"That's life," says two-bit loser Al Roberts. "Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you." Roberts, played by Tom Neal, is the whining, complaining protagonist in Detour, one of the worst, and best, pulp noirs you'll ever enjoy. And if Roberts doesn't have a good moment in any of the film's 67 minutes, you will if you get a kick out of pulp fiction so ripe it'll remind you of how old Charles Haskell's corpse is. Roberts, a piano player in a New York nightclub, was hitch hiking to L.A. to reunite with the woman he loves, his girlfriend Sue. When Haskell stops and gives him a ride, then dies of a heart attack, Roberts makes the first of many bad decisions. Haskell had several hundred in his wallet and three big, raw scratches on one hand. Wouldn't you know it, after ditching the body, taking the cash, the car and Haskell's identity, Roberts winds up stopping to pick up a hitchhiker...who turns out to be the dame who gave Haskell those scratches. "Man, she looked like she'd just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world," Roberts says. We can see for ourselves. Vera (Ann Savage) is tough as nails. She's a tramp. She's poison. She knows Roberts isn't Haskell. She sets a hook in Roberts' mouth and pulls him around from one scheme to the next to get money. When Roberts finally resists...well, see the movie.
How can a film be so bad yet be so satisfying? It was shot by Edgar Ulmer in only six days on a tiny budget and looks it. Ulmer probably paid more for all that rear screen projection than he did for the actors. Neal and Savage are barely even B-level quality. The movie is hardly more than an hour long. And yet...
First, the movie moves quickly. There is absolutely no wasted time, even when Ulmer is padding out a few shots. Second, Tom Neal is perfectly cast. He has a petulant, greasy face and a plump, weak mouth. Neal was not a sympathetic or likable actor. In what career he had, which wasn't much, he usually was at his best whining or playing bullies. Here, he's just weak. His career was effectively over when he beat Franchot Tone nearly to a pulp over a bimbo actress named Barbara Payton. A few years later he married and then was accused of murdering his wife with a gunshot to the head. He spent several years in prison on a manslaughter conviction and died of a heart attack a few months after he was released. Not much to admire here. Ann Savage is so over the top as the tough Vera that we sometimes do a double take over how she handles her dialogue. Still, the two of them, perhaps inadvertently, do full justice to the concept of Detour as full-bodied pulp fiction. Third, the script is great. Pulp, when it works, is sleazy, dirty entertainment. That's Detour. Neal and Savage make this fatalistic pulp cartoon vivid, not by how skilled they are, but by how well they meet the conventions of pulp action. Fourth, let's hear it for Edgar Ulmer. Some of Ulmer's films -- Strange Illusion, The Strange Woman, for example -- are fun to watch but none of them, in my view, are worth spending too much time thinking about. Like Val Lewton, Ulmer was a man of limited talent who could sometimes squeeze more interest out of so little to work with that one has to admire his persistence. He certainly sets up Vera's fate with style, even though Roberts' fate seems perfunctory to me.
No one, I hope, would call Detour a great film. In my opinion, it's not even a great noir. But it succeeds as great pulp fiction. When that highway comes on the screen, when we see the credits and when we start to hear Al Robert's voice-over, we know we're in for a cheap, sleazy ride...and an entertaining one, too.
Detour is in the public domain, so it's buyer beware. The DVD I have is watchable. I've heard that the Region 1 version put out by Image is in fairly good shape.