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Favorite Films: Detour (1945)

Poster for Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945)

The poster is a mess, but the film isn’t. It was released by the Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) “studio” and starred Tom Neal and Ann Savage. Some forty years ago, I re-used the PRC abbreviation to stand for a film series I ran at UCLA which I called the Poverty Row Cinemathèque, whose highlight was a quadruple feature directed by that most maudit of film directors, Edgar G. Ulmer. In addition to Detour, we screened Girls in Chains (1943), Club Havana (1946), and (I think) The Pirates of Capri (1949).

Ulmer did direct two masterpieces. One was The Black Cat (1934), starring both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The other was Detour, the story of a down at heels New York pianist played by Tom Neal as Al  Roberts who hitchhikes to California to be re-united with his girlfriend. Fate intervenes: In Arizona, he is picked up by Charles Haskell, who is a bit of a con man, and who tells of a woman he had picked nup named Vera who scratched his wrist when he put some moves on her. While Al takes over the driving responsibilities, the rain begins to fall and—while putting up the canvas top on the convertible—he discovers that the guy who picked him up had suddenly died.

Rather than try to flag down the police, Al drags the body into the bushes and covers it loosely. He then takes his wallet and the car. The 68-minute film is half over when Al meets a young woman hitching a ride a a gas station. The woman turns out to be the same Vera who scratched up Haskell, and she begins to try to blackmail and sexually dominate Al. She knows the car and knows that Al is not Haskell.

Ann Savage and Tom Neal

Vera turns out to be the center of the film. She is both relentless and ferocious. Never have I seen a female role that was so intense. By comparison, Al is passive and helpless. Rather than allowing him to part company, she tries to enlist him in a scheme to bilk Haskell’s dying rich father by passing himself off as the son. In the process, he accidentally kills Vera and, now thinking himself responsible for two deaths, hits the road.

If you’re interested in seeing this film, you should have no trouble. It is in the public domain and can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube. It is well worth your time.