Dir. Edgar G. Ulmer. Starring Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Edmund MacDonald
Maybe I’m too online to live, but at the moment where Vera (Savage) tells Al (Neal) that he’s trying to “buck Fate,” I couldn’t help but find the spoonerism. This is, amusingly enough, pretty darn close to the twin problems that men have in film noir. Until someone teaches me otherwise, the latter problem is best exemplified by Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat in Out of the Past, a picture in which two of the great he-men of American cinema, Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, fail absolutely to keep their hands off her and pay rather a permanent price. This is not necessarily a problem that Al has in Detour, and in film noir it is rare to see a man who is so basically unmoved by his dangerous dame. Al finds Vera attractive but sees an elemental beauty in her rather than a vixen; the internal narration which fills in giant swaths of the film’s picture protests her beauty, an argument which one would imagine a more obviously beautiful woman would not need levied in her favor. “A beauty that’s almost homely it’s so real,” Al muses to himself, and for whatever reason—his enduring faithfulness to the ideal of his distant beloved Sue (Claudia Harvey), the trauma of his cross-country trip, an anxiety so genuine it must still be distributing stomachaches all these years on—he never does take that bait. (More on this in a second.) Vera offers. Her toughness means that this is the one zone in which she fails to speak bluntly, but she offers, seated a little openly, arm outstretched, voice softened as far as she’s capable of doing so. It is a far cry from Kathie or Phyllis or Brigid.
Detour has its roots in an old tradition, more theatrical than the earthier beginnings of fornication. Al is a nobody, but the way that Fate has an iron grip around his neck, one could easily imagine him as the doomed prince of some ancient polis. If Oedipus or Jason or Creon had no choice, then surely Al Roberts must be susceptible to the blind lunging of Fate, a point that Detour is not subtle about bringing to the fore. In Greek, fate is spelled “μοίρα.” In American English, it’s spelled “Hollywood Production Code,” the force that ensures that murder will out, and so will burglary and adultery and so on down the trail. In that sense, fate is a more important element for a classic noir than a femme fatale, an ending which we know with absolute certainty will come about; Detour is to Fate what Out of the Past is to the femme fatale. For a picture which is so forceful about the might of Fate, destiny is surprisingly understated in the final moments of the picture. It is clear enough for the Code that Al will be picked up by the cops for his crimes, nabbed on the side of the road and put into the patrol car. In practice there is some chance that Al might be spared this destiny, for even though there are eyewitnesses to his short time with Vera, they are not in themselves insuperable impediments to his freedom. What matters most is that Al believes he is condemned, and thus the movie’s final scene. His narration is, for once, in the future. He believes that he will be discovered and interred, tried and executed. Fate has not given him a break thus far; the only break that Fate is likely to give him in the future is one in his C2 vertebra.
Made in the final days of World War II and released only a few months later, the rigor that Detour abides to Fate with feels deeply pertinent. How else to explain the number of dead boys in Europe or the Pacific, the number of civilians scientifically eliminated in Poland or China? It is not a comforting thought, precisely, but perhaps more comforting to believe that Fate rather than a loving God trips up the Al Roberts of the world, whether on Arizona highways or Italian villages or Lithuanian hamlets. A soldier could not have come home to Pennsylvania or Oklahoma with an explanation why he should have survived Salerno, and Teddy and Joey and Bill were corpses there. Al cannot explain why he should be cursed: why Haskell (MacDonald) picked him up, why Haskell overdosed, why Vera should have been Haskell’s last passenger, why Vera should have been at the gas station he happened to wander up to. Why should there be no witness to Haskell’s death, but half a dozen witnesses to his presence at a diner with Al? Even if America was as optimistic and powerful at the end of World War II as we were taught in our history classes, the movies of the immediate postwar years are filled with niggling doubts about that kind of optimism. What happens to Dana Andrews in The Best Years of Our Lives is as random as what happens to Tom Neal in Detour, and all those are is the shot of a bomber falling out of the sky in Memphis Belle, taken from a B-17 that will land safely.
A man dogged by Fate, one who hears its footsteps and can see the prints alongside him in the sand, who might feel its cold breath on his neck, must lose his sense of efficacy. Thus the prediction at the end of the picture that one of these days Fate will appear as a patrol car. Yet the drama in this sort of story is born of the man’s desperate attempts to escape that destiny, or at least forestall it as long as possible. It’s the sole reason that Neal’s performance works, a performance that for as much as half an hour feels weak and washed out. Ulmer is not shy about leaving the camera on Neal’s face and letting the wire cage spin the emotions around on his face; Neal doesn’t have the face for that just as much as he doesn’t have the voice to do much beyond whine plaintively. (Some of Ulmer’s more theatrical moments are just that, and they’re panache that does not fit this pared down movie, a mole above the upper lip drawn in eyeliner. I absolutely hated the dark to light spotlight they put on Neal in one scene, which makes it look like he’s on stage for the production of his high school’s musical. Less Ulmer’s fault is the movie’s reliance on a musical cue to create some emotional tension within the character. There’s only one of those that matters, and Detour is all out of Dooley Wilson. Ulmer is better when his movie remembers it’s a movie and not a play; after he accidentally strangles Vera with the telephone cord, the camera takes his point of view and looks from object to object in the bedroom, moving in and out of focus. Surely this is one of the better reactions to a killing in a movie; one does not simply pack up and run in real life, does one?) Al is fortune’s fool; no wonder he’s clueless, and the cluelessness, the helplessness is what sitands out. By himself or with Haskell, Al tries to keep the quiet. Out of money, driving across the country to a woman only he would think is waiting for him, silence is the armor he has to steel himself against disappointment and hunger. With Vera, he is so often on the back foot that he’s forced to speak, typically to beg her for something. For all of her faults, Vera is not refuse bounced about by the tides; she has a will, and while that will is not obviously beneficial to herself (let alone Al), it gives her momentum. Al wants to leave Haskell’s car somewhere; Vera wants to use Al’s basic resemblance to Haskell and his possession of the dead man’s wallet to sell the car and make some money. Only a quick intervention by Vera, about an entirely different matter, saves Al from giving the game away. After all, he doesn’t know a thing about Haskell’s car insurance, but even this close shave does not steer Vera away from the security that the poor assume wealth provides.