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Movie Critique - Detour

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation:  An unfortunate accident makes a detour in our central character's life creating chaos, hatred and fear at every turn. A classic noir that came out of miniscule budget.

Detour is a 1945 American film noir directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and produced by Leon Fromkess, released by Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC Pictures). The film has Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake and Edmund MacDonald among others in the cast. 

Al Roberts (portrayed by Tom Neal), an unemployed piano player, hitchhikes a ride from Charles Haskell Jr. (portrayed by Edmund MacDonald), a bookie, to Los Angeles, CA. As luck would have it, Haskell dies while Al was driving the car. Scared about getting caught, Al escapes with the car, and ends up giving a ride to another hitchhiker, Vera (portrayed by Ann Savage). Only he lands in more trouble as Vera turns out to be not so simple a hitchhiker. 

This is from one of the Poverty Row film studios in mid-20th century Hollywood. The film plot was adapted from Martin Goldsmith's 1939 novel Detour: An Extraordinary Tale. Screenplay was written by Martin Goldsmith himself with uncredited writing support from Martin Mooney.

Ann Savage had been a constant fixture in several of B movies between 1943 and 1946. However, her femme fatale role as Vera in this film is the most memorable one. Going by only one name, Vera, Ann Savage truly portrayed the meanest of the meanest femme fatale one could every see in a film noir. Her real last name "Savage" might point to her character Vera's nature too. Interestingly enough she doesn’t appear in the film until at least 35 mins of the film has passed. Yet she managed to make a chilling impact.

In all the film noirs I watched, a few femme fatale definitely left a mark in my mind - Lana Turner as Cora Smith in the 1946 The Postman Always Rings Twice; Rita Hayworth as Elsa "Rosalie" Bannister in the 1947 The Lady from Shanghai; Geraldine Fitzgerald as Crystal Shackelford in the 1946 Three Strangers and Ann Blyth as Veda Pierce Forrester in the 1945 Mildred Pierce. But Savage's Vera scared me the most.

Tom Neal and Ann Savage had conflicts off-screen on the set. And their tempers and angst, they put into their roles. Clearly the antagonism comes through perfectly in their characters as well. On flipside even though it was brief, Neal had great chemistry with Claudia Drake's Sue Harvey. Well, she is a pretty thing not to feel connected to.

Neal was famously known as "poor man's Clark Gable" with a steady fixture among several B films. Tom Neal's Al Roberts is the unreliable narrator here who relates his tale of down-fall. Whether it is true or false, believable or not, is all left to viewers' imagination. 

Ulmer used some creative ideas to keep in with the low-budge allocated for the film. As part of that he had flipped the shoots of hitchhiking when Al was going back the other way. But this caused to show the driving on the wrong side of the road, and people getting into the car in the reverse.

Apart from Al Roberts, Charles Haskell Jr. and Vera, we have another key character in the film - the car in which Al hitchhikes with Haskell. It is a customized 1941 Lincoln Continental V-12 convertible, which was reportedly owned by director Ulmer. 

The uniqueness of Detour is having an unreliable narrator since the viewers never know if he was giving us a true tale or a false one, keeping them guessing at every turn. I remember watching recently another such film noir with an "unreliable narrator". In the 1947 American film noir They Won't Believe Me, Robert Young's character Larry Ballentine becomes the unreliable narrator. 

The opening credits are displayed on a highway where you can see someone asking for a hitchhiking ride while the vehicle sped past them. The narration by the lead actor Neal's character Al Roberts doesn’t begin until at least 5 minutes into the movie. Most of the film is told in flashback. 

There is a central music theme that travels along the plot-line. It's the song titled I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me which was composed by Leo Erdody, Lyrics penned by Jimmy McHugh and Clarence Gaskill. In the film it is also shown being performed by Claudia Drake portraying the role of Sue Haley, Al Roberts' girlfriend, twice. Here is the clip of one of her performance from the same film but restored in color.

Again I am simply charmed at the beautiful outfits these film noir directors whip out for their heroines and femme fatale in the miniscule budget that they get for the film. Mona Barry, wardrobe designer, certainly takes the cake for it. Check these of Claudia Drake's Sue Harvey wears.

And here are some what our femme fatale, Ann Savage's Vera, wears. 

The plot line has several loopholes and seems unrealistic at times. Yet it made a memorable film noir even if it was cheap, made with a small budget and limited to 68 minutes of film length. An unfortunate accident makes a detour in our central character's life creating chaos, hatred and fear at every turn. A classic noir that came out of miniscule budget. Kudos to the team!

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. Checkout the publicity film poster that Eddie Muller shared on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) prior to the film started.

b. Ann Savage was also part of another PRC Pictures production titled Apology for Murder that released the same year as this film, but earlier in the year.

c. This was the third of the three films that Tom Neal and Ann Savage acted together. The other two were - 1943 American western film Klondike Kate; 1944 American action film Tow-Man Submarine.

d. The film was remade in 1992 starring Neal's son, Tom Neal Jr. and Lea Lavish along with Susanna Foster.

e. The 1955 episode Long Shot in the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents has a similar plot line.

f. As it stood to see fiction turn to reality, Tom Neal was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for six years prison time for accidentally shooting and killing his wife Gale Cloak. Eerily similar to Neal's character Al Roberts in the film, where Al accidentally kills two people.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. Al's cigarette length changes between scenes as he is playing piano and Sue is standing behind listening to it. Also notice that Al is really not playing or pressing any keys. His fingers are just floating across the tops of the keys on the piano.

b. There is no cigarette in Haskell's hand while driving. But the very next scene in long shot shows a cigarette in his hand, without him asking for one or stopping to drive to light one. Perhaps editing lost a scene in between.

c. The sweater Savage's character Vera wears in her introduction scenes belonged to Shirley Ulmer, film's script clerk and director's wife. It was a bit loose on Savage so they had pinned it in the back to fit her snugly. You can see the pins on her back in this scene. 

d. Vera's hair constantly changes while riding in the convertible with Roberts.

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