A case of mistaken identity in the face of fear, Detour details that of a literal detour as our protagonist, a New York pianist named Al Roberts, finds himself in a case of purposeful, mistaken identity after hitching a ride goes horribly wrong. From director Edgar G. Ulmer, a certainly prolific filmmaker whose peak seemed to be throughout the 1940s, this Tom Neal starring crime drama makes for short, essential viewing. One of the earliest and most important pieces of its time, Detour is an amazingly well-crafted piece, filled with engaging characters, nicely tuned dialogue and all the hallmarks of a classic forties crime piece.
It’s an essential tale of double-crossing, of false personas and a film which highlights the desperation one man finds himself when a cataclysmic accident befalls him. Neal’s leading role as Al Roberts is superb. Narration from him dreaming of his idyllic future and imaginative life with his wife make for entertaining moments that really flesh out the character better than any sort of interaction with supporting players could possibly achieve. Neal’s conviction and dedication the role is superb, we’re left with many detailed descriptions of Roberts’ thought process. How he perceives the accident in his mind, how those around him would react, all of it comes together rather spectacularly in dealing with a sudden event and the moral choices he has to make.
Detour builds itself entirely on how far you can really believe Roberts and his story. For me, I was invested right from the start, and with such a generally interesting story, it’s amazing how fun this hour-long film can be. A tremendously simplistic piece, where my only major qualms are farcical. The utilisation of the score can sometimes be a tad underwhelming, and some of the supporting cast members are a bit below the bar when compared to Neal’s competent work. It’s a good role, one that hits all the right notes at the right time, but it’s far from perfect. Whilst his on-screen work is superb, there are a few moments where he comes across as stiff or uncanny in his role. Sometimes the narration describes what we’ve quite literally just seen on the screen, other times the narration gives us spiel that could have easily been shown in a visual sense. Getting this balance perfect is key, but it’s not quite there.
Right from the very beginning, Detour cements itself as a thoroughly competent film about a man in over his head. We never quite manage to get an overwhelming, tremendous insight into the dynamics between Al and Vera, but the twists and turns they spin from time to time are nice little distractions from an otherwise well-performed piece. Happenstance moments, terrifying moments of thrilling premonitions, an underlying discomfort. It all comes together in a sharp enough fashion, but lacks that one final punch necessary to prevent Detour going off on a tangent.