Made for one of the most respected Poverty Row studios—the Producers Releasing Corporation—Detour had a low budget, and Ulmer was forced to flip negatives to extend his protagonist's cross-country hitchhiking journey, which is why viewers might mistake the setting for England when cars drive on the left side, and Tom Neal hops into driver's side doors. Knowledge of the low-end production isn't essential to enjoyment, but it does increase your awe, because Detour is so good, and so memorable in its taut, rich rendering of a miserable existence blackened by Fate, Money, and hateful femmes fatales.
Neal is Al Roberts, a cheap New York club pianist who is hitching so he can reunite with his girl, Sue, who has gone to California to "make it" as a singer. In narrated flashbacks, he recalls their romantic and musical partnership in that "joint where you could have a sandwich and a few drinks and run interference for your girl on the dancefloor." As Al overexcitedly tells Sue his intentions over the phone, it's immediately apparent that the pouting, desperate sucker is doomed to some manner of cataclysm. The road wears on Al, a pathetic, baggy-eyed sight in his ratty suit and floppy hat, but he's rejuvenated when a driver, Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), offers to take him all the way to L.A. Haskell is himself relieved to have a normal thumber, unlike the psycho "tomato" (woman) he picked up whose temper and claws left him with three gruesome hand scars. When the pill-popping Haskell suddenly croaks, Al, in a fearful panic, borrows the corpse's car, money ($768, "a lotta jack"), and identity. He soon acquires a hitcher of his own, a forked-tongued bitch named Vera (Ann Savage), who Al soon realizes is the hellcat who clawed Haskell. Vera recognizes Al's switcheroo, assumes he killed Haskell, and uses her knowledge to dominate him during a brief parasitic dalliance.
The blackness and corruption in which Detour is steeped is practically unmatched in film noir's classic era. Dreams, love, ambition—it's all doomed here. Welles would scrape lower in Touch of Evil, but that was thirteen years later. Another useful comparison is Jacques Tourneur's Nightfall, also a late noir, now playing across town at Film Forum. An elegantly shot and crafted Columbia production, Nightfall, when set aside Ulmer's grubby movie, demonstrates the genre's range. Not that there is no elegance here—Ulmer stretches his dollars thin. There are artful operator room montages, snappy sideways wipes, and Neal and Savage, who made five movies together, working well above their pay grade. Savage is explosive. A feral synthesis of every negative quality imaginable, her Vera is gloriously intolerable. Neal seems to hurt his own face with his epic frowning, but it's the only rational response to his pathetically trapped existence, the hell of obsession.
Detour is based on a novel by Martin Goldsmith, who is credited for the screenplay with Martin Mooney. The narration is near constant—you can picture the pages of unbroken text. There are duds ("the drops streaked down the windshield like tears") but the screenplay is largely brutal and hilarious, with a keen ear for slang (eating is "putting on the feedbag"). Of the overlording Forces in the movie, none is more tyrannical than Money. It is "a piece of paper crawling with germs," "little green things with George Washington's picture that men slave for," and most lethally, "the stuff you never have enough of." When Al and Vera shop for a $1,850 car, the price is maddeningly repeated several times. In cahoots with monsters like Vera, and Fate ("whichever way you turn, it sticks out a foot to trip ya,"), Money in Detour is a palpable, fire-breathing organism, the jailer of hope and executioner of dreams.