Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Detour (1945)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Detour (1945)

In director Edgar Ulmer's great B-film noir - a gritty, cheaply-made ("Poverty Row"), fatalistic, cultish crime drama was about the bleak and nightmarish twists of fate. The cultish film was made in only 6 days (some have claimed 15), and was largely ignored when first released. Due to its cheap and minimalist low-budget approach, this post-war noir relied heavily on stock footage and rear projection (during the many car-related travel scenes), and an over-active fog machine. The film was remade as Detour (1992) and starred the son of the original ill-fated protagonist, Tom Neal, Jr.

The film's main tagline was: "He went searching for love...but Fate forced a DETOUR to Revelry...Violence...Mystery!"

  • the opening title credits appeared under a rear-view of a retreating two-lane road seen from a moving vehicle
  • the almost non-stop flashbacked, existential story was cynically narrated by the world-weary fatalistic, self-pitying, down-and-out, impoverished protagonist Al Roberts (Tom Neal), an unreliable and often delusional narrator who was often the 'guilty' perpetrator of his many problems
  • in the opening scene, the disheveled traveler Al Roberts had just been dropped off and was seated in a tawdry roadside diner in Reno, NV; he was in the midst of hitchhiking back East after a disastrous westward trek to Southern California; at the counter, he appeared upset by questions from a sociable driver named Joe (Pat Gleason), and by the man's jukebox selection: "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me" ("That music, it stinks!"); flooded with bad memories, in voice-over, Al uttered statements about fate and destiny finally catching up with him, as he appeared to be running away from his past
  • the emotionally-drained loser, with highlights on his eyes, began to describe a tale of how he had been haplessly involved in fateful events during a previous thumbing trek westward from NY to Los Angeles, and had ended up with a dangerous, blackmailing dame: ("Did you ever want to forget anything? Did you ever want to cut away a piece of your memory or blot it out. You can't, you know, no matter how hard you try. You can change the scenery, but sooner or later, you'll get a whiff of perfume or somebody will say a certain phrase, or maybe hum something. Then you're licked again")
  • in the start of Al's flashback, in a romanticized image, he was playing the piano and accompanying his unattainable girlfriend/night-club singer Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake) in a NYC nightclub (the Break O' Dawn Club), who was crooning: "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me"; later that evening at the low-rent club when he was playing solo on stage with chairs stacked on tables behind him (his normal gig was the late night hours until 4 in the morning), he recalled how he had a "healthy romance" with Sue
  • the talented, classically-trained East Coast musician had higher aspirations (Sue: "You're gonna make Carnegie Hall yet, Al") beyond the tawdry "dump" of a club, but seemed embittered and had given up hope about his future; he believed he was destined for greater things
  • after leaving the club together, the two walked along in a very thick and threatening foggy NY street scene on Riverside Dr.; they discussed their impossible futures together and how they had "struck out" in their current situation; the ambitious starlet confessed to postponing their marriage plans and instead had decided to venture to Hollywood on her own to pursue a career and 'make good' - was she trying to give him the brush-off?; she suggested that he might follow along afterwards
  • after Sue had departed, while masterfully playing at the club one evening, the manager delivered a $10 tip from a generous patron, but Al was ungrateful and spiteful: "When this drunk handed me a ten spot after a request, I couldn't get very excited. What was it, I asked myself? A piece of paper crawling with germs. It couldn't buy anything I wanted"
  • in a brief follow-up scene, Al talked to Sue on a long-distance phone call (she was already in Los Angeles); the mechanics of the transmitted call were traced via a montage of images of switchboard operators and roadside telephone lines; it ended up being a one-sided conversation, however, and Sue's voice was never heard (was the scene just a figment of Al's imagination?); after learning that she was a lowly "hash-slinger," he announced his plans to soon join her and get married right away: ("I'll come to you...just expect me")
  • during his arduous thumbing trek from NY to Los Angeles/Hollywood, his progress from east to west (right to left) on a super-imposed map illustrated his westward trajectory [Note: The film's negative was horizontally flipped or reversed to achieve the illusion, creating problems by having the steering wheel on the wrong side of the American car]; he thought to himself how he was placing himself in danger: "Thumbin' rides may save you bus fare, but it's dangerous. You never know what's in store for ya when you hear the squeal of brakes"
  • in Arizona, the destitute Roberts was picked up in a convertible driven by 30 year-old Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), a losing horse-race gambler-bookie from Miami, FL (with a dubious murderous past, later revealed) who was headed to Los Angeles (the Santa Anita race track in Pasadena), and was taking prescription pills for his heart condition
  • Haskell also had three suspicious deep scratches ("puffy lines") on his right hand, and described the origin of the wounds (presumably after making an unwanted advance on a defensive female): "Beauties, aren't they? They're gonna be scars someday. What an animal!...I was tusslin' with the Most Dangerous Animal in the World - a woman!...You know, there oughta be a law against dames with claws! I tossed her out of the car on her ear. Was I wrong? You give a lift to a tomato, you expect her to be nice, don't ya? After all, what kind of dames thumb rides? Sunday School teachers? The little witch. She must have thought she was ridin' with some fall guy...I've known a million dames like her, two million" - a prophetic and fateful comment about the perpetrator; Haskell tossed her out of his car: ("I stopped the car, I opened the door. Take it on the Arthur Duffy, sister, I told her"] [Note: the phrase, 'Take it on the Arthur Duffy' was slang of the day, meaning to 'run off', 'quickly leave,' or 'escape'; Duffy was the US world record-holder of the 100-yard (100m) dash (1902–5).]
  • during a quick half-hour stop for food, Haskell volunteered to pay for Al's meal, as he continued to discuss his past - how he had left home as a teenaged runaway after plucking the eye out of another boy during a sword-dueling accident, and how he had just lost $38 grand in Miami to bookie-"scoundrels" ("They cleaned out my portfolio")
  • after their stop, Roberts took over the late-night driving while Haskell slept; now briefly hopeful, Al began to think of his "brighter" future with Sue, and fantasized that Sue was "shooting to the top" - backed by a trio of silhouetted musicians and singing a reprise of "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me"
  • Roberts became haplessly involved in an ambiguous death when he had to stop to put up the convertible top in heavy rain; as Al opened the passenger side door, Haskell passed out or suffered an apparent heart attack and fell out of the car (and his head struck a rock); Was it an accident or was more involved?; fearing that he would be blamed ("Who would believe he fell out of the car?") or identified by the gas station attendant or waitress, he believed it would be suicidal to tell the truth: "The next possibility was to sit tight and tell the truth when the cops came, but it would be crazy. They'd laugh at the truth. They'd have my head in a noose"

