Friday Night Film Noir: Detour (1945)

  "The difference between a crime film and a noir film is that the bad guys in crime movies know they're bad and want to be, while a noir hero thinks he's a good guy who has been ambushed by life."

The above quote and all quoted material below is from Roger Ebert's review of the film. (I put all the dialogue from the film itself between single-quotation-marks.) That's probably the format I'll adapt for this Friday Night Film Noir series - pick one arguably-definitive review of the film and sprinkle in my own thoughts and screencaps.

"Detour tells the story of Al Roberts, played by Tom Neal as a petulant loser with haunted eyes and a weak mouth, who plays piano in a nightclub and is in love, or says he is, with a singer named Sue, played by Claudia Drake."

I italicized or says he is because that's the right approach to take with this film. Detour is heavily narrated (perhaps even heavily redacted) by Al, and the reasons Al gives for the things he does (or doesn't do) don't always make sense. Moreover, the things we see on-screen don't always appear to be accurately described by the narration. This works perfectly well - if we accept that what we are seeing and hearing is what the film's protagonist desperately wants to believe. We are eavesdropping on his own self-rationalizations and sublimation. From the first moment we meet him - 

he is (Ebert again) "an innocent bystander who looks (and sounds) guilty even to himself." For clarity's sake, let me first recount the plot as he sees / narrates it.

When Sue leaves for the west coast, Al stays behind and continues to play piano. Unhappily. After a particularly successful gig - where he receives a ten-dollar tip, prompting the great line 'When this drunk gave me a ten spot, I couldn't get very excited. What was it? A piece of paper crawling with germs.' - he decides to hitch-hike cross-country to be with her. No more sitting around torturing himself with thoughts of her life apart from him. (Sidenote - his and Sue's song is "I Can't Believe You Fell in Love with Me.")

He ends up getting a lift from one Mr. Haskell.
Haskell tells him about the last hitch-hiker he picked up, 'a dame with claws' who left deep scratches on his hand. Al is hesitant to comment either way. ('A lot of rides have been cut short by a big mouth.') That night, Mr. Haskell dies of a heart attack while Al is driving.

"Al buries the body, and takes Haskell's car, clothes, money and identification; he claims to have no choice, because the police will in any event assume he murdered the man."

"He picks up a hitchhiker named Vera (Ann Savage), who 'looked like she'd just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world.' Though not necessarily in this pic.
"She seems to doze, then sits bolt upright and makes a sudden verbal attack: 'Where'd you leave his body? Where did you leave the owner of this car? Your name's not Haskell!' Al realizes he has picked up the dame with the claws."
From that point on, Al is completely at Vera's mercy. He offers her all the money he took from Haskell, but she insists they go to Los Angeles as planned and sell the car. Which almost happens, until Vera picks up the newspaper. 

"(She) dreams up a con for Al to keep impersonating the long-lost son and inherit the estate."
"Waiting for the old man to die, they sit in a rented room, drinking, playing cards and fighting - 
"until Al finds himself with another corpse on his hands, once again in a situation that makes him look guilty of murder."

The last we see of Al, he is walking along the road, bemoaning his fate, when he is picked up by the cops.

'Someday a car will stop to pick me up for a ride I never thumbed.'
'Yes, fate - or some mysterious force - can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.'
The End.

The Leads

"Roberts is played by Tom Neal as a sad sack who seems relieved to surrender to Vera ('My favorite sport is being kept prisoner,' he tells her.)" 

"Most noir heroes are defeated through their weaknesses. Few have been weaker than Roberts. He narrates the movie by speaking directly to the audience, mostly in a self-pitying whine. He's pleading his case, complaining that life hasn't given him a fair break."

Detour is more a tone poem than a sensible narrative, realizing onscreen a particularly masculine state of anxiety, guilty conscience, masochism, and above all, a kind of chronic helplessness and self-sabotage. 

"These are two pure types: the submissive man and the female hellion."

'I kept imagining I was being followed...'
Some biographical info: "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." 

Payton and Neal separated shortly after the above, and in 1965 Neal was tried in the shooting death of his wife Gale and served six years in prison for manslaughter.

As for Ann Savage, who shows up in my news feed and probably yours at Halloween time:

"Ann Savage plays Vera as a venomous castrator. Every line is acid and angry. (...) There is not a single fleeting shred of tenderness or humanity in her performance as Vera, as she snaps out her pulp dialogue."

