They say there’s one question a film noir has to answer right away, and that is: Why don’t they call the police?
That would be the normal thing to do if, for instance, you stumbled upon a victim of a violent crime. However, if movie characters went to the police each time someone was murdered/robbed/blackmailed, we wouldn’t have a very interesting selection of crime dramas, would we?
Here’s where film noir makes things interesting. In film noir, people can’t go to the police. The only way to solve their dilemma is to face it themselves – as grim a task as that is. A film noir world is a place where you don’t know who to trust, and people aren’t always what they seem.
This is the case in Detour (1946), a paranoid, nothing-goes-right film about a man (Tom Neal) who wants only one thing – to travel from New York to Los Angeles to marry his fiancé. As is the case with many good noirs, the film is told in flashbacks and we are gradually led to discover a gritty and desperate situation.
As he starts to hitchhike across the country, Neal is picked up by an amiable “travelling salesman” (Edmund MacDonald). After driving for the better part of a day, MacDonald asks Neal to take the driver’s seat while he sleeps.
Aww – ain’t this sweet? Neal drives and MacDonald has a lovely little nap, resting comfortably against the passenger door. Just two buddies travelling down the open road.
One key characteristic of film noir is the plot twist, and Detour has plenty of those. The first occurs when Neal stops the car and opens the door against which the sleeping MacDonald is slumped. MacDonald spills onto the ground, slams his head on a rock and dies instantly.
Well! If that weren’t awkward enough, it turns out MacDonald was a rather unsavoury character who has a lot of cash in his wallet, and we mean a LOT of cash.
Neal is in a quandary but, in true noir fashion, he does not wait for police. How come? First, he’s on a highway in the middle of nowhere. Second, he’s convinced police wouldn’t believe him – and he’s probably right. Here’s a hitchhiker, alone with a dead man and a wallet stuffed with cash on a deserted highway. Nah, nothing suspicious here.
Here’s a second plot twist: Neal decides to take the car (and the dead man’s wallet) and continue on to L.A. Along the way, he picks up a hitchhiker (Ann Savage), an abrupt woman who doesn’t like questions until, suddenly, she asks one of her own: “Where did you leave his body?”
Yikes! How on earth does she know?
By now, we are completely immersed in the world of film noir. Neal can’t go to the police because Savage has made it clear she will testify against him. He also can’t escape Savage’s clutches because, like every good femme fatale, she has a very controlling personality. He is alone must solve his predicament, if he can.
It’s obvious that Detour was filmed on a budget, as some of the most notable noirs are, but it doesn’t interfere with a gripping story. The camera work is top-notch and the performances by Neal and Savage are outstanding. The script, too, is water-tight and it delivers a gasp-out-loud twist near the end of the movie that you will not believe.
You may or may not agree with the film’s overall philosophy, which is summed up in a single statement just before the closing credits. But you won’t forget Tom Neal’s desperation in a film noir world or his inability to summon police when he needed them most.
Detour: Starring Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Written by Martin Goldsmith. Producers Releasing Corp., B&W, 1946, 67 mins.