The women of film noir, those seductive, cruel creatures baptized ‘femmes fatales’ (French for ‘deadly women’) present a unique sort of challenge for the male protagonists. All too often the latter is at least somewhat aware of the former’s cold intentions yet takes the bait anyways out of some delusional belief that they can outwit her and end on top, pardon the pun. Despite that the batting average for said vixen is incredibly high with respect to making the man’s life a living hell, there is usually a semblance of level footing, the male protagonist, for the most part, believing in his ability to counter his opposite’s mischievous.
In that sense, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour is a fitting title for many reasons which shall be explored shortly. The story opens in a small diner in the state of Nevada. Al Roberts (Tom Neal) sits at the counter with an emotionally beaten, disheveled look about him strongly suggesting that the last few hours, days or weeks were a drag. The music roaring out of the jukebox brings back in the memory of when he and his main squeeze, Susan (Claudia Drake), formed a piano -singer duo in a New York night club. Much to Al’s consternation, Susan longed for a shot at fame and fortune in Los Angeles. At first, Al refuses to tag along but eventually gives after finding life with his girl unbearable. With no ride to call his own and little money, Al opts to hitchhike across the country to reunite with and marry Susan. As he enters Arizona however, things do not go according to plan upon meeting one Charles Haskell (Edmond Macdonald) and shortly thereafter an aggressive female hitchhiker, Vera (Ann Savage).
In truth, the protagonist of Detour must wrestle with not one for but three enemies, some of which are seen others only felt and experienced. The more obvious incarnation of the hero’s troubles is without doubt Vera, interpreted with bountiful savagery by Ann Savage in a towering performance, is unquestionably a woman scorned, now ready and willing to unleash her fury on any man who unfortunately steps into her path or, in Al’s case, invite her to have a ride. The details of her past remain obscure for the most part although the film does reveal that she and the aforementioned Charles Haskell had a connection at one point, but her torrential anger towards and duplicitous ways of circumventing obstacle suggest that she is a woman out for revenge. Revenge against what? The world, society…man. Savage is fearful in the role, spewing her commands towards poor Al in ways that would make Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson quiver in fear.
The second obstacle pressing down on Al is Murphy’s Law, the oft referred to yet entirely unexplainable phenomenon by which an individual goes through a terrible spell because everything that could possibly go wrong does indeed go wrong. Is Al harangued by Murphy’s Law because he lacks the will to overcome challenges or does destiny really have it in for him? An interesting question that opens up an entirely new discussion and actually digs down to the heart of who Al Roberts is, his mental and emotional makeup. At face value, Lady Luck has quite clearly abandoned Al to the miseries of misfortune, specifically with regards to his encounter with Charles Haskell, who dies in his sleep (or does he?…), thus making the protagonist the primary suspect for murder. From there on things only get worse once terrible Vera enters his world and wreaks havoc in all ways imaginable.
The fact of the matter is, people often make their own luck. While there do exist circumstances under which only luck can be alluded to in explaining one’s good or bad fate, it is regularly up to the individual to work their way out of a rut or to get ahead, with some luck either helping or hindering them along the way. In the case of Al Roberts, his own attitude towards life is such that bad things will happen to him. Call it karma, call it condemnation call it weakness, but suffice to say that the occasions where he actively tries to help himself in intelligent ways are far and few between. In fact, it is even a bit more complicated than just that. Al does, at times, attempt to rectify a situation, to right a wrong or to avoid further calamity, one early and important example being when he tries to dissuade Susan from going to Los Angeles. The reasons for his attitude are obvious: he loves Susan and wants her by his side. Nothing wrong there, but his selfish lack of understanding of how she interprets their current socio-economic situation as well as her dream of making it big result in his failure at making her stay. Even on the odd occasion when he tries to make something happen in his favour, his own rotten self messes it up. From the looks of it, Al, even from the first few flashback scenes, suffers from some form of depression. He is never happy, never sees the bright side of things, and all too often appears content to mope about his fate. Conversely, he is also a very needy, or ‘precious,’ person, always depending on Susan’s love as if it was his water and air. In essence, Al is, for lack of a better term, meek, and therefore when confronted with forces so much more powerful than anything he could muster (namely Susan) the poor sap never stands a chance. Tom Neal goes through the entire movie either with either a mopey, distraught or tired look on his face. From the first minute, Neal’s performance indicates that this is man doomed to suffer.
Edgar G. Ulmer, working on a modest budget as most noir directors did, directs Detour with a great sense of style. The human mind can conjure up any image it desires, whether realistic or highly stylized. Considering that the majority of the story is not occurring in the present but rather is a memory of the recent past, it makes sense that many of the transition shots in this gut-wrenching tale are given a surreal, dreamlike quality. Even though the plot is based in reality, the end product, visually speaking, is heightened. A brilliant close up shot of Al’s face while the background is shrouded in darkness as a haunting piece of music plays at a diner, a series of transitional swipes concentrating in the street signs as Al and Susan walk home from the club on a foggy night, the image of Susan standing tall beside the shadows of her band men which Al conjures up in his mind as he long to reacquaint with his women, director Ulmer carefully plays with the visual language of cinema to convey translate the mood of scenes.
Watching Detour is an interesting experience. There are no characters to actively cheer on. Susan only appears at the very beginning, Vera is a devil in human form and Al, as the protagonist, literally does not do anything to warrant sympathy. Even so, Edgar G. Ulmer weaves a captivating tale of a man condemned to a vicious cycle of bad run-ins despite being it as far removed from a ‘fun’ experience per se.