Blog Directory CineVerse: One man's detour is another man's femme fatale fork in the road

One man's detour is another man's femme fatale fork in the road

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

What's the greatest B-movie ever made? It could be Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Some nominate Night of the Living Dead. But the answer for many is Detour, a picture made by a poverty row studio in 1945 that got the Criterion Collection treatment and has earned a rightful place of deep admiration from film critics, scholars, and fans over the decades. Our CineVerse group put this movie under the magnifying glass last week and offered answers to the following questions: 

What classic characteristics of film noir are at work in Detour?

  • A femme fatale leading men into danger.
  • A dark, pessimistic, and fatalistic world view that espouses doomed destinies for one or more main characters.
  • A first-person voiceover narration.
  • Hardboiled dialogue that employs the wisecracking vernacular of the sinners who inhabit the urban jungle.
  • High-contrast, low-key lighting that creates deep blacks and dark shadows, especially darkness that obscures the faces, bodies, and surrounding environments of the lead characters.

What was surprising, unexpected, or curious about Detour to you?

  • The film looks cheap—it’s only 69 minutes long and the production values are bargain basement—yet its visually and narratively arresting because it’s a well-written yarn with bona fide noir esthetics and adroit stylistic choices.
  • We’ve never heard of these actors—especially Tom Neal and Ann Savage—and yet they seem well cast and deliver impressive performances. Neal is perfect at evoking sympathy and relatability with his sad-sack countenance and down-on-his-luck physical passivity, while Savage looks and acts like the bride of Satan.
  • Savage’s Vera is arguably the most corrosive and utterly evil femme fatale ever etched on celluloid. She embodies no redeemable, sympathetic, or sentimental qualities and is consistent and unrelenting in her wickedness. The trashy hairstyle, dark eyes, and acerbic tongue make for a truly enduring performance.
  • Al is one of the most passive and weak-minded noir leads every created. Roger Ebert wrote: “The difference between a crime film and a noir film is that the bad guys in crime movies know they're bad and want to be, while a noir hero thinks he's a good guy who has been ambushed by life. Al Roberts complains to us: ‘Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.’ Most noir heroes are defeated through their weaknesses. Few have been weaker than Roberts. He narrates the movie by speaking directly to the audience, mostly in a self-pitying whine. He's pleading his case, complaining that life hasn't given him a fair break.” Ebert also wrote: “Of course, Al could simply escape from her. Sure, she has the key to the room, but any woman who kills a bottle of booze in a night can be dodged fairly easily. Al stays because he wants to stay. He wallows in mistreatment.”

Is there more than one way to interpret this story?

  • It can be taken literally, in which we easily accept what Al is telling us and believe that he’s the unluckiest soul ever to grace the pages of pulp fiction, a relatively innocent victim of one terrible circumstance after another.
  • Other film critics and scholars posit that Al is not a reliable narrator: that he’s conjured up, for him, a psychologically acceptable rationalization for everything that has occurred. In essence, he’s “talked” himself and us into believing that he’s not responsible for the deaths and crimes that have occurred so as to rid himself of the associated guilt and concoct a plausible alibi—at least to himself. But it’s entirely possible that he did intentionally kill and steal from Haskell and murder Vera. This interpretation makes the movie that much more fascinating and worthy of a rewatch to look for holes in Al’s story, including:
    • the likely disparity between the real down-on-her-luck Sue and the elusive golden-throated goddess he describes her as and that we see in his flashback;
    • the implausibility of Al being an innocent bystander to Haskell’s death and then, against all odds, later picking up the very girl who fought with and knew Haskell.
    • the last scene, which may be imaginary or real. All the flashbacks we watch occur in the diner. But at the end, Al leaves the diner and we see him picked up by a police officer as he says, “Yes. Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” This could be happening in real time, or it could be a flashback of regret that Al has after he’s been incarcerated. Or it may not have happened at all, existing as an imaginary reminder to Al, and us, that he’s a doomed man and it’s only a matter of time until he’s caught.

Other films directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

  • People on Sunday
  • The Black Cat starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff

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