Detour was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer in 1945. It follows Al, a piano player trying to hitchhike to Hollywood to see his girlfriend Sue who he wants to marry. He gets picked up by Charles Haskell, who is kind to him and says he will drive him all the way to LA. Al notices scratches on Charles' hand. A girl did it, he says, adding, "There oughta be a law against dames with claws." Charles suddenly dies in the car. Al panics - he thinks that if he calls the police, they will assume he murdered the man. So he assumes the identity of Charles Haskell, takes his car and his money, and goes on his way. At a gas station, he sees a woman who looks quite disheveled. He offers her a ride and she dozes off in the car. Then she bolts upright, screeching at Al, wanting to know where he hid Haskell's body. He is shocked, but then he realizes - this is the infamous dame with claws, Vera. And now he is stuck with her.
I don't know what it is that I love about this movie. It's so low budget. The dialogue is very cliched, and the actors have the same expression on their faces the whole movie. As Ebert says, this is a movie "starring a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer" (The Great Movies, 133). There is lots of stock footage. The DVD I watched jumps around, sound skips out, frames drop. This is probably because the DVD is from Alco, though. But I love it. It feels perfect for the story. A grungy cheap film for grungy cheap characters.
When I was reading Ebert's essay, it was interesting since he brought up that there is the strong possibility that Al is an unreliable narrator. "We're not hearing what happened, but what Al Roberts wants us to believe happened" (The Great Movies, 136). Did he really kill Haskell, or did the man just keel over like he wants us to think? Unreliable narrators are a staple of pulp fiction, so I wouldn't doubt that this might be the case.
I love that these characters are such extreme examples of film noir archetypes. Vera is the angriest, nastiest femme fatale. She is vicious and bitter, and she can, with no effort, manipulate Al into doing whatever she wants. I've often heard that noir men are sometimes losers, sad sort of men with no self esteem. Al is the epitome of this. He's such a loser. He can't get married to Sue because she is off doing something better, and he is totally controlled by strangers. The idea of this being a lie is interesting. Like he tells the audience that he is pathetic and sad and easily controlled. Hmmm...
I just love this movie. It's funny, watching it now, because the expressions they use are outdated and goofy. I love how short it is, and the story is perfect. Taken at face value, it's sort of tragic, some guy who was unlucky in life. When taken as a story with an unreliable narrator, it's a tale of manipulation and lies, and it feels like Al is working out his story.
I would write more, but I have to get up at 6am and it's already after midnight, and I'm sleepy, for some reason. :(
If you haven't seen this, I hope you check it out. It's available on Amazon Video on Demand, or you can rent the DVD from Netflix. It's not much longer than a TV show, so there is no excuse to not watch it. It's short and holds your attention. It's a great story, and the low budget is endearing and perfect for the movie. Let me know if you watch it!
Have any of you seen this movie? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on Detour
Trailer - not the the real one, but cut by a fan, I guess.