Lawrence Russell

Detour (1945) dir. Edgar G. Ulmer writ. Martin Goldsmith cine. Benjamin H. Kline edt. George McGuire music Erdody star. Tom Neal (Al Roberts), Anne Savage (Vera), Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald, Tim Ryan, Esther Howard


"I can't believe you're in love with me"

DetourIt's amazing what can happen to a person who goes hitch-hiking, especially if he's a jazz pianist from New York trying to hook up with his nightclub singer girlfriend in L.A. Is the hitcher a deviant seeking a victim... or a victim seeking a deviant? You be the judge -- if you can handle the crude production values in a film which is often so dark its nitrate must've evaporated before it was printed. For devotees of film noir, this strange film is like a cave painting, a lost artifact of the hunter and the hunted.

With its raw action and raw characters, it becomes a parody of a generational attitude, where women hammer nails for the men who stupidly, eagerly climb onto the cross they construct themselves. Al gets a ride from a bent bookie who has gouges and scars on his wrists -- how did he get them? Duelling? "From the most dangerous animal in the world," says the pill-popping bookie. "A woman." That fate should make one man succeed the other and hook up with the sadistic Vera further on up the road seems like a conspiracy... yet, is it?

If you were riding through the desert with a paranoid stranger and he O.D.'d at the wheel just as you're putting up the convertible top for the rain, would you rationalize his death as your fault and dump his body in a gully and drive off in his car? Would you then pick up a woman hitcher and pass yourself off as the dead man in order to impress yourself and the woman? This is exactly what Al Roberts (Tom Neal) does. And of course Vera (Anne Savage) calls his bluff almost immediately, as she's the woman who has ridden and fought with Haskell before Haskell picked up Al. "She must've passed me while I slept," he says in the interior monologue that haunts the narrative like the ghost of a man already dead. Passed me while I slept. Indeed. Everything about this story suggests dream rather than fact.

As a femme fatale, Vera is a bleak contrast to the ethereal singer Sue Harvey, the sweetheart Al is pursuing like an ideal he's trying to recover. Hard, cunning, manipulative, this doe-eyed slattern has the volatile nature of a born criminal. Her first move is to blackmail Al into submission. She wants all of Haskell's money, including the car which must be sold to a dealer when they get to L.A. When Al demurs, she snarls, "Just shut-up and remember who's boss here." As they drive into the city, Al observes, "I was further away from Sue than when I started out...."

just a piece of paper crawling with germs

The B-movies of the period often use the frame narrative -- the present as an envelope of a flashback or series of flashbacks -- and Detour is no different. You first see a haggard Al Roberts sitting at the counter in the Nevada Diner -- a roadstop in Bakersfield -- a paranoid wreck who snarls when another transient tries to strike up a conversation. He exists as a melodramatic caricature, just like a close-up frame from a comic book. His eyes are black rictuses, bad memories erode his face. Through the V.O. his sad story emerges: a piano player at The Break of Dawn club somewhere in New York, in love with a beautiful young singer who leaves for greener pastures in L.A., he decides to bag his gig and hitch his way to the west coast -- after all, what was there to stay for? "When this drunk hands me a ten spot for a request I couldn't get excited about," he muses, "it was just a piece of paper crawling with germs. It couldn't buy anything I wanted."

for no good reason at all

The full extent of his relationship with Vera is left ambiguous. He's attracted to her or else he wouldn't have picked her up in the first place. He admits that she had a certain fatal attractiveness about her. When she decides to go after old man Haskell Snr.'s fortune by making Al impersonate his dead son, she uses blackmail, and who knows what else? In the 1940s, sex still existed as a hidden ritual, a religious taboo. "Boy," says Vera, "for that kinda dough, I'd let you cut my leg off."

Like Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, Al finds himself moving from the impersonation of a dead man to being the dead man. But unlike Walter, Al is no expert and doesn't want to do it, despite Vera's threats. They get drunk, argue, fight. As he relates, "The air got blue... each word from our lips cracked like a whip." It's the amusing street lyricism of Al's narrative that actually sustains Detour through the absurd primitivism of its back projections and squalid lighting. When he's driving with Haskell or Vera, the landscape floats like a dream, a hallucinatory effect that isn't always as convincing as it needs to be. Even the frequently used side-wipe transition seems cheap, an anachronism from the silent era. But the cynical V.O. and the tough, street-ass dialogue holds it all together regardless.

Al didn't kill the sleazy Haskell... but he certainly kills the sociopathic Vera, albeit accidentally in an act that is as Freudian as it is ironic. But is it improbable? Who knows. Al's journey has been a series of improbable incidents in search of a probable cause.

Does Al follow through on Vera's plan to fraudulently inherit the Haskell estate? Does he reunite with Sue? Does he ever play the piano again? You expect at least one of these things to happen. But the hyperbole is more important than the plot. In primitivism, coincidence is destiny. It's an odd piece of work, no doubt compromised by a small budget. As a B-movie knockoff, it exists as self-parody in a genre that always plays it straight.

Al: "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...."

© LR 10/98


reviews | noir files | e-mail LR | culture court

Film Court | copyright 2000 | Lawrence Russell