A very realized noir world, such as we see in Detour, shows the emotional and psychological terror felt by those who can’t bear to face reality. Sort of a horror movie that’s all the more horrific by unfortunately being grounded in the everyday world.
Tom Neil and Ann Savage, as Al Roberts and Vera, are the unlikeliest of pairs, and, in different ways, they end up destroying each other. Certainly Detour leaves nothing behind in building the absolutely evil nature of Vera’s character. Al, by contrast, is actually set more firmly in the hot seat than she, and is a sort of Montgomery Clift-type of hapless, passive guy. No question that Vera is the quintessential ’40s femme fatale. Sue (Claudia Drake), on the other hand, is not at all stereotypical; the fact that she’s split for L.A. shows that she’s strong-willed and independent. Al is the one who’s a lost soul.
The cleverly-drawn premise makes Al suddenly complicit in the unforseeable death of his gregarious companion, Charles Haskell (Edmund McDonald). The plot gathers strength with Vera’s (perhaps too coincidental) appearance. The unintended consequences of assuming Haskell’s identity fuels Al’s subsequent travails.
He more or less is forced into a series of scams. The most elaborate and daring idea–Al’s presenting himself as Haskell to inherit a fortune–is never realized. That’s probably wise, as it would be too much to continue impersonating the guy when the stakes are so high, and the possibilities for his undoing are limitless.
It’s agonizing to watch him torn up by Vera’s manipulative ploys, which get more daring as the plot unfolds. The scenes in their apartment are so claustrophobic; they circle each other like caged animals. Occasionally, one of them gets wise to themselves: Al almost contacts Sue, Vera almost calls the police (her second attempt proves fatal). Each is afraid of losing the other; Vera because she’ll lose the easy money, Al because he’s afraid of being turned in.
Just when it appears that they agree to separate, Vera finds out that Haskell is about to be a millionaire, so she wants to wait. The long scene which results in her strangulation by the phone line is masterfully done. It’s such an unlikely occurrence that no one would believe that Al hadn’t intended to harm her.
The frame story works well to set up the plot; judging from Al’s grungy appearance and jittery demeanor, we know right away that something awful is about to be told. Despite a tougher-than-dirt tone, relentless pacing, and very good performances, Detour left some trash on the side of the road.
Al would definitely be a suspect if he’d told the motorcycle cop the real deal; but a medical examiner would quickly determine that Haskell was a dying man. The pills are an obvious clue to the guy’s condition. Al has nothing to hide.
Even if we buy that Al panicked, and felt he had to cover up by pretending to be Haskell, picking up Vera was just nonsensical. He’d just been narrating how he was going to just abandon the car in California. The identity swap really only made sense as long as Al had to use Haskell’s car. Once in L.A. he could go back to Plan A (connecting with Sue).
He knew he needed to keep a low profile, but shoots himself in the foot by picking up Vera. And then, what are the chances that an absolute stranger would turn out to be someone who not only knew Haskell, but also remembered his car? The movie gets much more plausible once those hurdles are overcome. I would’ve been happier, though, had Al not been picked up by the police at the end. There’s no agency in that; just leave him hitch to his way all over again.
Although film noir posits a deterministic world, it also shows that we make our own luck. That is, we make mistakes. Al gets dealt a bad hand by having Haskell die on him, but by not reporting Haskell’s death he plays his hand badly. And he blows it again by not ignoring Vera. Those willful acts, or non-acts, only increase the danger for Al, raising the bet, so to speak.
Apparently, in its original form, the story gave Al a criminal background; that would make his initial decision to cover up Haskell’s death more understandable. This is a tremendously entertaining movie. The faults are a matter of degree; and don’t diminish the overall composition too much.
Farmermouse is snoozing in the glove box of that ’39 Continental, but he said to wake him up when the car pulls into the drive-in, so he can give Detour nine (veggie) burgers, fries, and malts. 9/10.