Examples include: 'What'd you do... kiss him with a wrench?'
'Where'd you hide the butts?'
"I don't like you, Roberts - you're not a gentleman, see!?"
Allegedly, Savage was a guest-star in the Saved By the Bell episode "Boss Lady" but I can find no visual corroboration for this. What a world, what a world, though, if so.

The Director

Edgar Ulmer started off as an assistant to F.W. Murnau before emigrating to the United States to escape Hitler. Thus, curiously, Nazi-flight “provided one of the links between the German Expressionism (of Murnau,) with its exaggerated lighting, camera angles and dramaturgy, and the American film noir, which added jazz and guilt.”

Ulmer keeps it simple in Detour, but that shouldn't detract a contemporary viewer from appreciating the artistry of some of the production choices, particularly the extensive use of rear projection for the many car scenes.

Reliable Narrator?

Back to the Freud:

"Of course Al could simply escape from her. Sure, she has the key to the room, but any woman who kills a bottle of booze in a night can be dodged fairly easily. Al stays because he wants to stay. He wallows in mistreatment."

"Most critics of Detour have taken Al's story at face value. (...) But the critic Andrew Britton argues a more intriguing theory in Ian Cameron's Book of Film Noir. He emphasizes that the narration is addressed directly to us: We're not hearing what happened, but what Al Roberts wants us to believe happened. It's a 'spurious but flattering account,' he writes, pointing out that Sue the singer hardly fits Al's description of her, that Al is less in love than in need of her paycheck, and that his cover-up of Haskell's death is a rationalization for an easy theft. For Britton, Al's version illustrates Freud's theory that traumatic experiences can be reworked into fantasies that are easier to live with."

"At the end, Al is still complaining: 'Fate, for some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all.' Oh, it has a reason."

As a story about an innocent man who is swept along in circumstances he can neither control nor understand, it's passable but not very complex or satisfying. As the retcon-projection of a man lying to himself (and us) though, it's fascinating.



Hulk: 1973 - 1975 pt. 2

Let's wrap up the Hulk's adventures 1973 to 1975 with these snapshots from The Incredible Hulk 159 to 194. 

All stories written by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, and Len Wein. All pencils by Herb Trimpe. (Except 194, by Sal Buscema.) Inks by Sal Trapani, Jack Abel, Herb Trimpe, Joe Staton, and Marie Severin.

1. Beans.

From 194.

2. The Plots

The stories are better in this '73 to '75 stretch than they were last time around. Lots of filler, sure, but some genuinely weird stuff. This fight with Tiger Shark is not especially weird -

but it's fun, mainly because I always liked Tiger Shark's visual. We'll see a bit more of him when we get to the "Hulk Smash" section below. 

Most issues have a mix of the pleasantly-weird and the maybe-too-weird. Here's a good example from issue 163:

Sci-fi city buried miles under the ice? Cool. Another / any Oompa-Loompa-looking bad guy? Decidedly less cool.

I think my favorite stretch of stories save for the ones showcased separately below was this trio of stories written by Roy Thomas:

a sequel to his Counter-Earth story from last time around.

The plot is too manic to summarize properly here (though the summary at supermegamonkeymind is certainly an admirable attempt.) You can get by on "Man-Beast: President / Adam Warlock: Jesus."

183 features the welcome return of Zzzax, although he really doesn't do too much.
And then in 184, the Hulk fights his shadow. "Alien has stolen Hulk's shadow?"
Unfortunately, his origin story goes on forever... the above is only a quarter of it or so. "Are you finished?" (in my best Master Shake voice)

3. Sound fx

I began to notice that Herb Trimpe was partial to big pop-art sound fx last time but didn't grab any. This time around, I made sure to. Comin' atcha!

"SSSA-KLUD!" is dedication. I can picture Herb at his drawing table, looking off into space, perhaps chewing on the top of his pencil, in-between saying various versions of this aloud.

I know, you're probably thinking this is all a bit excessive.
And I agree.
That is to say, my screencapping them all like this is excessive, not the existence of all these sound fx.

Okay, I'll stop now. I love this kind of stuff, though. A few years back I went to an Art Institute of Chicago retrospective of Roy Liechtenstein. If you're unfamiliar, have a gander at his stuff sometime. I would absolutely love to wander through a museum exhibit comprised of nothing but the above panels, blown up to display size. Herb Trimpe isn't on many people's short list for Greatest Comics Artists Ever, and I don't know if he'd be on mine, either, but if only for the above, he now has a special place in my comics-lovin' heart.

4. Wolverine

Of course, this stretch of the Hulk is best-known for one thing above all others: the introduction of the Wolverine.

