Film Noir: Detour

1945

Directed By: Edward G. Ulmer

Screenplay By: Martin Goldsmith

Starring: Tom Neal, Ann Savage

Detour uses the classic noir staple of the main protagonist’s voice over to explain what is going on and why and also presents the majority of the movie in flashbacks.  Broken or reassembled narrative arcs are also mainstays of the noir genre.

The movie opens with drifter Al Roberts (Neal) nursing his coffee in an all night diner in Nevada; wild eyed and bedraggled, Al takes offence to and refuses a lift with a trucker before the trucker puts a song on the jukebox.  The song takes Al back to his days as a piano player in a bar in New York.  The transition seems to take an age, as though the director was searching for a suitable point to mix between the two scenes.  However, this does allow time for a great piece of noir when we see Al’s face in close up, cast in darkness except for a bright light shining across his eyes.  It’s the sort of gritty close up that Leone would have been proud of; every bead of sweat and wrinkle is on display as Al grimaces and casts his mind back to those days in New York.

He was the pianist and his girlfriend was the singer in a bar, but she had a plan to try her luck in LA to see if she could make it big.  Al had no such desire to move and he stayed in New York, although they planned to reunite after 1 or 2 years.  Al is clearly distraught at being left on his own and he starts to see that there is more to life than money.  Al has some great lines of dialogue in this, in particular about money, something he sees the futility of very early in the movie; it’s the others around him that drag him into their chase for the dough.

“So when this drunk handed me a ten spot after a request, I couldn’t get very excited. What was it I asked myself? A piece of paper crawling with germs. Couldn’t buy anything I wanted.”

Resolving to get back to what makes him happy; Al calls his girl to let her know he’s on his way to LA where they can get married.  He’d get there any way he knew how.  Hitchhiking would do for a start.

On the road he gets picked up by Charles Haskell Jnr, a flash bookie who, luckily for Al, is going to LA too.  Only once on the road does Al notice the scratches on Haskell’s hand and he is told of the woman that he had a run in with and left on the road a while back.  He also notices the pills that Haskell keeps popping.  Haskell pops pills while he tells Al of a more impressive scar on his forearm; from a fight he had as a child when he nearly killed a boy.  He ran away from home soon after and hasn’t seen father since.  They share the driving duties and, whilst Al is driving the rain comes down and he has to pull over to put the roof up on the car.  Whilst doing so, he is unable to wake Haskell and, when trying to wake him, he accidentally opens the door and allows Haskell to fall out the car and hit his head, killing him instantly.

It’s then that you start to get the feeling that Al only gets one kind of luck: bad.  As is so often a feature of film noir; the characters have salient points in the plot where they make a choice and more often than not, their choice makes things worse.

He chooses to take Haskell’s identity to enable him to drive the car across the state line and to LA, leaving Haskell’s body in the desert.  As a drifter with a dead man, he figured the cops would have no problem stitching him up for murder.

Nervously he drives and drives until exhaustion forces him to spend a day and night in a motel, catching up on sleep.  It is here that he learns some unsavoury things about Haskell whilst going through his things for new clothes.  Haskell is a grafter and he was planning on targeting his father with a scam.  That seems to make Al feel a little better about using his car, clothes and money.  So much better that while filling the car with gas; he picks up a woman thumbing for a lift.  Another decision that Al did not have to make.

The woman is Vera (Ann Savage) who just so happens to be the woman that Haskell left on the road a while back.  She exploits Al’s predicament, he now looks even guiltier now he’s assumed Haskell’s identity, and blackmails him into driving her to LA to sell the car and give her the proceeds.  He effectively becomes Vera’s hostage.

They have a contemptuous relationship where her seething hatred for everything but money and drink leads him to despair, as does the thought that he is so near, yet so far from his love.  At the same time, Vera does show a vulnerable side to her; she suffers from consumption, that she knows will lead to her death (Haskell was popping pills for the same condition) and she unconfident of her looks.  It all seems like the usual hate-filled relationship that soon leads to bed, but despite some highly charged moments, this does not happen.  Instead, Vera constructs a more audacious scheme to get money; Charles Haskell Snr is a millionaire on his death bed and Vera gets it into her head that Al can pass himself off as Haskell Jnr to get to his inheritance. 

The scheme is beyond belief and Al’s refusal to take part drives them to their wildest fight yet.  Al finally calls Vera’s bluff and tells her to call the cops about Haskell Jnr’s death.  But when it looks like she will, he buckles and breaks.  But that is not enough for Vera, she wants to twist the knife and display her hold over Al by rushing drunkenly into the bedroom with the phone.  In desperation, Al pulls the phone cord through the door; unbeknown to him it had wrapped itself around Vera’s neck and his incessant pulling had caused her death.

So, he continues to drift; Haskell Jnr (believed to still be alive thanks to Al assuming his identity) is wanted for Vera’s murder, but Al knows it will all catch up with him one day, so he refuses to see his girlfriend again.

Unbelievably, this movie was made in only 6 days for a miniscule budget.  It has almost all of the hallmarks of a noir, although a little light on dramatic staging and lighting, it does watch a little bit like an extended episode of the Twilight Zone.  The acting is a little bit too full on at times, but Neal and Savage show some real on screen chemistry.  They probably should have developed some on-screen chemistry by now; this was their fourth movie together.

This movie is available on dvd and is part of the public domain; which means you can find it on-line and watch it for free.

According to imdb.com, Tom Neal was a bit of a hard case; he beat up a fellow actor in the 50’s which put paid to his movie career and then, in the mid 60’s he was charged with the murder of his wife (she was shot in the back of the head).  He claimed it was an accident and ended up doing 6 years for involuntary manslaughter and he died 6 months after getting parole.  Perhaps his and Al’s luck were one and the same.

Noir Cynicism 07/10: The overall tone is pessimistic; it is taken as read that should Al report Haskell Jnr’s death to the police he would be fitted and Vera’s deviousness dominates the movie.  It loses points for Al’s assertions that love is more important than money and his girlfriend seems upbeat despite having to work at a diner whilst chasing her showbiz dream.  The trucker at the beginning kindly offers Al a ride and when Haskell Jnr picks Al up there is no indication that he is planning to scam him in any way.
Noir Femme Fatale 07/10: Vera is a nasty piece of work and is alluring at times, but she’s basically a drunk with TB and he could have ditched her easily.  Al’s reason for picking her up seems to be driven by pity and empathy rather than lust.
Noir Anti-Hero 07/10: Al is basically a good guy who either makes bad decisions or suffers with horrible bad luck.  But he’s a bit of a patsy and allows himself to be pushed around too easily, even if he does kill 2 people, albeit accidentally.   
Noir Crime 04/10: 2 accidental deaths and identity theft (a crime more prominent today) offer up the only points here.  They intend to sell Haskell Jnr’s car, but don’t go through with it and the conspiracy to scam Haskell Snr gets nowhere. 
Noir Dough $700 which is what Haskell Jnr had on him when he died.  They miss out on $1800 for the car they fail to sell and on the millions that Haskell Jnr was set to inherit.
Noir Body Count 2
Noir Style 07/10: Kudos must be given for the fact that in 6 days the cast and crew managed to make a movie that is still worth watching 65 years later.  The close up of Al in the diner as he thinks back to what got him there is excellent.  Al and Vera both undergo transitions from dishevelled to well-dressed and back.
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