If films like Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon are the Makers Mark, the Chivas Regals of film noir then DETOUR is house whiskey for those who like their liquor hard and want to get drunk fast. But, I have come not to condemn DETOUR, but rather recommend DETOUR; for DETOUR is indeed a worthy film and certainly one of the finest B movies of all time.
The credit for this gem is Director Edgar G. Ulmer. Much has been written about Ulmer and I suggest checking him out. He directed THE BLACK CAT, and was on his way up the corporate ladder but chose instead to eschew the big studios because he, “…didn’t want to be ground up in the Hollywood hash machine.” Ulmer has taken major elements of film noir, including a torch song that is heard throughout, and tweaks each one that makes DETOUR unique instead of a run of the mill genre clone.
The film starts with Al Roberts (Tom Neal) in a diner, forlorn looking and self-pitying. He begins his tale of woe by taking us back to the club where he is playing piano, forlorn looking with cigarette dangling from his self-pitying mouth, as his chartreuse girl friend, Sue, (Claudia Drake) is singing. He is the total antithesis of what we expect. Al is a whiner, a cry-baby, who mopes about never playing Carnegie Hall. There's more of the mook in him than noir-chump.
Just as Ulmer has deviated from the audience’s noir expectations in regards to protagonist and narration he does it in spades when it comes to shadows and fog. Al walks Sue home in a fog so thick that only close ups of street signs are clearly visible. The reason was financial not some artistic statement. The fog saved the company the expense of using street sets. It does give a nice effect though. Al is in love with Sue and plans to marry her. But she has other plans and gives him news that hits him like a mickey; she’s leaving for Hollywood to become famous. If this was a typical 40's film we'd expect the male lead to take her by the shoulders and say, "No, you're not. We're a team baby and we go together or we don't go at all.” Not in this film. His response: "What about me? I thought you loved me? What about our plans to marry?” He tries to change her mind by telling her it’s the stupidest thing he’s heard and Hollywood is full of people who went to Hollywood only to wind up polishing cuspidors. His tactful attempts at persuasion don’t work. She leaves. He stays. He mopes.
A few weeks later he calls her. But, why did he wait so long? Didn’t he tell us he was madly in love with her? She tells him things aren’t working out the way she planned and she’s working as a hash-slinger. Al is deeply sympathetic. He tells her to keep on trying and continue going to those casting offices. Is it possible that Al is so naïve as to have no idea what goes on in those casting offices? Or could it be a case of schadenfreude? Whatever it is, it’s apparent her dreams of fame in Hollywood are as out of reach as Al’s of playing Carnegie Hall. Al tells her to hang on, hang on to what they’ve got, because he’s going to join her in California. He has however saved almost no money while playing piano so he’s going to have to hitchhike, yep hitchhike baby.
It is too bad that Sue’s story was not expanded. The top shelf noirs all seem to have a sub-plot that parallels the main story. THE KILLING, and NIGHT AND THE CITY were more noir because of the inter-action between Elisha Cook, Jr. and Marie Windsor in the former and Googie Withers and Francis L. Sullivan in the latter. Who knows how good DETOUR could have been with some additional money and an extra ten minutes of film.
DETOUR abandons the darkness, and grittiness of the urban milieu. He is picked up by Steve Haskell (Edmund MacDonald), and thus starts the movie’s mojo. Haskell is an affable, good natured guy, but also a street wise tough kid; everything Al is not. He says he was a bookie in Florida who got wiped out and plans to start again in L.A. He left home after poking a friend’s eye with a saber. “It was an accident of course,” he tells Al, “just two kids playing.” Haskell is animated, he’s a people person, the type of guy you wouldn’t mind sitting next to in a neighborhood bar or an airplane flight; everything that Al is not. He catches Al staring at the deep, freshly scratched on his wrists.
Steve: Beauties aren’t they? One day they’re going to be scars. What an animal. Al: It must have been pretty big and vicious to have done that.
Steve: I was tussling with the most dangerous animal in the world. A woman.
I threw her out the car ….you give a lift to a tomato and you expect her to
be nice don’t you? After all, what kinda dame thumbs rides? …she must have thought she was riding with some fall guy.
MacDonald’s performance is a breath of fresh air in contrast to the woodeness of Tom Neal and the incessant drone/whine of his narration. Steve buys him supper at a diner and tells him about reuniting with his Dad, then hitting it big and returning to Florida the next season. They hit the road again with Al at wheel. He envisions Sue in a sequin gown singing against a back drop of shadows of horn players. The dream ends and reality arrives in the form of a hard rain. Al pulls over unaware that the seemingly asleep Haskell has more than likely suffered a stroke and opens the door only to have him fall out head first on a hard rock and is killed.