First mention of Wolverine - one for comics trivia night.
The story itself is a sequel to 162, which introduced Wendigo. (Byrne and Claremont did a nice little homage / sequel to Wolverine's first appearance in X-Men 140.)
Here he is at the end of 181. (Notice: no "bub.")
Not the greatest story, but as you can see, very collectible.
This issue casts a long shadow. (The facade of my local comics shop, Variety Comics.)
5. Remember When I Said I Hate the Leader?

I still do.
But I have discovered I also hate Betty Ross's father, General Ross. Talk about a one-note character. I have the same reaction to him that I always used to have to Lt. Gerard in The Fugitive, mainly "Don't you have anything else to do? How do you have leave from all your other duties? And how are you still the point man on this with your track record of failure year after year?" Even worse with General Ross, since his failures to apprehend / neutralize the Hulk are so astronomically expensive.

And this time around, I couldn't help thinking of The General everytime I saw him.
Though apparently the car insurance General outranks General Ross by two stars.
6. Bad Bruce Hair

I think that these shots of Bruce are meant to indicate he is in the process of turning into the Hulk, but... they just look ridiculous.

But that's a problem with Bruce Banner in general. The stories downshift very perceptibly whenever the Hulk switches to Banner. Like General Ross, he's a bit of a one-note character. It's sad when you're out-dynamic-ed by the Hulk.

7. Hulk Smash

I promised my wife I'd include at least one "Hulk Smash!" section in the next blog. Here it is. Not too many - a lot of overlap with the "Sound fx" section - but here are a few, starting with this smackdown of Tiger Shark from issue 160.

And a satisfying punch is delivered unto the very irritating Doc Sampson. (193)

8. Hulk and the Harpy

For me the most memorable storyline from this period stretches from issue 167 to 170. The stage is set many issues before, as Betty (now Betty Talbott, married to this dude below:)

slowly has a nervous breakdown after thinking her new husband has died. (Actually he's alive and is just hiding out with the KGB, but Betty doesn't know that.)

Unlike the good folks at supermegamonkeymind, this is probably the only time Betty ever interested me as a character. This isn't a very deep deconstruction of the shrill harpy stereotype, but it's at least a deconstruction / tongue-in-cheek portrayal of it all. I mean, Betty is exposed to the same gamma radiation which ruined her life with Bruce Banner, and she becomes... The Harpy? I don't think we're swimming into impenetrable esoteric waters, here.


Dear God, that visual is horrific. But it's likely deliberate. Wings and talons and green skin aside, she gains a pregnant paunch she otherwise does not have. Am I reading too much into this? The child she can never have with Bruce, or her new husband Glenn? Now transformed into violent, angry impulse? Maybe. If it was just a wink-wink sort of story about the doomed romance of Betty and Bruce, it'd be fun, but what really appeals to me about these issues is how the insanity unfolds: 

First, Modok figures that someday the Hulk might pose a threat to his plans, so (he proactively reasons) he'd better brainwash someone close to him to come to his lair so he can employ the Gamma Ray Transformer.

After beating the Hulk (!) the Harpy flies off - and gets lost. She and the Hulk crash-land on the Eight Miles High Sky-Island of the Bird-People, protected by the Bi-Beast. (It was a simpler time.)
Which makes the Bi-Beast happy. Modok (r) less so.
The Hulk reverts to Banner, and the Bi-Beast puts him to work on the vast machines of the island that he and the Bird-People no longer understand. Modok arrives just in time for the island to blow up, and Betty (now cured of her Harpy persona) and Bruce tumble through the sky, eventually landing (thanks to Bruce's transforming into the Hulk before impact) on another island of monsters.

This last issue is an interesting wrap-up to all of the above, as Hulk continually tries to make Betty happy, and Betty continually pushes him away / snaps at him. And along the lines of aborted romance/ the child they cannot have, there's this interesting observation of Betty's in the first panel:

And speaking of pretty:

9. How Hulk Thinks

10. Hulk Weather Report

11. Some Randoms

Yaaaaaaaaarg. (168)
(177) Man, that "Say what you mean, Lizardus, or I swear -" amuses me.
(158.) This fight between man-porcupine and man-lizard can be NO FARCE! (Incidentally, is that a "666" on the shield?)
That's the view right across the street from where your humble narrator types these words.

12. Two More Covers
And last but not least:

13. Nuff Said.

See you next month for 1976 - 1977. And pssst! Don't forget your Marvel Value Stamps, True Believer: