Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Screenplay: Martin Goldsmith
Producers: Leon Fromkiss, Martin Mooney
Starring: Tom Neal, Anne Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald
Country: United States
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Running time: 67min.
There are spoilers in this post, but if you’re familiar with noir, you won’t really expect it to end differently, and there’s a lot more to the ending than what I give away.
You couldn’t make a more quintessential noir film than Edgar G. Ulmer’s low-budget Detour if you’d known all the rules and tropes ahead of time. And he didn’t, because film noir wasn’t defined until the mid-1950s. Yet, just about all the elements that would eventually be considered definitively film noir are here: high-contrast lighting with lots of shadows, a defeated narrator telling the story of how fate continued to pile terrible circumstances on him no matter what he did, and a femme fatale who only makes things worse for him at every turn.
Our main character arrives at a diner, obviously rundown and weary – a fellow diner strikes up conversation, wondering where he’s headed (“east”) and where he’s come from (“west”), but soon our man snaps at him. He’s not out to make friends. The other diner puts a coin in the jukebox, but the song that comes on angers our traveler, who jumps up wild-eyed, screaming not to play that song. Why, we wonder? What has happened to this man that causes him to be so standoffish and crazed by a song on a jukebox? Don’t worry, he’s going to tell us.
Flashback to the same man, Al Roberts, looking much less unkempt, jamming away on a piano in a club as a pretty girl sings the song from the jukebox. As Al continues narrating, we learn that he and the girl, Sue, are a couple, but they’re soon to be separated as Sue leaves for Los Angeles to pursue her singing career while he stays in New York, lacking the confidence to go with her immediately. Already Al is a revealed to be far from a hero – heroes do something with their lives, act to get what they want, and become the catalyst for change and movement in a story. But Al is simultaneously frustrated with his position in life and reluctant to do anything to change it, though he’s dating the most beautiful girl around and his talent as a pianist is undeniable and appreciated more than he realizes (or can accept). His piano solo soon after Sue leaves suggests that he could be a great classical pianist or maybe even a composer if he had the determination to go for it. But instead he seems to belittle his talent and think of himself as a loser. Perhaps he is right – for when he does decide to do something, head west to join Sue in LA, everything goes horribly wrong.