Haskell's Ambiguous Death

Al's Fateful Decision to Adopt Haskell's Identity
  • Al's fateful choice was to dump and hide Haskell's body in bushes along the Arizona road, steal Haskell's car, money and clothes, and adopt his identity (his wallet with driver's license, $768 dollars, clothes, and car); he became paranoid as he drove 60 miles further to the California state line; after passing through the inspection station using his new alias, the exhausted Roberts stopped for the night, suffering from nightmares of his crime; the next morning, he found a letter that Haskell was preparing to send to his estranged father in California, revealing Haskell to be a "chiseler" posing as a salesman of hymnals to raise money from his rich father before returning to Miami
  • during a stop at a Richfield gas station in Desert Center, CA (in eastern Riverside Co.), with a backdrop of telephone lines strung along the road, Al fatefully picked up the vulturous, nasty and despicable, yet sexy hitchhiker Vera (Ann Savage) who had previously been Haskell's pick-up ride; he initially described her as lacking outer beauty: "She was facing straight ahead, so I couldn't see her eyes. But she was young, not more than 24. Man, she looked as if she'd just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world. Yet in spite of this, I got the impression of beauty. Not the beauty of a movie actress, mind you, or the beauty you dream about when you're with your wife, but a natural beauty. A beauty that's almost homely because it's so real"
  • after a short nap, Vera suddenly sat up (after Al's mention of the word "nightmare" in a voice-over about how he imagined being reunited with Sue in Hollywood - "This nightmare of being a dead man would be over"); she began to suspiciously question Roberts' true identity - accusing him of not being Haskell: ("Where did you leave his body? Where did you leave the owner of this car? You're not fooling anyone. This buggy belongs to a guy named Haskell. That's not you, Mister!") - she was the one who had hitchhiked with Haskell, all the way from Shreveport, Louisiana (with her own murky past), and had tussled with him and left her mark; Roberts felt he was now doomed: "My goose was cooked. She had me"; he commented upon fate and the blackmailing, vindictive, castrating, sadomasochistic and exploitative femme fatale con Vera: "That's life - which ever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you"
  • with another verbal attack, she didn't believe his version of the story, and accused him of 'killing' Haskell; she demanded the cash that he had stolen from Haskell, and then held Roberts hostage to her wishes by scheming to turn him in as a murderer: ("What'd you do? Kiss him with a wrench?...I'm not through with you by a long shot....You're a cheap crook and you killed him. For two cents, I'd change my mind and turn you in. I don't like you!...Just remember who's boss around here. If you shut up and don't give me any arguments, you'll have nothin' to worry about. But if you act wise, we'll pop into jail so fast it'll give you the bends...See that you don't. You know, as crooked as you look, I'd hate to see a fella as young as you wind up sniffin' that perfume that Arizona hands out free to murderers")
  • her unrealistic, greedy plan was to not just abandon the car somewhere, but to sell the car to a used car-dealer (and then be paid off); once they arrived in Hollywood, they rented a cheap hotel room together (registered as and pretending to be Mr. and Mrs. Charles Haskell) - stripping Al of his own identity; it was a darker version of domestic life as it might have been with Sue
  • she insisted on cleaning up first by taking a bath, and then asserted: "I must be ten pounds lighter"; she encouraged him to be grateful and "cheer up" since she hadn't turned him in yet; after a few drinks and a few hours of chatting together, she had confessed that she was failing in health: "We all know we're gonna kick off some day. It's only a question of when"; he noticed her failing health - a chronic cough - and compared her to the dying heroine Camille suffering from consumption; she admitted that his circumstances would change if she died: ("Wouldn't it be a break for you if I did kick off. You'd be free with old Haskell's dough and car"); with a hand on his shoulder, she hinted and urged a romantic response: "I'm going to bed," but he was disinterested; Al attempted a secretive phone call to Sue, but his fear of Vera silenced him
