Tom Neal as Al Roberts, hitchhiking nightclub pianist
Across the United States, especially Arizona to California, Spring 1945
Release Date: November 30, 1945
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Wardrobe Designer: Mona Barry
On the last day of #Noirvember, let’s also kick off #CarWeek with a look at one of the best examples of “road noir” with Detour, the enduring B-movie that saw a limited release 76 years ago today on November 30, 1945, just over two weeks after its initial premiere in Boston.
Martin M. Goldsmith worked with an uncredited Martin Mooney to adapt his own 1939 novel of the same name into a screenplay. Known as “the King of PRC” for his reputation as an efficient director working for the Poverty Row studio Producers Releasing Corporation, the Austrian-born Edgar G. Ulmer filmed Detour in less than a month in the summer of 1945, with a shoestring budget of less than $100,000; for comparison, this was less than 10% of the final budget for that year’s winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, The Lost Weekend. (Perhaps overstating his efficiency, Ulmer would later cite that he made the movie in six days for $20,000.)
Detour was my gateway to film noir, thanks to a multi-pack DVD that I was gifted in high school that included many pulp classics like D.O.A., The Hitchhiker, Quicksand, and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, many of which—like Detour—were regularly available in budget-friendly home video releases as they had fallen into the public domain. Clocking in at just over an hour, the story may be simple, but it contains all the characteristic noir themes and stock characters, including the femme fatale (and how!) and the wrongly accused man whose questionable ethics and unfortunate circumstances launch him headway into increasingly dangerous circumstances.
Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a down-on-his-luck pianist who decides to leave New York City to join his singer girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) in Hollywood. Hitchhiking across the country, Al thumbs a ride in Arizona from prosperous bookie Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), who agrees to take him the rest of the way until a roadside accident results in Haskell cracking his skull. Assuming he would be blamed for the man’s murder, Al makes the fateful decision to steal Haskell’s identity—and his Lincoln, which was Ulmer’s personal car that he leant to the production—until he could at least make it to Los Angles and “be swallowed up” by the southern California megapolis.
Cruising through the desert en route L.A. and Sue, Al makes yet another fateful decision as he picks up a fellow hitchhiker, a young hellcat named Vera (Ann Savage) who “looked as if she’d just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world.” Vera appears to have settled in for a quiet nap during the ride until she barks:
Where did you leave his body? Where did you leave the owner of this car?!
What’d He Wear?
Al begins the story as a pianist for Sue’s backing band at the Break O’Dawn Club in New York City. The story establishes that Al doesn’t have much money, so it’s a telling sartorial detail for the era that a guy who barely had two pennies to rub together could still look so polished in his fashionable dinner suits, even if it’s one the club provided for him.
Likely made from a black or midnight blue wool, Al’s tuxedo consists of a double-breasted dinner jacket with grosgrain silk-faced peak lapels, with a close wrap fastened by a single row of buttons on the 4×1-button front. The wide-shouldered jacket has four-button cuffs, jetted hip pockets, and a welted breast pocket where he wears a white linen kerchief. His white shirt is self-striped with a raised pincord detailing, styled with a long point collar and double (French) cuffs. He also wears a black grosgrain silk bow tie in a narrow butterfly (or thistle) shape and black leather cap-toe oxfords.
Al doesn’t wear a trench coat like the archetypal noir protagonist, instead layering against Gotham’s evening chill in a herringbone wool fly-front coat with edge-stitched notch lapels and a napped felt fedora with a low, non-pinched crown.
The Hitchhiking Suit
Al leaves the Big Apple behind and takes to the road in a mid-colored flannel twill suit. The tailoring is consistent with the early-to-mid 1940s, like the single-breasted jacket rigged with wide, padded shoulders. The three-button jacket has wide-notched lapels, a welted breast pocket, jetted hip pockets, and four-button cuffs. The matching trousers have a flat front and belt loops, where Al wears a likely brown leather belt closed through a single-prong buckle.
The rigors of the road take their toll on what may have once been a nice suit, particularly expressed by the way Al wears it with his white shirt wide open at the neck with the loosened tie hanging low. The white cotton shirt has a long point collar, button cuffs, and two button-through chest pockets. The tie is styled in an all-over pattern of diamonds against a dark ground.
Wearing a suit to hitchhike may be laughable today (as well as the very idea of hitchhiking… thanks to movies like this), but the standards of men’s style in the mid-’40s meant anything wearing anything less than a suit could have marked Al as a vagrant or other non-desirable passenger. Still, he panics after Haskell’s death about “my clothes! The owner of such an expensive car would never be wearing ’em. Some cop might pull me in on suspicion.”
In Martin M. Goldsmith’s source novel, the protagonist—named Alexander Roth—is frequently described wearing much more casual clothing on the road, specifically a maroon polo shirt and ragged blue trousers, determining that “wearing the clothes I had on would not look kosher for the owner of such an expensive car” after Haskell’s death.
Roth’s narration also references “two suits and working tux” that he hocked in order to finance his cross-country wanderings. When the narration switches to Sue, she’s more deriding of his suits, dismissing them as “his customary $19.95 specials.”
