An unshaven and weather-beaten young man sits brooding over a cup of coffee in an anonymous roadside café. A man of means by no means, as Roger Miller would put it. But Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is king of no road, and by the end of DETOUR we wonder whether he is even sovereign over his own soul.
A potential ride in the form of a friendly trucker strikes up a conversation. Where you coming from? West. Where you going to? East.
Roberts is wrong, though. He's coming from Hell and he's going to Nowhere, and the last thing he needs is a chatty trucker along for company.
DETOUR is told in a flashback from that lonely stool. Roberts and his girlfriend work as pianist/singer in a fleabag club out east. Comes a foggy night and she splits up with him to pursue fame out west. Weeks later he calls and they agree to get back together. He'll come out west and they can be married.
Being down at his heels Roberts is forced to hitchhike to California. All goes well until he reaches Arizona, where Fate deals Roberts one nasty hand after another. In short order the innocent Roberts finds and feels himself a hunted man.
DETOUR is a wonderful film. Neal is perfect as the moody young musician who finds himself trapped first by and accident and later by femme fatale Ann Savage, who know his terrible secret and has no scruples against using it against him for her own nefarious purposes. Veteran B-movie director Edgar Ulmer has enough tricks up his sleeves to surmount the Poverty Row studio conditions he was working under. If you're a fan of film noir, or enjoy hard-bitten stories, you'll enjoy DETOUR.
By the way, my thirty year old first edition copy of The Film Encyclopedia had an interesting entry on DETOUR'S star Tom Neal. He received a law degree from Harvard University in 1938. Throughout the forties he appeared in a number of B-movies, usually cast as a tough guy. In 1951 he found himself in the middle of a love triangle involving Franchot Tone and Barbara Payton. Neal "smashed" Tone's nose and a scandal ensued. Neal became poison and no studio would employ him, so he became a gardener and later established a landscaping business. In 1965 he was accused of murdering his wife. Able to prove that the gun went off accidentally, Neal had the charges reduced to manslaughter and served a six-year sentence. He died in 1971.