Detour, the 1946 micro-budgeted road-trip film noir, has become a classic, if little known, example of how an engaging, even titillating and philosophical, movie can be created on a shoestring.
In a plot that pits an especially venomous femme fatale against a heartbroken man’s Manifest Destiny of sorts, Al Roberts (Tom Neal), a talented but bitterly unsuccessful piano player, is hitchhiking to L.A. to reconnect with his love, Sue, the beautimous songbird who’s recently left him behind in New York so she can pursue a Hollywood career.
After a driver who gives him a ride mysteriously dies, Al fears that he’ll be accused of murder, so he decides to hide the body and assume the dead man’s identity. He later picks up a hitcher called Vera (Ann Savage) who sees through his sham and blackmails him into taking part in her unlawful and immoral ruses.
Detour works in spite of itself. Shot in six days, it’s rife with errors and cheap cinematic techniques that only add to its mystery and charm. In the fourth scene, Al and Sue are strolling the street in New York but, instead of set pieces that suggest the city, an almost ridiculously thick fog engulfs them, so the scene could have easily been shot in Burbank.
On the road, when a truck driver stops for Al, the truck is on the wrong side of the street and Al jumps into what appears to be the driver’s side. This flaw was the result of the filmmakers, in retrospect, flipping the image to make it appear that the characters are traveling west, since they’d originally shot the cars moving from the left to the right side of the screen.
But when Al places a phone call to Sue, who’s on the left coast, and the telephone lines are panned, the message appears to be going left to right. Then, when he is talking to her, we know that she’s responding to him based on what he’s saying on his end, but we only see a reaction shot of her holding a phone to her ear, almost inanimate.
It’s easy to laugh at the mistakes, especially living in our modern world where any cinematic gaffes can be covered by re-shoots or fundamentally altered by CGI, but if you go along for the bizarre ride with Al, it’s definitely worth the 68-minute investment, especially when Vera enters the car.
Vera is the type of vamp who uses manipulation rather than charm, beauty or a well-endowed figure, and, when she’s paired up with Al, he’s clearly the lamb to her lion. She is particularly noxious, especially when contrasted with Al’s moral compass; despite dumping the dead man, he is remorseful for his bad choices, faithful to Sue when the liquored-up Vera offers herself to him, and genuinely resistant to her illegal schemes. It’s his refusal of her that makes her that much more compelling. You can tell she truly thinks she’ll be able to get anything she wants from him, but he doesn’t give her everything, and the salty names she calls him, “clean” due to the Hays Code, are more provocative than most of the four-letter words that desensitize us in today’s cinema.
As seductive and mesmerizing as computer-generated car crashes and alien invaders can be, let us not forget the ages-old virtues of a gripping story, complex characters and inventive dialogue. A true auteur can do a lot with a convertible, a desert road, a brassy broad and a few thousand clams.
Detour is available at some branches of the Long Beach Public Library, located at 3680 Atlantic Avenue. To read more about film noir, check out the following titles, also available at the libraries:
The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir by Foster Hirsch; Film noir : An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward; and Film Noir in Cultural Perspective by Jon Tuska.