Detour is a 1945 American film noir directed by Edgar G. Ulmer starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage. It was adapted by Martin Goldsmith and Martin Mooney (uncredited) from Goldsmith’s 1939 novel of the same name, and released by the Producers Releasing Corporation, one of the so-called Poverty Row film studios in mid-20th-century Hollywood.
In 1992, Detour was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”
Piano player Al Roberts (Neal) is drinking coffee at a roadside diner in Reno, hitchhiking east from California, when a fellow patron plays a song on the jukebox that reminds him of his former life in New York City. He remembers a time when he was bitter about squandering his musical talent working in a cheap nightclub. After his girlfriend Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), the nightclub vocalist, leaves to seek fame in Hollywood, he sinks into depression. After some anguish, he decides to go to California and marry her; with little money, though, he is forced to hitchhike his way across the country.
In Arizona, bookie Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald) gives the tired and disheveled Al a ride in his convertible and tells him that he is in luck: he is driving all the way from Florida 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, striking his head on a rock. Al then realizes the bookie is dead. Fearful that the police will believe he killed Haskell, Al drags the body off the road. After considering his options, and with fear of arrest his greatest concern, he takes the dead man’s money, clothes, and identification, and drives away, intent on abandoning the car near Los Angeles.
He crosses into California after answering questions posed by the police and spends a night in a motel. The next day, as he leaves a gas station near Desert Center Airport, he picks up a hitchhiker, Vera (Ann Savage). At first, she travels silently with Al, who has identified himself as Haskell, then suddenly challenges his identity and ownership of the car. She reveals she had been picked up by Haskell earlier in Louisiana; she got out in Arizona after he tried to force himself on her. Al tells her how Haskell died, but she blackmails him by threatening to turn him over to the police. She takes the money that Al retrieved from Haskell’s wallet and wants whatever money they can get by selling the car.
In Hollywood, they rent an apartment, posing as Mr. and Mrs. Haskell, to provide an address when they sell the car. They spend a fractious time together in the apartment, Al resentful of the situation, but Vera reveling in having the upper hand. When they are about to sell the car, Vera learns from a newspaper that Haskell’s wealthy father is near death and a search is under way for his long-estranged son. Vera demands that Al impersonate Haskell once the father dies, and position himself to inherit the estate. Al refuses, arguing that impersonation requires detailed knowledge he lacks.
Back at the apartment, Vera gets drunk and they begin arguing again. In a drunken rage, she threatens to call the police, running into the bedroom with the telephone and locking the door, falling on the bed with the telephone cord tangled around her neck. From the other side of door, Al pulls on the cord in an effort to break it from the phone. As Vera fails to respond as he yells her name, he breaks down the door and discovers Vera strangled by the telephone cord.
Al gives up the idea of contacting his girlfriend Sue again and returns to hitchhiking, instead. He later finds out that Haskell is wanted in connection to the murder of his wife, Vera. Back in the framing narrative in the diner in Reno where the film opened, he imagines his inevitable arrest by the police.
Tom Neal as Al Roberts
Ann Savage as Vera
Claudia Drake as Sue Harvey
Edmund MacDonald as Charles Haskell Jr.
Tim Ryan as the Nevada Diner Proprietor
Esther Howard as Holly, Diner Waitress
Don Brodie as the Used Car Salesman
Pat Gleason as Joe, truck driver