  • by the next noon-time, Roberts mused (in voice-over): "If this were fiction, I would fall in love with Vera, marry her, and make a respectable woman of her. Or else she’d make some supreme, class-A sacrifice for me – and die"; Vera was still her "rotten" self, but fished for compliments: "Do I rate a whistle?"; he was anxious to get to a used car dealership, sell the car (and pay Vera off), and then split from the imprisoning Vera; although offered $1,850 for the car, the used car salesman (Don Brodie) became suspicious when Al couldn't identify his insurance company; Vera abruptly aborted the deal
  • while eating lunch at an outdoor drive-in, Vera explained that her pecuniary motivations had now changed - as a result of reading a newspaper article, she wished to claim a substantial inheritance from Haskell's dying father (from 3 weeks of bronchial pneumonia) living in LA; Roberts refused to comply with Vera's crazed idea or scheme: ("I won't do it...I could never get away with it. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard...Forget it, find yourself another stooge"); he knew that he could never prove that he was Haskell's son (he was missing a major scar on his forearm), but she was insistent and ordered them to wait around until Haskell Sr. died ("a death watch") to collect
  • that evening, Al kept arguing with Vera that her greedy plan was a "dizzy long shot" and that she had made a mistake in not taking the car money - Vera was unphased when he threatened to "squeal' on her if she carried through on her plan by claiming that she was already almost dead: "I'm on my way anyhow"; he riskily dared Vera to call the cops: ("See if I care. At least they'll give me a square deal"); their words became even more heated as the night wore on, and she became vicious, "crazy mad" and drunk
  • Vera seriously threatened to phone-call the Hollywood police station and turn him in: "You won't be dreamin' when the law taps you on the shoulder. There's a cute little gas chamber waitin' for you, Roberts, and I hear extradition to Arizona's a cinch...I'm gonna get even with you"; after she had called him a "yellow stinker" and accused him of not being a "gentleman," she ordered him to open up the windows. It was a ploy - she grabbed the phone and raced into the adjoining room where she locked herself in
  • as she hid in the locked bedroom to make a phone call, Vera ignored his promise to do anything she asked for; he began to yank and tug on the long phone-cord extension (inexplicably wrapped around her neck) through the closed bedroom door; he pulled it as tightly as possibly (with a close-up of his straining fists). When he broke the door and burst into the room, he found her sprawled (reflected in a mirror image) on her back and hanging off the bed; she had been accidentally strangled with the telephone cord - appropriately perishing from respiratory failure; his voice-over continued:
    • The world is full of skeptics. I know. I'm one myself. And the Haskell business, how many of you would believe he fell out of the car. Now after killing Vera without really meaning to do it, how many of you would believe it wasn't premeditated? In a jury room, every last man of you would go down shouting that she had me over a barrel and my only out was force.
  • this was a second disastrous twist of fate for the self-pitying Roberts - signified by the in-and-out of focus shots from his deranged mental state and POV as he looked around the incriminating bedroom; now he had another murder to be accounted for, and he knew his fate was sealed as a guilty man; he realized he could be identified by many witnesses: the landlady, the car dealer, the waitress in the drive-in, the girl in the dress shop, the guy in the liquor store:
    • The room was still. So quiet that for awhile, I wondered if I had suddenly gone deaf. It was pure fear, of course, and I was hysterical but without making a sound. Vera was dead, and I was her murderer. Murderer! What an awful word that is. But I'd become one. I'd better not get caught. What evidence there was around the place had to be destroyed. And from the looks of things, there was plenty. Looking around the room at things we'd bought was like looking into the faces of a hundred people who'd seen us together and who remembered me. This was the kind of testimony I couldn't rub out. No, I could burn clothes and hide bottles for the next five years. There'd always be witnesses. The landlady for one, she could identify me; the car dealer; the waitress in the drive-in; the girl in the dress shop and that guy in the liquor store - they could all identify me.

