"As I drove off it was still raining, and the drops streaked down the windshield like tears."
- Al Roberts (Tom Neal)
"She was facing straight ahead, so I couldn't see her eyes. She was young - not more than 24. Man, she looked like she had been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world! Yet in spite of that, I got the impression of beauty, not the beauty of a movie actress, mind you, or the beauty you dream about with your wife, but a natural beauty, a beauty that's almost homely, because it's so real."
- Al Roberts (Tom Neal)
At a glance:
Detour is seminal American film noir on a ‘B’ movie budget: a dark tale where fate deals a stacked deck to an innocent man
Our review (with spoilers):
A troubled piano player hitchhikes cross country to join the love of his life; bad luck and bad decisions cause him to get involved with murder, crime, and the wrong people.
Al Roberts (Tom Neal) initially believes he is lucky to be picked up by Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), who just happens to be driving all the way to Roberts’ destination, Los Angeles. Although Haskell is a con man, he doesn’t seem to be playing Roberts as a mark. But Haskell brings bad luck. He passes out while resting while Roberts drives. When Roberts opens Haskell’s door, Haskell falls to the ground, hits his head on a rock, and dies. Roberts thinks the cops will not believe the truth, so he hides Haskell’s body and continues driving. His plan is to ditch the car in LA and put the whole incident behind him. But he foolishly picks up a female hitchhiker, Vera (Ann Savage). Haskell has mentioned picking up a woman earlier, and this is that women. She knows that Roberts is not Haskell and gets him to confess about what happened. She then blackmails him, first forcing him to sell the car, and then asking him to get involved deeper and deeper.
Detour is a fascinating gem. When it began, the opening diner scene felt dated and stale. But before long, the film draws you in. It changes tone and becomes something timely, timeless. The danger of circumstance, the perils of bad luck, and the heartbreak of bad decisions are portrayed deeply. None of these basic themes have changed, and the message and mood is still meaningful.
This seminal noir is referenced by film historians as evidence of how to make a great thriller on a shoestring. The notoriety of the movie was strengthened by the unusual circumstances involving the off-screen life of Tom Neal. Years later, Neal murdered his third wife with a bullet to the back of the head and was convicted of manslaughter.
Rating: 3 of 4
Other reviewers said:
"It lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir. No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it."
- Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times)