Journey into guilt
The term film noir is loose and sometimes controversial, but for many people Detour could encapsulate the genre. It is American, it is shot in black-and-white, it is a thriller, and it focuses on a semi-criminal to criminal demimonde that is the obverse of American optimism – a seedy stratum of sweaty, unshaven men and over made-up shrews, slouching scruffily on wrong-side-of-town corners, downing too much bourbon, cohabiting in grotty dives, hating and fearing all authority, lying and scheming, preying on all others and being preyed on in their turn.
Films noir – the Italian critic Nino Frank is supposed to have coined the term in 1946, the year after Detour was made – cast a wholly unsentimental light on human nature, precisely opposed to the resolute cheeriness of Capra or, later, Disney. In this vivid but unappetizing universe, even the forces of ‘good’ are compromised, and the very places in which this yeast bubbles and swirls feel inimical – looming, low-lit blocks, dark docksides, wind-whipped boulevards, used car lots, nightclubs where the doormen pack Gats, big houses raised on dirty money.
When they first arrived in Europe, immediately after the war, these films were instantly popular, the prostrate continent looking for celluloid escape from privations, and maybe even taking a kind of comfort in the notion that America was somehow only semi-civilized, and that life there could be just as terrible and tenuous as in Europe. Audiences devoured the graphic violence, the fast-moving storylines, the relative sexual freedom, the atmospheric photography, and the vigorous language – so vigorous and to-the-point, in fact, that even saying please or thank you usually seems like too much trouble. Folk-memories of these films even now underlie European imaginings of America.
Detour was so deftly directed by Edgar G. Ulmer that the casual viewer would probably not guess that it was made in a hurry (1) and at minimal expense (2). There are certain errors of continuity, but few will spot these, or notice that the two leads, Tom Neal and Ann Savage, were only modestly endowed with talent – as one critic described them, “a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer”. There were many such films, and some of them featured Neal and Savage, but Detour is regarded as so definitive of its B-movie kind that it was granted preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1992, and regularly attracts clichés like “cult” and “iconic”.
The film is based on the eponymous 1939 novel by Martin M. Goldsmith, who also wrote the screenplay. Tom Neal plays Al Roberts (3), a hard-boiled (to utilize another noir-ish cliché) nightclub pianist who hitchhikes from New York to join his singer girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) in California (4). He is given a lift by Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald). While Al is taking his turn driving, Haskell takes pills, and falls into a stupor. When Al cannot wake him, he pulls in and opens the passenger-side door. Haskell topples out and hits his head on the ground, which kills him. The panicky Al assumes – a classic film noir trope – that the police will frame him for the murder, so rather than simply reporting the mishap he decides to assume Haskell’s identity until he can get to Los Angeles and resume his own. He swops clothes and takes Haskell’s effects, including the car. He discovers that the apparently open-handed and frank-countenanced dead man had been in fact a kind of con-man – “a chiseller”, to use Al’s term. But we might already have guessed this by the fact that Haskell’s forearms were deeply scored by recent savage scratches from a female hitcher’s fingernails.
On the way, he gives a lift to a woman hitcher, Vera (Ann Savage), and his terrible run of luck continues when it transpires that it was she whom Haskell had tried to molest. (She had overtaken Al on the road, while he was dining.) She assumes that Al murdered Haskell and stole the car. This reinforces Al’s determination not to go to the police, but more importantly it also gives Vera a blackmailing hold over him, which she uses unscrupulously. From then on, he is almost totally under her control. The exchanges between them fizz with distrust and aggression hazed by cigarettes, and she starts to despise him when he rejects her sexual overtures. Her sharp face with its thickly pancaked make-up is like a mask, frozen in contempt for the pouting patsy by her side, and for a whole world that can and should be put upon. She relished the role because it gave the female lead a rare opportunity to dominate the story.
They eventually agree to sell the car, split the proceeds, then part company – but even as they are finalizing terms with the car dealer, Vera spots a news item saying that Haskell’s wealthy father is dying and wants to find his son, whom he had not seen in fifteen years. They withdraw the car from sale, and Vera argues angrily with Al, trying to inveigle him into assuming the role of the errant son and so get control of the dying man’s fortune. Al refuses, and they argue more and more bitterly. Then in an even unluckier mishap, Al inadvertently strangles the drunken Vera, and now finds himself in the position of having been the only other person present at two highly suspicious deaths.
He feels there is simply no way he could ever hope to explain or exculpate himself, so forsakes his plan of going to Sue and goes hopelessly back to the road, a stubbled, hag-ridden wanderer almost longing for the police to pick him up, which they obligingly do, immediately before THE END flashes up on the screen.
In reality, Ann Savage’s life was un-noirishly respectable, after a rather rackety start as a wartime pin-up and then in Detour and about twenty other films. After the 1950s, she more or less ceased acting, except for odd appearances on TV, and worked instead for various film producers. She was devastated when her husband died, and lived unobtrusively in Los Angeles, helping to run a small tool company, working as a clerk, flying planes as a hobby, and good-naturedly turning up to film conventions where Detour was to be featured. She also became deeply involved in campaigns to preserve Hollywood history. In 2007, the year before she died, she was cleverly cast as Guy Maddin’s mother in the acclaimed My Winnipeg.
Tom Neal, by contrast, lived a more suitably seedy life, despite holding a law degree from Harvard. He was a noted amateur boxer, and this stood him in good stead during a violent altercation with the actor Franchot Tone, a rival for the affections of the capricious actress Barbara Payton, at that time a beauty and a rising star who had worked with the likes of Gregory Peck. Neal inflicted on the easily outclassed Tone serious concussion, a broken cheekbone and a broken nose. Tone and Payton then married, and Neal found he was effectively blackballed from Hollywood, and had to work as a gardener to support himself. Seven weeks later, Tone and Payton’s marriage broke down, and she returned to Neal, with whom she remained for four years, before leaving him and spiralling down to an early death by way of alcoholism, passing dud cheques, public drunkenness, and prostitution. (The protesting-too-much title of her 1963 memoirs, I Am Not Ashamed, might almost have been the title for a noir production.)
Neal remarried and had a son – who would make his sole foray into the film business with a 1992 remake of Detour, which no-one has troubled to put onto a DVD. His wife died, and he married again in 1961. He cannot have been an easy man to live with, because four years later, he killed his wife with a bullet to the back of her head, and was charged with murder. He was lucky to be convicted only of manslaughter, and he was sentenced for ten years. After six years, he was released in December 1971, and died eight months afterwards, at just 59. As with his on-screen character, one gets an impression of ineffable meaninglessness.
Detour is a film with no likeable people, and no winners, where life is utterly random and pointless. The last lines in the novel read
Dramatics, buddy? No, sir. No dramatics. God or Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or on me for no good reason at all.
In the film, these harrowing reflections are evoked by an unutterably desolate image of Al, standing in heavy rain at midnight, as the realization of his helplessness hits, and America stretches out all around him, a vast blackness of guilt. Rarely can a country have seemed so huge and cruel, or a film character so small and contemptible.
DEREK TURNER is the editor of the Quarterly Review
- Between four and twenty-eight days of filming, depending on whom you consult
- Again, a matter of debate amongst film historians, with romantics insisting on a meagre $20,000, and others on a more realistic-sounding (but still far from lavish) $100,000
- The character is named Alexander Roth in the novel
- Sue has a much larger part in the novel, to the extent of being co-narrator