a few stock shots and some shaky back-projection, Ulmer conjures up a black, paranoid vision, totally untainted by glamour, of shabby characters trapped in a spiral of irrational guilt." Novelists Edward Gorman and Dow Mossman wrote, "Detour remains a masterpiece of its kind. There have been hundreds of better movies, but none with the feel for doom portrayed by ... Ulmer. The random universe Stephen Crane warned us about--the berserk cosmic impulse that causes earthquakes and famine and AIDS--is nowhere better depicted than in the scene where Tom Neal stands by the roadside, soaking in the midnight rain, feeling for the first time the noose drawing tighter and tighter around his neck."
A remake of Detour was produced in 1992, starring Neal's son, Tom Neal Jr., and Lea Lavish, along with Susanna Foster making her first acting appearance in 43 years and her final appearance on film. Produced, written, and directed by Wade Williams and released by his distribution company, Englewood Entertainment, it was released on VHS and in 1998 on DVD.