”Detour” is proof that you can make a see worthy and interesting film on a miniscule budget if you focus on story, dialogue and style. On the face of it “Detour” is very simple. There are no fast chases, no gun fights, a minimum of sets and all of those obscure and the actors are reduced to a handful, none of them very glamorous. Instead there are monologues, dialogues and lots and lots of driving in front of rear projections.
This is a grimy story about a broke piano player, Al (Tom Neal) trying to get from New York to L.A. to be reunited with his girlfriend, Sue (Claudia Drake), a hopeful actress trying out Hollywood. His journey gets seriously sidetracked though a number of incredible coincidences of the kind no police would accept. Instead things just gets worse and worse for Al until we find him washed up at a dinner in the opening of the film, because like most film noir this story is told in flashback.
“Detour” hardly brings anything new to the table. In 1945 the noir format was already well established and the ingredients had already been introduced through movies like “The Maltese Falcon”, Double Indemnity” and a ton of other like-minded films. What “Detour” does is giving the whole thing a notch extra. This is lower, grimier and more desperate than its contemporaries and the cheap production quality actually supports this expression.
Like all film noir “Detour” has its femme fatale. Except this is no ice queen or alluring, yet dangerous, blonde. Nope, Vera (Ann Savage) is as badass and bitchy as they come. A horrible horrible woman. Base and cunning and cruel to boot, Vera is a true lowlife and thus a good representative for this film.
Al is hitchhiking and gets picked by a jovial Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), who seems like an okay guy. He buys him meals and tries to befriend him and everything is just dandy until Charles dies sleeping in the passenger seat while Al is taking a turn at the wheel. Though it may be that he dies when Al opens the door and Charles falls out, I am not sure. This is not entirely clear in the film. In any case Al is not to blame but now he is stuck at the side of the road with a stiff and a car. Al is probably not entirely wrong when he assumes that the police will have some difficulty buying the real story, so he shuffles the body behind a bush and assumes Charles identity until he can get to Los Angeles and lose the car.
Soon after Al picks up what appears to be a pretty, lonely hitchhiker. Boy, was that a mistake! This is no other than Vera, the she-devil incarnate, and what is worse, she knows Charles Haskell and that Al is not him. She assumes Al has killed and robbed Charles and now she uses that to put a leash on him. He better do what she tell him to do or she will turn him in.
For a while it is not really clear what she intends to do except to get to L.A., but being with her is punishment enough for Al. She is awful. Ann Savage shows some skill at presenting such a base character. She even tries to be alluring and manipulate Al in that way, but at least he is not falling for that. No matter, she quickly returns to what works: shouting and threatening him.
That is a major part of the film, watching first Al and Charles driving around and then Al and Vera driving, sitting in the sofa in a rented apartment, playing card and drinking solid in said apartment and driving some more. All the way talking, shouting, ranting, pleading. And all through with a running commentary through the narration of Al at the diner.
Things come to a head when Vera finds out that Charles Haskell stands to inherit a large sum of money and she gets the idea that Al should show up and claim that money now that he is Charles. The resulting debacle ends in another incredible accident, even more insane than the first one and Al now finds himself a double murderer.
The message “Detour” wants us to read is that Al, an ordinary, innocent and even talented guy gets ruined through these coincidences. He has no intention of violence, yet people die around him and he is snared into a world where he does not belong and do not want to be. So when we find him at the diner we are looking at a broken, finished man just waiting to be picked up by the police.
Here is the problem though. Charles dies from an accident and Vera had it coming. Besides, her demise was an unforeseen accident as well and actually left him free of that disaster on two legs. Apparently the police even thought it was Charles, not Al, who had killed her, so essentially Al was free. A terrible experience richer, but free. He should be relieved, not broken, and hurry up to find his girlfriend, not bumming it at the diner. Therefore the ending seems a bit forced to me. The guy needs a shower, a bed and a shrink and then he should be okay. Instead he is just waiting for the inevitable retribution from the law.
Except for that last bit I liked “Detour”. It is seedy and grimy and poor of technical quality, but it is has great entertainment value. It is clear how many later movies were inspired by this one. I bet Tarantino has seen and loved it.