Detour is a 1945 Film Noir directed by Edward G. Ulmer and starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage.
Al Roberts (Neal) is a piano player at a rather seedy nightclub in New York City. When his girlfriend Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake) lights out to Hollywood to try and make it in the movies, Al follows her. He's hitchhiking through Arizona when he's picked up by a man by the name of Charles Haskell. Things go downhill from there, however, as a freak accident along the road during the night results in the death of Haskell. Worried he'll be arrested for the man's death, Al hides the body along the side of the road, taking possession of Haskell's car and assuming his identity to avoid any potential trouble, at least until he makes it to Hollywood.
However, it soon becomes apparent that Haskell was not as wholly innocent as he seemed, as Al finds out when he picks up a beautiful drifter along the road named Vera (Savage), a woman who seems to be wholly familiar with Haskell and instantly takes Al for the imposter he is, leading to a tense, teeth-gritting relationship as the vicious, conniving Vera strings an unfortunate Al along on a detour most shady and criminal in nature...
Detour was produced by Producers Releasing Corporation, a "Poverty Row" studio that usually confined itself to cheap disposable B-Movie productions. While still being shot relatively quickly and cheaply, Detour was more artistically ambitious than the time-fillers that constituted most of PRC's productions, with Ulmer managing to evoke a uniquely gritty, indelibly dark atmosphere simply through the use of the low-rent production afforded him, as well as through the masterfully vicious acting of Ann Savage as Vera, whose performance would go on to regularly be cited by film critics as one of the best femme fatales in cinematic history.
Detour provides examples of:
- Accidental Murder: Assuming that Al Roberts' account is accurate, then Vera's death is this. Al was trying to rip out the phone line to stop her calling the police; not knowing the she had wrapped the cord around her neck while drunkenly rolling on the bed.
- Accident, Not Murder: Bookie Charles Haskell Jr. gives the tired and disheveled Al a ride in his convertible and tells him that he is in luck; he is driving 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, falling to the ground and striking his head on a rock. Al then realizes the bookie is dead. It is likely that Haskell died earlier from a heart attack, but Al is certain that if he calls the police, they will arrest him for killing Haskell.
- Blackmail: On discovering that Al Roberts is using Charlie Haskins' car, money and identity, Vera realises that Charlie must be dead, and jumps to the (understandable) conclusion that Al must have murdered him, and immediately starts blackmailing him.
- Born Unlucky: If Al Roberts' story is true (and that is not a given), then he must be the unluckiest son-of-a-bitch in the world: having been the only person present at an accidental death that looked like a murder, then blackmailed by the one person who could know he was not the dead man, and finally accidentally causing the death of the blackmailer.
- The Chanteuse: Sue, Al's girlfriend at the nightclub. Her decision to go to Hollywood to pursue a movie career is the trigger for tragedy.
- Crapsack World: Is the world a terrible place or is this guy just really unlucky? Or is he even telling the truth?
- Dead Person Impersonation: Al Roberts hitches a ride with a man who dies soon afterward. He takes the dead man's car and identity. Of course, this being film noir, he soon encounters a dodgy dame and things go from bad to worse.
- Driving a Desk: Natch, since this was a 'B' movie made in 1945, and half the movie takes place during a cross-country hitchhiking trip.
- Every Scar Has a Story: Haskell has two scars, and the stories behind them both become important plot points:
- He got one of them recently, from being scratched by a hitchhiking woman. That woman is Vera. Roberts also picks her up later (all three of them were heading in the same direction on the same road, after all). Because she knows what Haskell looks like, she figures out that Roberts killed him and stole his identity.
- The other he got when he was duelling as a kid. Because his father saw that he had been cut, Roberts cannot pretend to be Haskell to get the dying father's money as he doesn't have a matching scar.
- Femme Fatale: Vera sees through Roberts' ruse and blackmails him. She insists that they should milk the situation for all they can, instead of trying to distance themselves from it.
