Sometimes you never can tell which way life is going to turn. You may not be doing great now, but count your blessings for the fickle finger of fate can pin you to the ground if you're not careful. Take the case of this poor sap, Al Roberts (Tom Neal), who used to be a piano player in a dingy New York nightclub while his girlfriend, Sue (Claudia Drake) sang. Songs like the one on the jukebox of this middle of nowhere diner Al is sitting in now, and as he can't get anyone to turn it off he'll have to bear it, and the memories of his downfall it brings...
Of all the B movies produced in the United States from the thirties onwards, and I mean the true B movies which acted as a support to the main feature, a little film noir called Detour is one of the most celebrated. This work has stuck in the mind of generations of filmwatchers ever since its release around the end of the Second World War, probably because it is a hard luck story irresistable in its bleakness. Martin Goldsmith adapted his own novel here, and with it brought hitherto unrealised depths of bitterness to the big screen along with some of the best hardboiled dialogue you'll ever hear.
Yes, the vitriol postively oozes from this frame as the hapless Al is driven to depair by what he believes is a run of some of the worst ever luck to afflict a human being. However, there are two schools of thought on how to approach this outlook, either that fate really does have it in for him, or that he has effectively created his own bad luck and was the unwitting master of his own destiny all along, an even crueller point of view. The truth lies somewhere in between, as some of the degradation he suffers is his own fault, but he cannot be responsible for the people he met along his journey.
And specifically one person, the genre's scariest femme fatale who even Al cannot fall for such is her venom. She is Vera (Ann Savage), who Al picks up as she is hitchhiking, which would have been fine if it had been his car and he was who he was pretending to be... but this is not the case. Deciding to hitch across America to Hollywood to follow his girlfriend, who it is strongly implied has a hard luck story of her own to tell, he was picked up by one Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), a con artist whose double dealing went unnoticed by Al when he seemed to be looking after his new companion. One opening of a car door in the rain later, and Al is a wanted man.
Assuming Haskell's identity to cover up the accident is just one way of how the script places the hero in positions which look from the outside to be deeply suspicious, something he is all too aware of and he ties himself in knots trying to keep his appearance seeming unblemished, all in vain. Vera knows this, and now has him over a barrel of blackmail; Savage lives up to her name here as you can see how she could be attractive, but her nightmare personality and those blazing eyes transform her into an unforgettable harpy who anyone sensible would cross the road to avoid. It helps Detour's cult that it was directed by one of the original low budget auteurs, Edgar G. Ulmer, and he works wonders on tiny resources. In truth, the "pity me" story is laid on far too thick to be believable and excusing it through blaming fate doesn't quite convince, but that oppressive air of dejection is quite something; almost surreal. Music by Leo Erdody.