Detour - Edgar G. Ulmer - Tom Neal - Al Roberts - Mojave Desert - suitcase - Joshua trees

1945, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

Detour was first released in November 1945. It was shot in only 28 days, so it is clearly a product of a particular moment. Just a few months earlier, when the United States was still involved in World War II, it would have been unthinkable to make a movie like this.

That might not seem obvious to us today, but Detour depicts a society that’s nothing like the idealized America that wartime films had portrayed to remind people what they were fighting for. During the war, movies were expected to normalize an ethos of national unity befitting the Allied war effort. One way or another, audiences were told they were “all in this together” while films like Casablanca encouraged sacrifices for the greater good. A communal spirit was needed when even on the home front many foods were limited, hardly any cars were produced, and gasoline was rationed so tightly that roads were nearly empty.

Not only is Detour full of automobiles, but the communal ethos that had so recently prevailed is pointedly absent from almost every scene. The characters constantly fight to get their way, and individualism rules the land. In the opening scene protagonist Al Roberts quarrels with a man over a jukebox. That leads into a long flashback that shows Al’s life unraveling after his girlfriend Sue decides unilaterally to move from New York to Los Angeles to pursue her singing career. Al protests, but his feelings carry no weight with her.

Detour - Edgar G. Ulmer - Claudia Drake - Tom Neal - Sue Harvey - Al Roberts

Battles of wills continue through most of the film, but they increase in frequency and intensity as soon as Vera is introduced. She dominates Al at every step – she tells him where to drive, she gets the bedroom and first dibs on the bathroom, she gets all the money from the car, and she decides where he’ll go and when. The used car dealer is like her, trying to get all that’s coming to him. The only major character who does not try to get his own way is Charles Haskell, the last driver who picks Al up hitchhiking, but he dies off quickly as if that breed of American were a dinosaur rushing to its extinction. In spite of Haskell’s generosity (giving Al a ride, buying him a meal), Al pegs him as yet another chiseler.

Taken as a whole, Detour is a portrait of the United States at a moment when people are finally ready to assert their wants after years of deprivation through depression and war. The materialism of the “Roaring ’20s” is back, only without the hedonistic joy. It’s as if a heavy pressure has been removed, and a suppressed side of human nature is bursting out everywhere. While increased consumer activity brought economic benefits, Detour underscored the social costs of Americans’ newly enthusiastic pursuit of satisfaction.

Detour - Edgar G. Ulmer - Claudia Drake - Sue Harvey - singing - brass band - silhouettes - Hollywood

The action in Detour crosses the United States from coast to coast, from New York to Los Angeles with the vast countryside in between, symbolically drawing a portrait of the whole country. The westward direction fits a portrait of a nation that still defines itself by its own westward expansion. The lure of the west goes back to European immigration and frontier days, but in the modern world it has taken special form in the lure of Hollywood as a magnet for people’s dreams. In Sue’s case, as for much of the public seduced by Hollywood’s glamor, the dream has become a self-centered and even anti-social phenomenon.

It’s ambiguous how much of this portrait in Detour is intended. If it’s fair to describe an abrupt reversion to cutthroat individualism in the postwar United States, then the phenomenon would probably show up in any halfway perceptive film of the time – as it does all too clearly in Mildred Pierce for instance. Detour is based on a 1939 novel by Martin Goldsmith, written at the end of the Great Depression and before World War II, when there was doubtless a small resurgence of self-interest that would soon be stifled after Pearl Harbor. In any case the movie was a hit while the book was not, which suggests that the portrait resonated more strongly in late 1945. In the end it hardly matters whether the writer or director intended it – what’s important is what it reveals. Nevertheless the movie shows some signs of awareness of what it’s saying about American society.

Detour - Edgar G. Ulmer - Ann Savage - Tom Neal - Vera - Al Roberts - hotel room - Los Angeles

Vera’s name, for example, is just unusual enough to call attention to itself, so it’s probably not random that it means “truth”. It’s not that she’s honest or that she represents any virtue – far from it – but rather that she’s the “true” face of an emerging American society that will quickly abandon many of the virtues that got the country through a decade and a half of hard times.

Years of depression and war had forged a cohesive society in the United States, and Detour is about the unraveling of this cohesion. In a country that had so recently lived up to its name, having become more united than ever, it’s ironic that an instrument of social unity – the telephone, which is designed to connect people – should become an agent of doom. Telephones are always sinister in Detour. When Al gets a $10 tip at the piano bar he calls Sue in Los Angeles and decides to join her there. The scene goes out of its way to reveal the mechanics of the call, tracing its path from New York to Los Angeles in a montage of switchboard operators and roadside telephone lines. When Al travels west, telephone wires follow his route ominously, and they appear right behind Vera when he first notices her at the gas station. Later he and Vera will fight over the telephone, and she ends up getting strangled by a phone cord. Just as the phone cable pulls Vera to her death, it’s also fair to say that it pulls Al all the way across the country to his unfortunate destiny.

Detour - Edgar G. Ulmer - Ann Savage - Vera - telephone

Insofar as Detour is critiquing a negative trend in American society, it’s making a broad generalization. Anyone who looks evenhandedly at history can find much to admire in the generation that defeated fascism in Europe and the Pacific. A country usually doesn’t become sinister overnight. Still, no one is insisting that a trend toward selfishness is universal. If the trend exists, then the movie is singling it out and making people aware of it, possibly before it gets worse. It’s remarkable though that World War II is never mentioned or even hinted at in Detour, and there’s no sign that any of the characters were returning from military service. For all we see, the story may only describe the majority of Americans who stayed home during the war. Lacking the benefits that accrued to GIs, these regular Americans almost form an underclass of people “left out” of World War II. At any rate, it surely would have seemed disrespectful to characterize returning soldiers in such an unflattering fashion.

The end of the war brought a sense of optimism to the United States, and in fact people’s lives did generally get better in the following years. But it’s understandable that soon after victory reality would cool the optimism, and Detour ends on a pessimistic note. An innocent man who is too weak to get his own way – he loses the jukebox argument, his fiancée decides where she’s going to live, the car dealer wins the negotiation, and Vera pushes him around – winds up getting arrested for murder.

Detour - Edgar G. Ulmer - Ann Savage - Vera

The movie’s comment on all of this comes down to one word. Back in the Mojave Desert while Vera was napping in the passenger seat, Al had wondered how he’d get rid of Haskell’s car and get back to normal life with Sue. Imagining his reunion he said to himself, “This nightmare of being a dead man would be over” …and precisely on the word “nightmare” Vera’s eyes, already aimed at Al’s face behind her eyelids, suddenly open, and she stares at him like a devil. At this moment Al’s life turns into a nightmare beyond his previous imagining. With its horror story and its downbeat ending Detour is not trying to comfort anyone. It wants its audience to feel the logical impact of the anti-social current it senses in postwar life. Al Roberts may be living a nightmare, but there was still time for Americans to reverse course and recover the social harmony they were quickly losing.


Mildred Pierce – Selfishness and the allure of Hollywood in the United States immediately after WWII

Mulholland Drive – Social and psychological damage caused by the allure of Hollywood