- Framing Device: A rather desperate-looking Al in a Reno diner, drinking coffee and thinking about how everything went wrong.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Vera suggestively lays a hand on Al's shoulder and says "I'm going to bed." When Al brushes the hand off, she stalks away in a snit. This is a pretty direct violation of Section II of the Hays Code.
- Hard-Drinking Party Girl: Vera is somewhere around this trope only because she's too young and good-looking to qualify as a Lady Drunk; she spends most of the time in their shabby little room drinking heavily.
- Hey, Wait!: After dumping Charlie's body in a gully, Al returns to Charlie's car and is putting the hood up when a motorcycle cop pulls up alongside him and asks him if it is his car. A nervous Al thinks the jig is up, but the cop gives him a warning for parking with the car partially parked on the road and rides off.
- Hostile Hitchhiker:
- Al is one to Haskell. It's possible that he is responsible for Haskell's death, and certain that he stole the man's identity after he was dead.
- Vera, in turn, is one to Al after she figures out he isn't who he seems and tries to blackmail him over it.
- Implied Trope: Unreliable Narrator, as noted below. Al goes to great pains to explain how Haskell died of natural causes and how that injury on his head was caused by his body falling out of the car and definitely not Al hitting him, and how Al couldn't possibly just sit and wait for the cops because of course they'd think he did it even though he totally didn't. And then his even more fanciful tale of how Vera got strangled to death when she passed out with the cord wrapped around her throat and Al just happened to yank on the cord from the other side of a shut door in order to stop her calling the cops...while the camera focuses tightly on his hands which are framed in the manner of someone committing murder by ligature strangulation. Oh, and Vera was dying of some disease making her cough — and some people find this evidence of Al lying, since he'd brought up Camille (1936), who died of a bronchial disease, consumption — and it's too much of a coincidence to ignore; and hey, Vera was dying anyway — you can't murder a dying woman, can you?
- Incurable Cough of Death: Implied. Vera has a nasty cough, and says of the prospect of being hanged: "I'm on my way now. All they'd be doing would be rushing it." Again, Unreliable Narrator at work here, making it seem like if Vera was murdered, it would be pointless.
- Jerkass Has a Point: Vera sees through Al's nonsense very quickly. She even says, "I don't like your attitude, all you do is bellyache."
- The Living Dead: During the scene where a despondent Al studies Vera's corpse, Ann Savage is visibly struggling to keep her eyes closed every time the camera does a close-up on her face.
- Haskell as well can be seen scrunching his eyelids when he's supposed to be dead earlier on.
- Sarcasm Mode:Vera: I'm gonna see that you sell this car so you don't get caught.
Al: Thanks! Of course, your interest wouldn't be financial, would it? You wouldn't want a small percentage of the profits?
Vera: Well, now that you insist, how can I refuse? 100% will do!
Al: Fine! I'm relieved! I thought for a moment you were gonna take it all!
Vera: I don't wanna be a hog!
- Second-Person Narration: Throughout, Al's narration address the audience as "you", as Al pleads with us to believe that he isn't a murderer and he didn't mean to do anything wrong and he only stole that dead guy's money and car because he had to...
- Shout-Out: Roberts compares Vera to Camille, the name usually used for the protagonist in adaptations of La Dame aux camélias. Vera recognizes her as "the dame that died of consumption".
- This Is Reality: Courtesy of the narration."If this were fiction, I would fall in love with Vera, marry her, and make a respectable woman out of her."
- Unreliable Narrator: It's implied that the main character Al Roberts is coloring events to make himself look sympathetic, and to make Vera seem more like a vicious Femme Fatale. He probably did commit the crimes in the film purposefully—his tale of Vera's death is particularly unlikely—but the story is altered by Never My Fault."How many of you would believe it wasn't premeditated?"
- You Can't Fight Fate: Al comments more than once about how fate has victimized him. "Yes. Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all." However, it comes across as Never My Fault.