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Detour (Nov. 30, 1945)

There should be a picture of Tom Neal from the first few minutes of Detour next to the word “dejected” in the dictionary.

Unshaven, tie loosened, hat and suit rumpled, he walks along a California highway with his hands in his pockets, looking as though he just watched the world burn down to a cinder and he doesn’t know why he’s still standing.

Like a lot of film noirs, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is told through flashback and voiceover narration. Sitting at a counter, a cup of coffee in front of him, Al Roberts (Neal) recalls his nothing-special but decent job playing piano in a Manhattan nightclub called the Break o’ Dawn, back when he had a clean jaw, a sharp tuxedo, and brilliantined hair.

“All in all I was a pretty lucky guy,” he says, recalling his romance with Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), the singer in the club. Al has dreams of Carnegie Hall that he downplays with cynicism, while Sue dreams of making it in Hollywood. When she leaves New York to fulfill her dream, Al is still stuck in the club, performing virtuoso pieces for the occasional sawbuck tip from a drunk.

When Al decides he’s going to travel to Los Angeles to marry Sue, he has so little money that the only way he can do it is by thumbing rides. Hitchhiking in Detour isn’t the transcendent experience Jack Kerouac described in On the Road, it’s a grim necessity. “Ever done any hitchhiking? It’s not much fun, believe me,” Al says. “Oh, yeah, I know all about how it’s an education and how you get to meet a lot of people and all that, but me? From now on I’ll take my education in college, or in P.S. Sixty-Two, or I’ll send a dollar ninety-eight in stamps for ten easy lessons. Thumbing rides may save you bus fare, but it’s dangerous. You never know what’s in store for you when you hear the squeal of brakes. If only I’d known what I was getting into that day in Arizona.”

What’s in store for Al is one of the most brilliant film noirs ever made. The plot of Detour is not that different from any number of 30-minute radio plays produced for Suspense or The Whistler, and any devotee of the pulp novels of Cornell Woolrich or Jim Thompson will feel right at home while watching this film. So what is it that makes Detour so unique?

First, it’s phenomenal that such a finely crafted film was produced in just six days, and mostly in two locations; a hotel room and a car in front of a rear projection screen. Furthermore, it’s stunning how easy it is to suspend one’s disbelief during all of the driving scenes. Usually rear projection is a technique that draws attention to itself, and looks incredibly fake, but in Detour it’s just part of the background. It helps that the performances in the film are hypnotic. When Al is picked up by a man named Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), Haskell pops pills from his glove compartment and tells Al the story of how he got the deep scratches on his hand. “You know, there oughtta be a law against dames with claws,” he says. “I tossed her out of the car on her ear. Was I wrong? Give a lift to a tomato, you expect her to be nice, don’t you? After all, what kind of dames thumb rides? Sunday school teachers? The little witch. She must have thought she was riding with some fall guy.” As Haskell speaks, Al responds with noncommital little “Yep”s in a way that will be familiar to anyone who’s hitchhiked, or who’s had to sit next to a talkative creep on a Greyhound bus.

When Haskell drops dead under mysterious circumstances, Al is convinced he’ll be blamed for the murder if he reports it to the police, so he hides the corpse, switches clothes with Haskell, and takes his identification and money. His luck goes from bad to worse when he picks up a slovenly hitchhiker the next day named Vera (Ann Savage), who looks as if she’s “just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world.” Despite her plain looks, Al is immediately attracted to her. Unfortunately for him, Vera turns out to be the woman Haskell threw out of his car. She doesn’t recognize the car at first, and takes a nap after exchanging a few sullen words with Al. But after a minute or two, she bolts awake and says, “Where did you leave his body? Where did you leave the owner of this car? You’re not fooling anyone. This buggy belongs to a guy named Haskell. That’s not you, mister.”

The heartless Vera blackmails Al, forcing him to give her all of Haskell’s money and promise to get his hands on more, or she’ll turn him in to the cops. The two of them hole up in a lousy hotel room with a bedroom and a living room with a Murphy bed. Vera plays Al like a fiddle while getting drunk off cheap liquor and flinging abuse at him. Even so, the sexual tension between them is unbearable, which is even more remarkable considering that Savage is no great beauty, and plays the scene in which she attempts to seduce Al while wearing a bathrobe and a headscarf.

Like everything else in Detour, Neal and Savage’s performances are not Oscar-caliber, but they have an eerie power that can’t be fully explained. Neal, who was born into a wealthy family in Evanston, Illinois, was a former boxer with a Harvard law degree who played mostly tough guys in the movies. A troubled man, he was blackballed in Hollywood in 1951 after beating Franchot Tone to a pulp and giving him a concussion in a quarrel over the affections of Barbara Payton. And in 1965, Neal was tried in the shooting death of his wife Gale, and did time in prison for manslaughter.

Neal’s performance in this film is haunting, and invites a subjective judgment from the viewer. Are the things Al tells us about the deaths in the film accurate? Were they, as he claims, purely accidental? Or is he like every other murderer who pleads for clemency because it “wasn’t really my fault”? How real are the things we’re shown? Is Al really the unappreciated piano virtuoso he seems to be, or is this just another part of an elaborate fantasy world in which life refuses to hand him any breaks? This sense of nightmarish uncertainty and the pervading sense of doom make Detour one of the all-time great noirs. Edgar G. Ulmer was probably the best director who made films for the Poverty Row studio P.R.C., but Detour is head and shoulders above anything else I’ve ever seen of his.

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10 responses »

  1. Almost all of the movies in this blog have interested me, but I haven’t had much luck finding them. So I was happy to discover a collection called 5 Film Noir Killer Classics at the library. Included was Detour, which had been high on my must-see list for weeks. To say it did not disappoint would be an understatement. I was sucked in before I even got past the Main Menu. There’s more to this movie than a road trip and a pianist, but for me that’s a great start. And to hear touches of Chopin and Boogie variations on one of Brahms’s sweetest little waltzes in the first part of the film was an unexpected treat.

