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.



  1. The idea of a movie which consists mostly of lies told me to me by an unreliable narrator makes me kind of grumpy, if I'm being honest. But provided the idea is executed well, hey, why not?

    Either way, this sounds pretty great.

    I have to admit that I've never heard of any of the stars. I have, however, heard of Franchot Tone. I know nothing about him, but I like the idea that Tom Neal -- or anyone, really -- beat the piss out of him at some point in time on account of some dame.

    Solid screencaps here. Access the notion in my brain of what "film noir" looks like, and this would be pretty durn close.

    1. I thought of you when I wrote that line! I don't think it'd bother you here, though. I'd hazard a guess to say. Like Rashomon, there's a logic to it that turns the experience of watching it into something else.

      That's great to hear about the screencaps - mission accomplished...!

  2. Saw this in a Bill Lafferty Film Noir class, as I recall. Ann Savage has a remarkable quality in this film - her face seems to morph from attractive to ugly from scene to scene, sometimes within a scene, depending on her mood. It's one of the things that has always stuck with me about this movie.

    1. What other films did he show, Jeff? Just curious. Was that for a straight-up Film Noir class?

  3. I first saw Detour in a film class with several others. When the film reached the point where Ann Savage gives that "Kiss him with a Wrench" look, I can clearly remember one of the going "Whoa!" followed quiet laughter all around.

    All in all, we enjoyed it, and as matter of fact, the class came to more or less the same conclusion as Cameron did.

    My own take is that it can go either way, really. I've never minded the idea of unreliable narrators either in films or books, and that has mainly to do with the fact that a lot of narration at least can sometimes be unreliable when you think about it.

    To give an example, there's films like JFK in which the audience has to sit through an entire film of unreliable narratives, and yet it works. Or to give another example, I heard this fan theory that Ferris Beuller is really a figment of Cameron's imagination, and that the whole John Hughes film take place in a mental fugue the character is going through until more or less the end.

    As for Detour, like I said, I can go either way, because the nature of the narrative is such that either interpretation is valid.

    Still, that's just me. Nice to see appreciation for some old time noir, definitely.


    1. I've heard that Ferris Bueller's read before - it's definitely amusing to watch the film from that angle.

      I like film noir for the cinematography and the hard-boiled dialogue and the sassy dames, to be sure, but one of my favorite aspects of the genre is the multiple-reads aspect. Or rather, it's a genre that invites the cinematic manifestation of a psychological state. A plot can be fun, but the recreation of an anxiety state of reality on-screen, much in the same way an action film or a steamy romance film does this, is always fascinating to me.

      Apologize if I'm not getting that across just right, but I'll have 20+ chances to convey it better in the blogs to come. Yeah, see!

    2. I get what you mean about conveying mental states, and I also admit than it can technically be hard, yet I'm surprised not many audience members have bothered to realize that all fiction is a kind of mental state, sort of, just made manifest through various means.

      Looked at this way, it's a concept that is bigger than noir, yet I think because it's a genre that deals with crime combined with a sense of guilt, it gets singled out more.

      To digress a bit, one director whose work is sometimes lumped in with Noir is David Lynch. I don't know if his films have a genre or not, but it's quite probable unreliability is pretty much the only word for them, aside from surreal. The irony I run across this post after a Twin Peaks retrospective.

      For craps and giggles, I ran across this fan-trailer what-if of a Lynch directed version of Return of the Jedi.


      Yes, it turns out Lucas once asked Lynch if he wanted to direct the final SW installment. One can only wonder what "that" film would have been like. I can imagine Luke in a roomful of Vader lookalikes just trying to knock off all the helmets trying to get to the genuine article and then starting to slice and dice in a rage.

      ...I'll go take my meds now.


    3. Holy dear God do I love that fan-made trailer... thank you for that!!

    4. I didn't even expect to be writing "this" one. I'll I can say is the character in this clip most definitely fits in the Noir category and that he has affinities with Al Roberts. The difference between the two is Al Roberts is more of a whiner, and while both characters are compulsive liars, the character in this commercial showed no real quandary over it, or at least not much after awhile.


      My response to that commercial was simple...W....T...F!!!!