a commentary by Tony McRae

Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a victim of fate, at least that’s how he sees it.  “Which ever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you,” he tells us in a voiceover.  Example #1:  The driver Charles Haskell Jr (Edmund MacDonald) who picks him up as he’s hitching to California (1) dies while Al is driving.  Afraid he’ll be accused of murder, Al hides the body and assumes the man’s identity, telling himself once he gets to L.A. he’ll ditch the car, meet up with his girlfriend Sue and get on with his life.  Example #2:  Now driving the dead man’s car he gives a ride to a woman hitchhiker Vera (Ann Savage) (2) who recognizes the car, knows he’s not Haskell.  She threatens to turn him in to the police if he doesn’t do what she says.  How unlucky can a guy get?

The philosophical theologian Paul Tillich writes, “Where there is no freedom, there is no fate; there is simply necessity.”  Is this Al Robert’s situation?  Is he trapped into going along with Vera who has plans of her own that may or may not include him?

“Detour” opens with a rumpled Al Roberts walking down a road; he hitches a series of rides, winds up in a diner somewhere in Nevada drinking coffee.  A customer plays a song on a jukebox that reminds Al of a not so pleasant past.  The camera closes in on him, and then dissolves (3) to a New York nightclub.  Al is playing piano in a small combo that features a blond singer Sue (Claudia Drake) (4) who happens to be Al’s girlfriend.  After the gig she tells him she’s going to try her luck in California and she wants him to go with her.  He balks.  He’s a talented musician, feels he can make it in New York.  She leaves, he’s miserable.  After a few weeks he calls her, learns she’s waitressing to make ends meet.  Even though he has no money he sets off across country to rescue her.

“Ever done any hitchhikin’?” he asks us in a voiceover that’s the staple of most noirs.  “It’s not much fun believe me.  Ya get to meet a lot of people and all that.  Thumbing rides may save you bus fare – but it’s dangerous.  You never know what’s in store for ya…If only I’d known what I was getting into that day in Arizona.”  

Director Edgar G. Ulmer shot “Detour” in six days for a few thousand dollars.  What has made this a cult favorite, I believe, is the interplay between Tom Neal’s victim and Ann Savage’s dominatrix manipulator, his weakness and her strength.  But there’s more to it than that.  At first we get exasperated with Al.  Why doesn’t he do something, dump this woman and get on out to L.A. and Sue who’s waiting for him?  We start to realize that from the very start Al Roberts seems a finished man, beaten by life, a victim of the cards he’s been dealt. 

Okay, back to Vera who is now sitting in the catbird seat.  She has a plan:  he will continue to impersonate Haskell who was due to get an inheritance from a dying father.  It's wacky but Al agrees.  What choice does he have?  In California they rent an apartment with Haskell’s money. 

If you walk in halfway through this movie you’d think these two were a bickering husband and wife (5).  But there’s more going on:  Vera may seem the manipulating bitch but Ann Savage’s performance doesn’t make it that easy.  We look at this relationship and wonder why Al doesn't scram, find his girlfriend and move on.  Ann Savage’s Vera is just too mesmerizing, that's why; she has more spunk than a score of Sues, and Al knows it.  He lets her pound on him because she’s smart, clever and, yes, sexy.  

Earlier, when he’d picked Vera up, he examined her profile (6) as she stared ahead at the open road.  He had to admit she had a certain beauty.  When she rests her head and closes her eyes, she seems vulnerable and he feels sorry for her.  But then she turns toward him (7) and all that sentimental stuff flies out of the car.  This woman is no damsel in distress (8). 

In the apartment she and Al settle in for the evening (9).  She takes a bath, they drink bourbon and smoke.  And talk.  For hours.  It becomes evident that Vera’s health isn’t all that good.  
        “You got a mean cough,” Al tells her.  “You oughtta do something about it.” 
        “I’ll be all right,” she answers. 
        “That’s what Camille said.”
        “Nobody you know.”
It turns out she does know.  “Wasn’t that the dame who died of consumption?” 

You could almost say there’s some tenderness at that moment.  Vera gives Al an opening.  “I’m going to bed,” she says as she puts a hand on his shoulder (10).  Al shrugs her off.  She storms into the bedroom.  From then on it’s downhill, no detours to the inevitable ending.

The movie’s title could be ironic:  there is no detour for Al Roberts – he’s headed straight for hell.  On the other hand, his entire trip can be seen as a detour that leads him away from Sue and toward Vera.  It’s quite obvious that in the early scenes between Al and Sue, he feels hemmed in – by going with her to California he’ll be renouncing his own freedom, the chance to be a successful pianist.  When Vera shows up, his world becomes unbalanced.  He succumbs to her not because she has a terrific get-rich plan but because she’s getting him off the “Sue hook.”

In the opening shots of the movie Al is walking from screen left to screen right, that is, he’s heading away from California.  Same for the end of the movie – he’s headed east.  The flashback has him traveling from screen right to screen left, that is, toward California.  Which is to say that director Ulmer has bracketed the trip west (with its supposedly optimistic quest to have a better life with Sue) with the trip east which, if anything, is a recognition that fate has won out.  There is no gold at the end of the rainbow.  He will be picked up one last time, and without using his thumb.  He won’t have to concern himself with freedom ever again. 

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