Al swaps out his raggedy duds for Haskell’s clothing, first choosing the sporty light-colored herringbone suit, white shirt, and dark knitted tie that the sharp Haskell had been wearing at the time of his death.
After stopping at a motel, Al changes into a plaid suit that he would wear through the end of the movie. The suiting is a small-scaled variation of the houndstooth check known as “puppy-tooth”, with a lighter-colored triple-stripe over-check.
As expected for the flashy and fashionable Haskell, this suit echoes the preeminent styles of the mid-1940s, particularly before the prosperity of the post-World War II years brought the double-breasted suit fully back en vogue.
Haskell’s single-breasted suit jacket again has wide, padded shoulders, with broad notch lapels rolling to a two-button front positioned over his natural waist to harmonize with the fashionably long rise of his trousers. As with the herringbone suit, this jacket is ventless. The jetted hip pockets appear to lack flaps, and he wears another white linen display kerchief in the breast pocket. Each sleeve is finished with four buttons on the cuff.
The double reverse-pleated suit trousers fit Al Roberts well, rising to his natural waist, where he holds them up with a dark leather belt despite the presence of sets of two buttons on each side of the front and the center of the back, presumably to fit suspenders (braces).
The trousers have straight pockets positioned vertically along each side seam, jetted back pockets with a button to close the left one, and turn-ups (cuffs) on the bottom. A keychain attached to the belt loop immediately to the right of the trouser fly—and aligned with the first pleat—has a long chain that presumably connects to a set of keys that Al keeps in his right side pocket.
Haskell’s white shirt has a considerably baggier fit on Al Roberts, though it’s possible that this was more representative of the roomier fits of the ’40s than a suggestion that Haskell was burlier than Roberts. The shirt has a substantial spread collar, though more restrained than the collar points on Al’s own shirt, and a single breast pocket that distinguishes it as dressier than the two-pocket shirt Al had worn for his journey to this point.
Al chooses a subdued dark poplin tie from Haskell’s wardrobe, noded into a bulky Windsor knot that fills the space between collar points. Like much neckwear of the era, the tie is relatively short so that the tip of the blade meets the higher rise of his trousers.
Al presumably swaps out his own shoes for Haskell’s, which appear to be a pair of cap-toe oxfords in a dark leather that was likely a dark shade of brown rather than black. He also wears dark socks.
Al seems to keep wearing his own hat, a medium-shaded felt fedora with a black grosgrain band and self-edged brim. The crown is pinched in the front, though it also appears somewhat misshapen around the back.
Once again returning to the descriptions in Martin M. Goldsmith’s source novel, we learn that Haskell was dressed at the time of his death in expensive gray tweeds, described as a three-piece suit. Following Roth’s night in the state-line motel, he changes into “a single-breasted blue herringbone tweed, a honey of a tailoring job with patch pockets in the coat and high-waisted trousers. The stuff I had on the day before was still in good shape, of course, but well… you know how you feel about wearing things a man’s been dead in.”
In addition to the suit, Roth describes pulling on “a pair of his silk shorts, a clean pair of socks, one of his shirts with the initials ‘C.J.H.’ embroidered on the pocket, the least annoying of his ties…” Roth also attempts to learn what he can about his new identity by rifling Haskell’s clothing:
Whatever had a label in it had a New York label. His shirts and shorts were Lord and Taylor, his ties and pajamas Finchley or Sulka, and the shoes he had packed were Florsheim. The bathrobe, a big woolly thing, had a J. Abercrombie label.
“You’re not foolin’ anyone, this buggy belongs to a guy named Haskell… that’s not you, mister!” our fiery femme fatale Vera rightly accuses Al Roberts after she spends a few minutes curled up in the cockpit of that 1941 Lincoln Continental convertible. As stated, the Lincoln had belonged to director Edgar G. Ulmer, who chose to lend his personal car to the production to save budget.
Indeed, such a sleek ride with its customized parts reinforces the class difference between the wealthy Charles Haskell Jr. and the road-weary Al Roberts. American automobile production had been mostly discontinued during World War II to redirect efforts and parts toward war materiel, so Haskell’s 1941 Lincoln with its 1942 components would have been the nearest equivalent to a new car to be seen cruising the United States during the summer of 1945.
The Continental originated after Edsel Ford returned from a 1938 trip to Europe. Inspired by the sleek designs of European automobiles, Ford consulted with Lincoln’s design team to develop a sophisticated luxury car that, apropos its eventual nomenclature, would have a more continental bearing than most American cars.
Following a prototype built from a streamlined Lincoln-Zepyhr convertible in 1939 that became Edsel Ford’s personal car, the Continental formally debuted for the 1940 model year, boasting European-influenced styling like rear-mounted spare tires. All Continentals were powered by the Lincoln-Zephyr V12 engine, its displacement having been increased to 292 cubic inches for 1940.
For the final model year of “prewar” production in 1942, all Lincolns were redesigned with squared fenders and updated grilles. Ulmer’s ’41 Continental Model 65 leant to the Detour production was customized with these squared rear fenders from a 1942 model, as well as other modifications like a unique front bumper and small parking lights atop the front fenders.
