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I have just seen Detour for the first time having originally seen it nearly twenty years ago and though I would share a few thoughts. WARNING There aren’t many spoilers in the brief synopsis in the first paragraph but beyond that large parts of the plot are discussed.


Nightclub pianist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is sat in a roadside diner in Nevada feeling sorry for himself. Told in flashback with the aid of a voiceover we learn his back-story. Hitchhiking from New York to Hollywood to see his girl Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake). He finally gets lucky when Charles Haskell Jr (Edmund MacDonald) picks him up and agrees to take him all the way to LA. Then things start to go wrong and Roberts enters a downward spiral fueled by stupid decisions.

Now regarded as a classic the 67 minute noir started life out as a B movie. Made on a tiny budget (between $10,000 and $150,000 depending on who you believe) the Lincoln Continental driven by Edmund MacDonald actually belonged the movies director Edgar G. Ulmer. The film was shot in under a month using very little in the way of locations. The most notable location were the desert shots in Lancaster, California, most of these were used as for the rear projection. As is often the case, with limitations come great artistic merit. The fog filled early scenes, the claustrophobic interiors and disjointed rear projection all done for price reasons actually add to the sense that we are participating In Roberts nightmare.

The opening shots give us a clue as to what we are about to see. A camera on the front of a car following the white line of the highway has been done many times before and since, but here we are watching a rear mounted camera looking back, a warning of the melancholic flashbacks of regret that we are going to see. But what is going on when the film gets going? Can we trust what we see and what our narrator is telling us? Everything is from the point of view of the central character, Al Roberts; he keeps telling us the police won’t believe him, and suggesting that we as viewers won’t either. Are we seeing things as they happened or (as many people have speculated) Roberts telling the story from his point of view with his own positive spin after her has murdered Haskell and Vera. What is the real nature of the relationship between Roberts and Sue? Where they ever a couple or did they just work together. Did she know he was on the way to see her? Are we seeing the delusions of a mad man? There are lots of clues to this such as the unusually staged telephone conversation between them, we see both parties but only hear Roberts’ side of the call. What does the title of movies major musical number “I Can’t Believe You Fell in Love With Me” tell us? Although I find these ideas interesting I tend to take the film as it appears n the surface. It is a morality tale of a man tortured by the stupid decisions he makes. But even this has a big question: how did Haskell die? Was already dead before he fell from the car and hit his head? What were the pills he was taking? Did he have a n illness such as a heart condition or were they some kind of narcotic that he overdosed on?

The real pleasure of the film comes from Ann Savage’s performance as Vera and the dialogue she shares with Tom Neal. Her prickly demeanour and venomous tongue is a perfect foil for the way Neal plays Roberts as self-pitying, self loathing looser who despite considerable talent is grateful for the crumby job he has. In a masochistic way he wants or needs to be imprisoned and punished by Vera. We learn little about Vera or her back-story, but the line “ Shut-up, yer makin’ noises like a husband” could shed some light on the damage done t her in the past. Vera’s entrance into the movie is a master class in simple tension. She gets into the car of a perfect stranger, as viewers we all know or at least suspect that she is the same hitcher Haskell described picking up earlier, what does she say? Nothing! She simply falls asleep forcing Roberts to think himself into another problem before she drops the bombshell: “What did you do with the body?” Its moments like this that stick in your mind and haunt your memories long after the rest of the plot has faded from your memory, Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) and Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) have similar moments.

As intriguing as what is going on during the film is what happens after the film ends? The end is deliciously ambiguous, as Roberts tells us of his fears of being picked up by the police, we see exactly that. But is that what is happening? Is he imagining it or is it happening? Are they just picking him up as he appears to be a vagrant wandering on the highway. Whatever the artistic reason for the scene, the reason it is there is probably to prevent the movie falling foul of The Hollywood Production Code. Looking at the situation logically, the police believe that Haskell made it to LA where he killed Vera, nobody knows who Roberts is! So if Roberts could make it back to Haskels body to recover his own identity his chances of being linked to either killing would be slim. The symmetry of this situation would fall nicely with Roberts masochistic tendencies as he would have to stay away from LA and with it Sue for fear that someone may recognise him as Haskell. This would send him back to where he started in New York. Does he escape to live unhappily ever-after or does he “wind up sniffin’ that perfume Arizona hands out free to murderers”?

If you haven’t seen the movie or like me it has been a long time, pick up a copy of the DVD or take a look online (according to Wikipedia “The film has fallen into the public domain and is freely available from online sources”) and see what you think.

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