    “Femme Fatale — The Noir Dame” was one of the segments in the features disc (great for someone like me who had only a vague idea of the genre), but Vera doesn’t seem to quite fit that category. At least not as described in the blurb “as vital to the noir flick as murky shadows and rain-slick streets, she causing hearts to flutter while spinning her web of doom.” She certainly spun her web of doom, but hearts to flutter? Al Roberts wasn’t under her spell, he was her prisoner, and I don’t mean prisoner-of-love. I thought his initial impression of her was strange. A wholesome kind of beauty? At that point, not only were her appearance and behavior wretched, it implied that she might turn out to be a diamond in the rough rather than what she did turn out to be, simply a rough in the rough. As for Al, while he might have been fantasizing about being the victim rather than the guilty party, I quickly opted to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least in part. The truth is, I think he killed Vera but not Haskell. Haskell was gone before Roberts even opened the car door. If he didn’t wake up after being pelted with rain, pounded on and yelled at, or when the car suddenly stopped, then he was already dead. And if not, he was so drugged he would have expired soon enough. Vera, however, in order to have been strangled as portrayed, would have had to wind the telephone cord a couple of times around her neck and even then would have been pulled off the bed as Roberts pulled on the cord. So yes, Roberts did her in and with good reason. I forgive him.

    How to interpret the final scene? The police car pulls up and you hear Roberts’ voice saying, “I know …. someday a car will stop to pick me up that I never thumbed. Yes, fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” Did he mean: 1) He was only getting picked up for some minor thing like loitering; 2) and then his whole identity and story would be uncovered; 3) no matter the reason, it would be just one more unfortunate incident in his hard luck life; or 4) what does it matter anyway?

    Reply
    • You’re right about Al’s narrated description not exactly matching the woman we see on screen. Although, in fairness, he does describe her as looking like she’d “just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world,” which she certainly does. Admittedly, it’s been a few weeks since I watched “Detour,” but I recall his impression of her changing the longer he looked at her, so it’s possible that he was seeing something that the viewer wasn’t privy to.

      On the other hand, sometimes the simplest explanation is the best one. With such a short shooting schedule and low budget, the visual choices made by the director don’t always match the script. Also, I’ve seen Ann Savage in one other movie, “Midnight Manhunt,” and she looked much more fresh and wholesome in that. She has an evil expression in “Detour” that’s pretty hard to ignore.

      And you’re absolutely right about her not fitting the archetype of the femme fatale, simply because she’s so vile. For my money, the best example of the alluring woman who ensnares the hero and ultimately leads him to ruin without him even realizing it at first is probably Jane Greer in “Out of the Past.” Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity” is another good one, although I always found her funny-looking. Peggy Cummins in “Gun Crazy” is another good one.

      That said, I think you might be underestimating the sexual tension between Al and Vera. Even though they have a hate-hate relationship and she literally keeps him prisoner, I think there’s something there.

      I think the theory (and I’m not the first person to have it) that Al deliberately killed Haskell is predicated on the idea that not everything we’re seeing on screen is the literal truth, but rather, a visual manifestation of the tale Al weaves. You’re absolutely right that, based on what we see, Haskell dies of natural causes (or at least his own drug-taking). But there’s always the possibility that we’re seeing Al’s own version of reality. Ultimately I don’t think there’s a “right” answer to this, but I think the open-ended possibilities the film presents–whether or not they’re deliberate–add to its hypnotic quality.

      How do I interpret the final scene? Again, the simplest explanation would be the Hays Code, which was a set of industry guidelines that Hollywood productions adhered to from the ’30s until 1968. One of the biggies was that you couldn’t show someone getting away with murder or another capital crime. The “capture” of Al at the end is one of the most half-hearted concessions to this rule I’ve ever seen. Honestly, I think the ending is meant to leave you with the sense that Al is locked inside a prison of guilt and paranoia, but the filmmakers had to throw in a literal apprehension (or something that looks like it) to satisfy Main Street, U.S.A.

      I’m delighted that you were able to track down a copy of this! Did you watch any of the other movies in the “Killer Classics” collection? So far, this is the only one of the five DVDs in the set that I’ve seen, but I’m going to review “Scarlet Street” very soon, and “The Stranger” in a few months, most likely.

      Reply
      • That’s interesting about the Hays Code, and explains why the movie didn’t simply end with Roberts in the diner or as he was walking down the dark lonely road. But why not have the police car come towards him in the distance, keeping the same voice-over, then ending the movie before you could tell for sure whether or not it was for him? Shouldn’t that satisfy Hays?

        As far as sexual tension between Al and Vera, I simply do not get it. When she’s in her robe and headscarf (not looking all that bad, by the way) she clearly sends a signal or two, in her troubled way, but the only thing I feel from Al is general frustration and hatred of her and the situation he’s got himself into. I must be missing some obvious guy-thing.

        Even though absolute truth versus Al’s version of reality is open-ended, I stand by my assertion that he did indeed kill Vera, but not Haskell. The tone of the movie is different at those two points. Plus he says he killed Vera, while he always maintained his innocence in Haskell’s death. And he didn’t have that much reason to kill Haskell. Even though he bemoaned the fact that he was penniless, he wasn’t someone who craved wealth for wealth’s sake. He wanted to get to California, marry Sue, and make a career out of the piano. Haskell was a piece of luck, helping him realize that dream. Vera was a piece of evil, threatening to stop not only his dream, but his very life. An unfortunate accident which made him look like a murderer led to his actually becoming a murderer. As he said, “… fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

        Scarlet Street is next on my list.

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