Detour is a supremely dark and depressing film noir classic from 1945. It was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer for PRC Pictures Inc., one of the small “Poverty Row” studios that produced small-budget B-movies. The actors were Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake and Edmund MacDonald, and the sets are so minimal that it could easily be produced as a high school play, if only it weren’t so depressing and unsuitable.
The theme here is fate, and the treatment is anything but subtle. Piano player Al (Tom Neal) is stuck at a low-end New York nightclub, a job only made bearable by his girlfriend and co-worker Sue. When she goes off to Los Angeles to seek a better life, he mopes around until he finally decides to hitchhike across the country to be with her. He makes it to Arizona and gets a ride from unsavory bookie Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald.) It’s all downhill from there — accidents, coincidences and bad decision-making, and Al’s life spirals downward. If only he hadn’t been picked up by Charles Haskell, Jr. If only he hadn’t picked up Vera (Ann Savage.) But these things couldn’t be avoided, because Al is in the grip of inexorable fate!
This movie has fallen in the public domain, and I watched it on the Internet Archive site. To me, it’s a perfect 1940’s Noir film, dark and brooding, unrelieved by any (intentional) humor, and filled with biting, hard-boiled slang. It also happens to feature several of my favorite things: diners, motels, lonely highways through the desert, hitchhiking, service stations. A quick look at the movie’s thumbnails (one frame per minute of the film) provides a pretty good preview.