It’s only about an hour long, so Detour felt a little more like an episode of a show like The Twilight Zone or some other anthology series. It wasn’t supernatural; but it was a shade improbable.
Al Robert (Tom Neal) narrates the story via flashback as he muses to himself in a cheap diner in Nevada. He’s a pianist originally from New York, and his cabaret-singer girlfriend had made the leap to Hollywood to make it big, promising that someday they’d reunite when her ship came in. Eventually Al decided to join her in Los Angeles, thumbing his way there. Somewhere in Arizona Al got picked up by a bookie, Charlie Haskell (Edmund McDonald), who was going all the way to Los Angeles himself, and had a wad of easy cash to blow on treating Al to dinners.
Al thought he had it made, he says, and even offered to take on some of the driving so Charlie could nap. But then it started raining and Al pulled over to put up the hood of Charlie’s convertible. He tried rousing Charlie a few times to help him, and finally opened the passenger door to rouse Charlie – but when he did so, Charlie tumbled out of the car and hit his head on a rock, killing him instantly. A panicked Al decided to hide the body and pose as Charlie long enough to drive to L.A. and then sell the car, then resume his own identity and live happily ever after. He was confident enough in his plan to give a lift to another hitchhiker, a woman named Vera (Ann Savage) who’s also headed for Los Angeles. But along the way, Vera suddenly realized – she’d been in that car before. She’d hitched with Charlie from Florida to New Orleans, and he’d tried to hit on her and she’d had to fight him off. So she knew this was Charlie’s car, but Charlie wasn’t the one driving it.
Vera quickly figured out what happened and blackmailed Al into going halves on the sale of the car. Then the news went out that the police were on a search for Charlie – because he was the heir to a millionaire on his deathbed. Vera upped her stakes, trying to persuade Al into waiting until Charlie’s father died and then posing as Charlie so they can claim the inheritance. Al had several problems with this plan, and their argument lead to a dramatic and tragic outcome, sending Al out on the road again…
So, the whole plot hinges on a handful of fairly specific coincidences, including a couple of accidents-that-look-intentional. And about midway through I started thinking of a Monty Python sketch where someone lands in the middle of some similarly suspicious-looking accidents. Associating this piece with Graham Chapman and Carol Cleveland unfortunately punctured a lot of the tension for me – but I also admit that my seeing “The Accident Sketch” before this is itself a pretty unusual coincidence. Unfortunately, the other elements of the film weren’t able to overcome that; the staging of the “flashback” intros and outros were a little hokey, and Neal and Savage’s performances are a little one-note, particularly during the scenes when they’re doing little but arguing in hotel rooms.
So I say watch “The Accident Sketch” in black-and-white and call it a day.