But is he killed, or was Haskell already dead? We have seen Haskell twice pop pills and in a film replete with narration, Al doesn't mention what they might be. They could be uppers, or perhaps something for a bad heart? We don't know, and Al, not wanting to risk a ride doesn't query Haskell on them. But, why not tell the audience? Regardless, there is a possibility that Haskell was already dead before Roberts opened the door. The Mook thinks no one will believe what happened. He decides to commander Steve’s car, as well as his wallet and identification and rationalizes each action.
The next day Al finds a letter written by Haskell where he’s told his father he’s a hymnal salesman. Al is upset that he would ‘rook’ his old man money to start a new 'book' when he returns to Florida. ”Maybe, old man Haskell was lucky his son kicked off…” he says. Was Al upset because Haskell lied to his father, were his feelings hurt, or was he trying to justify what had happened to Haskell the previous night? It seems strange for such a virulent reaction about something trivial.
It is at this point Ulmer introduces the femme fatale. She is hitch hiking, carrying a weather beaten suitcase, and wearing going to market clothes. Compare her appearance to Stanwyck walking down the stairs to meet Fred MacMurray, Jane Greer standing in the doorway of the Mexican cantina or Gene Tierney looking down upon Dana Andrews from her portrait in LAURA. The Mook described her as if she had been tossed from the crummiest freight train in the world. If that’s the case why did he pick her up? Wasn’t he paying attention when Haskell told him about the type of tomato that thumbs a ride? Perhaps, that is why he picked her up.
Maybe Al is not as goody goody as he’d like us to believe, his reaction to Haskell’s disingenuous is a bit extreme and his diatribe earlier in the film, against the ills and evil of money says more of jealousy and anger than political ideology. Could Al have seen an opportunity to succeed with this tomato, where Haskell failed with his?
Whatever illusions he may have had are quickly dispelled. A lot has been written about Ann Savage’s ‘savage’ portrayal of Vera. To put it succinctly; she is brilliant. It is as good a performance as any in the role of 'femme fatale.' She wastes little time letting him know that while the highway is paved he is definitely in for bumpy ride.
Vera: How far did you say you were going?
Al: Los Angeles.
Vera: L.A.? L.A.'s good enough for me, Mister.
Al: That's what I was afraid of.
Vera: What did you say?
Al: Oh nothing, just thinking out loud.
Vera: People get into trouble for doing that.
In a revelation that should have fooled no one, Vera is the tomato picked up by Haskell. She suspects he killed Haskell and laughs at his explanation. Vera doesn’t need feminine wiles, pretension or flirting to get what she wants. She’s got him by the short hairs and he knows it. The Mook is on a two lane highway to Hell with a harridan from Hades as passenger. He plans to abandon the car, she says they should sell it, for the cops will investigate a deserted car:
Vera: I'm going to see that you sell this car so you won't get caught.
Al: Thanks...you wouldn't want a small percentage of the profit.
Vera: Well, now that you insist how can I refuse? A 100% will do.
Al: Fine, I'm relieved...I thought you were going to take it all.
Vera: I don't want to be a hog.
They stop for the night but not before Vera takes him with her to buy some clothes. They’re going to be as close as Siamese Twins she tells him.
Vera is still calling the shots except when it comes to getting Al to share her bed. Not even an attractive woman, and a cheap bottle of hooch will make him untrue to Sue. In exasperation she tells him, "Life's like a ball game. You gotta take a swing at whatever comes along before you wake up and find out it's the ninth inning. ”
The next morning they prepare to leave the apartment. She busies herself putting on makeup, looks admiringly at herself in the mirror, and fishes for a compliment. He patiently waits for her by the room door. She tells him he’s acting like a husband for rushing her.
His admonition for him to do the talking is quickly forgotten, if ever remembered, as soon as they pull into the used car lot. Vera badgers, excoriates and all but threatens the owner. He also reminded her that her name is Sue, not Vera, but Sue. Its good advice and he should have taken it. For he twice calls her Vera. Vera(Sue?) enters the dealer’s office lets him know they’ve changed their mind. She has found something about Charles Haskell that will make them rich.
All film noirs have a get rich plan. They are risky and convoluted, but there is some rationale to them and a possibility of success. They are planned with precision and deliberation, but not in DETOUR. The headline on the morning paper is that Haskell’s Dad, with a worth of fifteen million dollars, is close to death and would like to see his long lost son, Charles, one last time.
