Of all the cars on all the highways in all the world, Vera (Ann Savage) had to get into his. Sure, technically the snazzy convertible Al (Tom Neal) drives isn’t his. It belongs to high-roller Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), who picked Al up back in Arizona. Al’s just a New York piano man, see, hitchhiking to Hollywood where his sweetie (Claudia Drake) is chasing her dream. And Haskell is heading all the way to Californ-i-a, relieved to have somebody share the driving. But when Haskell accidentally falls from the car and brains himself on a roadside rock, Al knows the coppers would never believe that a hitchhiker didn’t murder the moneybags for his ride. Better to hide the body and get to Los Angeles and fast, ditching the car once there. So why does Al pick the hitchhiking Vera up? Pity, maybe, knowing what it’s like to stand all day watching hope drive by. Thing is, she recognizes the car, and knows he’s not Haskell. But she’s not gonna turn him in. No, she’s a scavenger in a skirt, and there ain’t no con beneath her as long as it leads to money. Sell a dead man’s car? Sure. But, wait—the newspapers say Haskell’s rich father is about to eat dirt, and she spies an even better scheme to make Al the schnook earn her payday.
On the surface everything about director Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 “Detour” is straight out of the pulp-novel cliché handbook, where fate and a dame lead an ordinary guy off the straight and narrow. What makes this Poverty Row noir so indelible is its ravishing inelegance. Noirs were made quickly, cheaply, and bleakly, but even by those standards Ulmer’s B picture looks like it was made with barely a down payment. So much looks shot in front of rear projections, as if driving out to locations cost too much time and gas. Aside from Neal and Savage, the cast is as rootless as office temps. Scenes feel more haphazardly stapled together than arranged into a narrative flow. And at times the movie is artificially surreal: When Al plays piano in a low-rent club, the audience is so lifeless the members look like cutouts.
All of which actually reinforces “Detour’s” desperate drive. It’s a movie fueled entirely by money—how to get it, what to do with it, and the disgust of living constantly worried about it. Every character is on their way from somewhere to somewhere else looking for work. People’s entire lives fit in suitcases. And the leap from selling some thing to make a buck to selling yourself is nonexistent. “Detour” looks clumsy and unrefined, but the kneecapping weight of economic nihilism that powers it still stings today, when far too many Americans spend their days looking for any angle that helps them make it to tomorrow.