"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.|
"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."|
|"(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.'|
"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...'|
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?'|
'ON THE TABLE, SUCKER!'
|"I don't like you, Roberts - you're not a gentleman, see!?"|
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.
Back to the Freud:
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."