When I was watching the entire series of Blondie films a while back, I was surprised to see Anne Savage in Footlights Glamour, one of the later Blondie films. She was still a glamour girl with a contract at Columbia pictures at that time, and her role was far less substantial and gritty what she was allowed to play in Detour, and seeing her brief turn in the earlier comedy made me want to watch her in this quintessential film noir again.
The plot of Detour is quite simple. Al Roberts is a down-on-his-luck piano player is hitchhiking across the country to meet up with his old flame when he is picked up by a Haskell, a bookie in a fancy car. Al takes the his turn at the wheel, and when he stops to put the top up, he notices Haskell is dead. Fearing the police would pin a murder on him, he hides his body in the desert and takes his money and car and assumes his identity. He later picks up a female hitchhiker, “who looked like she is had fallen off of the dirtiest freight train.” She had previously ridden in the same car with Haskell, and sees through Al immediately and sets about blackmailing him to join her plan to get all of Haskell’s money. Finally, he is involved in another accidental death that makes him look even more guilty. While the story is simple, it has been suggested that it may be related by an unreliable narrator, as the only information comes from Al, who may be altering the events to cover up his own guilt. Near the end of the film, there is scene in which Al looks around the cheap hotel room which he has been held as a virtual prisoner, with the objects, or evidence, around him going in and out of focus, revealing that he is not entirely conscious of what he is doing. But aside from the plot, director Edgar G. Ulmer successfully (and cheaply!) creates an atmosphere of total seediness and despair, and that, along with Ann Savage’s remarkable performance, is really which made this film an unexpected classic.
Director Ulmer and Savage later said that the entire film was shot in six days, but this claim has been challenged, prompting Peter Bogdanovich to quip, “so what did he have, seven?” In the documentary Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-screen, the director’s daughter Arianne Ulmer presents a shooting script with with a title page reading “June 14, 1945-June 29. Camera days 14.” In any case, the film was shot cheaply and quickly, and Ulmer used innovation and resourcefulness to get around these limitations. Or, as Ann Savage said decades later, “well, we didn’t waste any time.”