(Originally printed in OC WEEKLY, February 28, 2002)
Film noir protagonists are, by definition, tortured souls, but few are as flatly pathetic as Al Roberts (Tom Neal). As Detour begins, Al is trying to bum a ride out west to catch up with Sue (Claudia Drake), the bottle-blond songbird who left him to try to make a name for herself in Hollywood. Sue is a high-maintenance kind of lady, and you just know that despite her declarations of love, she’ll never settle for a scruffy loser like Al. But before Al can make it to California for his rendezvous with heartbreak, the chatty con man (Edmond MacDonald) who is giving him a ride abruptly dies, leaving an inconvenient string of clues that would lead the cops to take Al for his killer. It seems things couldn’t get much worse for Al, but then he meets Vera (Ann Savage), a volatile young gal who knows way too much about Al and makes him uncomfortable in all kinds of ways.
While Al begins the story by describing himself as an “ordinary, healthy young guy,” it only takes one look at him to see he’s anything but. Al is a moody, scrappy sort before he meets Vera, but as soon as the little hellion shows up, it’s all he can do not to roll over on his back and offer her his belly. Oh, he tries to play it tough, but if anybody’s ass is gonna get kicked, they both know whose it is. Between these two, even a nothing exchange about cigarettes crackles with goofy noir energy (He: “Where’d you hide the butts?” She: “On the table, sucker.”) Vera’s no great beauty, but as played by Savage, she’s such a feral cutie that you can’t help hoping Al will finally give up pining for Sue and succumb to Vera’s awful wiles. Sure, both women are calculating bitches, but Vera is at least a bitch with fire, a gold digger who really sinks in her claws to get the gold.
Filmed in just a few days on a budget that was laughably small even in the ’40s, Detour looks fantastic considering its modest means. Sometimes the little visual tricks that make noir noir, the fog and the pervasive shadows, are obviously being used simply to obscure the cardboard sets, but if you didn’t know better, you could take this for a really solid B- rather than Z-picture. If the film lacks the visual luster of the best noir, it more than makes up for it with snappy dialogue and off-kilter performances. Detour is like some mighty work of mad genius folk art put together out of pipes and spoons and umbrella parts; it looks like it’s about to fall apart at any moment, but instead it just keeps on spinning wildly in the breeze, rearranging itself into bold new shapes before your wondering eyes. There is a poetry to this poverty.
Real life would ironically imitate the film: Neal was a man with a fast temper and was eventually accused of murder (he would do jail time for involuntary manslaughter). Six years after the film, MacDonald was struck down by a brain hemorrhage, a death just as sudden and arbitrary as the one that sets Detour’s plot in motion. Drake’s starlet career fizzled a few years after the film; she did only marginally better than Sue. None of the film’s cast achieved real stardom, but with Detour, they are granted a small measure of immortality in a film that, to swipe Al’s irresistibly pulpish description of Vera, possesses a beauty that’s almost homely because it’s so real.