      I was cooked, done-for. I had to get out of there. While once I'd remain beside a dead body, planning carefully how to avoid being accused of killing him, this time I couldn't. This time I was guilty, I knew it, felt it. I was like a guy suffering from shock. Things were whirling around in my head. I couldn't make myself think right. All I could think of was the guy with the saxophone and what he was playing. It wasn't a love-song anymore. It was a dirge
Final Sequence

Returning to The Present: Back in the Reno, NV Diner

Al Imagining His Arrest by Highway Patrol Outside Diner
  • in the final sequence, Al was back in the tawdry Reno, NV diner (was the directionless Al on his way back East?) following the extensive flashback; he realized his previous identity as Al Roberts could never be resurrected - and he had nowhere to go: ("I had to stay away from New York for all time, 'cause Al Roberts was listed as dead and had to stay dead. And I could never go back to Hollywood. Someone might recognize me as Haskell. Then too, there was Sue. I could never go to her with a thing like this hanging over my head. All I could do was pray she'd be happy")
  • he had few alternatives left; as he departed from the diner, the voice-over continued with the film's final lines of dialogue - he referenced how the police didn't know his identity nor did anyone else - a key noirish theme:
    • "I was in Bakersfield before I read that Vera's body was discovered, and that the police were looking for Haskell in connection with his wife's murder. Isn't that a laugh? Haskell got me into this mess, and Haskell was getting me out of it. The police were searching for a dead man. I keep trying to forget what happened, and wonder what my life might have been if that car of Haskell's hadn't stopped"
  • the great film ended with the quote by self-pitying Roberts who knew his fate was sealed as a guilty man and that he would eventually be caught: "But one thing I don't have to wonder about. I know. Someday a car will stop to pick me up that I never thumbed. Yes, fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all."
  • as the film concluded in 'no man's land' (of sorts), he imagined his arrest by the Highway Patrol outside the diner (to appease the Hays Code censors of the time); the film ended with Roberts' fantasy of being picked up by a patrol car for the murder of his 'wife' Vera

Al Roberts (Tom Neal) - Flashbacked Story of His Own Fate, Told in Reno Diner

Flashback: Al Playing Piano in a NYC Nightclub with Girlfriend-Singer Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake)

Sue to Al: "You're gonna make Carnegie Hall yet, Al"

On Foggy Street, Al with Sue Discussing Their Future Together

Thumbing Rides Westward - (Notice Reversed Steering Wheel)

Picked Up in Arizona

Al Picked Up by Charles Haskell, Jr. - With Scars on Hand

Imagined Vision of Al's Girlfriend Sue Harvey Making It in California

Vicious Hitchhiker Vera (Ann Savage)

At a Used Car Dealership in Hollywood

Newspaper Article - The Haskell Inheritance

Vera's Greedy Plan to Claim Haskell's Inheritance From His Dying Father

That Evening, a Drunken Argument and Vera Threatening to Call Police - Behind Locked Bedroom Door

Lethal Accident - Vera's Strangulation in Bedroom (Behind Locked Door) with Phone Cord

Roberts - Murderer!

Vera's Dead Body on the Bed


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