Over hamburgers and fries at a drive in burger joint, Vera shares her plan. Al’s going to impersonate Charles. He’s hesitant. Vera isn’t and presses her case once back in their apartment. It’s going to be easy she says, as easy as taking candy from a baby. They’ll wait until he’s dead. Al will then pop up, show them Charles’ identification, make up stories as where he’s been these past fifteen years, they’ll get a boat load of money, divide it fifty-fifty and lickety split go their own merry way.
Al brings up some pretty good reasons as to why it won’t work: he doesn't know the name of his mother, what his middle initial stands for, if has siblings, what school he went to or if he had dog; in layman’s terms he knows diddly about Charles Haskell. Vera’s not convinced. If a street wise, fatalistic, possibly neurotic woman can see the simplistic brilliance of the plan so then should a sober, well-read, fairly reasonable person like Al see it as well.
Al still won’t do it. Vera appears drunk to the point of passing out. She has a bad cough, and fears it may be consumption and knows this will be her last chance to live comfortably. If he doesn’t do it, she’ll call the cops.
He threatens to tell them she was involved and they’ll both hang. She’s not frightened. “Big deal,” she says, “I’m on my way out; all I’d be doing would be rushing it.” She takes the phone into the next room, locks it and threatens to call the cops. Somehow she loosely wraps the phone cord around her neck and falls on her back in the bed with the phone resting at her side. She may have passed out unable to do anything which, if that was the case, would be the last of many kicks to Al’s groin.
Vera’s death is played out as much as the censors would allow. It is a violent scene. There is no quick gunshot with the victim falling peacefully dead. We are left imagining Vera struggling for her life, her hands gripping the cord trying to escape. The method and brutality of her death are hallmarks that will differentiate the noirs of the 40’s to that of the grittier noirs of the 50’s.
Poor Al, all he wanted to do was pull the phone out of the wall. Or did he? He threatens to break the phone. Break the phone? I’ve heard people threaten to break someone’s neck, but never break a phone. He pulls hard, tightening until he feels no resistance or no slack in the cord. The camera zooms on his strong hands, no longer pulling but squeezing tightly. Then with fists clenched he busts open the door and finds Vera on the bed.
Duhhh, Al; you think you could have busted down the door before you inadvertently killed her? Or did you do that already and you’re not telling us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
The narrator asks us to believe he’s a helpless, naive, mook who happens to be the victim of other people's circumstances. Yet, he quickly rationalizes every action he takes and exhibits a coarseness that belies his self proclaimed ‘good guy’ image. If there is to be sympathy for anyone it is Vera, not that she would ask for or want it. Ann Savage plays Vera as more than a one dimensional harpy. She accepts the fatalism of her life. She’s not one who’s going to try to ‘buck fate.’ There are many moments she shows a softer side to but each time she lets her guard down for a second Al rebukes her. What you see with Vera is what you get.
But what do we make of Al? Or better yet, what does Al want us to make of him? He can reference Flaubert, and yearn for Carnegie Hall but Vera’s not buying it. She counters Al’s resistance to the plan by saying, “…we’re both alike both born in the same gutter.” Al does not deny it. She told him when he first picked her up she’s been around a lot of cheap crooks and he’s got all the hallmarks of one. And one of those hallmarks is the subjective, intangible b.s. factor, and Vera feel he's got it in spades. Al began their ride pretending to be Haskell, which Vera quickly called him on, but I think she knows his pretensions run deeper than that.
Ulmer gets as much into 67 minutes as humanly possible. Most of the dialogue takes place during long periods of driving. The screen writing by Martin Goldsmith, based on his novel by the same name, is crisp, direct and so fast paced that we feel we’re motoring down the highway along with them. Unlike other noirs where there are moments of respite or reflection, this movie offers none. This is not a tour de- something road race, with twists and turns, shifting gears de-accelerating then accelerating; this is a Daytona 500; pedal to metal from start to finish.
This is a good movie and should be watched by all movie fans. But there are too many inconsistencies that stop it from being a top shelf noir. We see Al hitchhiking the wrongway, the steering wheel is on the wrong side of two cars that give him a ride, and Al mistakenly calls Vera by her name, instead of Sue at the car lot. He continually asks us to believe his story regardless of how unlikely it sounds. I wouldn’t put DETOUR in the top ten of noir, and personally not in the top twenty five; but if put on a deserted island with only fifty movies(of all genres) to take there is a very good chance I’d take this one.
Al warns us that the cause for his downfall was because he, as we all might be, was a victim, of, “…fate or some mysterious force (that) can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” However, as Vera might say, ‘It’s nobody’s fault but your own Roberts, that got you into this mess.’