1941 Lincoln Continental Model 65
Body Style: 2-door convertible cabriolet
Layout: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive (RWD)
Engine: 292 cu. in. (4.8 L) Lincoln-Zephyr “L-head” V12
Power: 120 hp (89 kW; 122 PS) @ 3500 RPM
Torque: 220 lb·ft (298 N·m) @ 2000 RPM
Transmission: 3-speed manual
Wheelbase: 125 inches (3175 mm)
Length: 209.8 inches (5329 mm)
Width: 75 inches (1905 mm)
Height: 62 inches (1575 mm)
Production was halted partway through the 1942 model year, not to be resumed until after the war when the 1946 Continental was reintroduced with the same V12 engine but with a facelift by noted industrial designer Raymond Loewy.
This first generation of Continentals would only be produced through 1948, the last mass-produced American car to be powered by a V12 engine. The Continental nameplate would return in 1956, once again Ford Motor Company’s flagship through the end of the 20th century.
Al and Vera take the customized Continental to a used auto lot in the hopes of ridding themselves of such a conspicuous car as well as boosting Vera’s savings. She takes offense to the salesman’s offers of $1,600, raised to $1,850 even though “this motor has seen a lot of driving.” Even Al admits that “the car doesn’t book for as much as I thought,” especially considering that its cost when new would have been about a thousand dollars more. (According to the Henry Ford Museum‘s records of a similarly customized 1941 Continental valued at $2,778, nearly double the average annual wages brought in by a 1941 worker.)
Martin M. Goldsmith described Haskell’s “buggy” in his 1939 source novel as a large gray Buick roadster, only about a year old, with a rumble seat, running boards, leather upholstery, and a manual transmission.
What to Imbibe
Vera: We’re outta liquor, Roberts… too bad. I felt like gettin’ tight tonight.
Al: Well, I think you succeeded.
Vera: Am I tight?
Al: As a prima donna’s corset.
Holed up in their Hollywood apartment, Al and Vera take pulls from a pint of Schenley, an 86-proof blended whiskey. Schenley was a product of Schenley Distillers Company, a liquor company organized during the roaring ’20s by entrepreneur Lewis Rosenstiel.
The Volstead Act was still in effect, but Rosenstiel had acquired government licenses to produce whiskey for “medicinal purposes” and was well positioned for success when Prohibition ended in December 1933. Indeed, from 1934 through 1937, Schenley was the largest liquor company in the United States, with a range of whiskey offerings like Golden Wedding rye, I.W. Harper bourbon, James E. Pepper bourbon, Old Quaker, and the eponymous Schenley varieties of American rye and Canadian whisky.
Martin M. Goldsmith’s source novel specifically calls out that Vera purchased two pints of Ten High for the duo to work through in their rented rooms. This Illinois-distilled whiskey had been introduced shortly after the repeal of Prohibition in the mid-1930s. When production moved to Kentucky a half-century later, Ten High was reclassified as a bourbon.
How to Get the Look
Whether you want to look respectable for a day at the office or thumbing rides to California, just make sure you obtain your kit through more legitimate means than undressing it from an acquaintance who just split his head on a roadside rock.
- Puppytooth check wool suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with wide notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight jetted hip pockets, 4-button cuffs, and ventless back
- Double forward-pleated long-rise trousers with belt loops, suspender buttons, on-seam side pockets, jetted back pockets (with back-left button), and turn-ups/cuffs
- White cotton shirt with spread collar, plain front, breast pocket, and button cuffs
- Dark poplin Windsor-knotted tie
- Dark brown leather belt with squared single-prong buckle
- Dark brown leather cap-toe oxford shoes
- Black socks
- Medium felt fedora with dark grosgrain band and self-edged brim
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie. Due to Detour falling into the public domain, there’s an abundance of cheap copies both on home video and streaming, but the painstakingly restored Criterion Collection release is the best. (For fans of the film, I also recommend Robert Polito’s 2019 extensively researched essay for Criterion, “Some Detours to Detour“.)
Bona fide badass Ann Savage lives up to her surname as Vera, the femme fatale that seals Al Roberts’ fate the moment she steps into his commandeered Lincoln. Only 24 when the movie was made, Savage delivers a cynical, worldly performance that elevates Detour above most Poverty Row output. She essentially left Hollywood behind by the mid-1950s, maintaining a colorful life and receiving her pilot’s license in 1979 at the age of 58. Both Ulmer and Neal had died by the time Detour became the subject of a positive reappraisal later in the 20th century, renewing interest in Savage’s career that led to rounds of public appearances before her 2008 death and a posthumous biography, Savage Detours: The Life and Work of Ann Savage.
Neal, a former boxer, stifles his real-life aggression for his role in Detour but would go on to infamy after an abusive affair with Barbara Peyton that led to a much-publicized brawl with Franchot Tone and ultimately a conviction for manslaughter after he shot his third wife, Gale Bennett, in 1965. Seven years later, Neal died of heart failure, and his corpse was discovered by his son, Tom Neal Jr., who later reprised his father’s famous role in a largely unnecessary Detour remake released in 1992.
That’s life… whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.