Sunday, May 26, 2024

Sun-mat one

The life of Al Roberts, a pianist in a New York nightclub, turns into a nightmare when he decides to hitchhike to Los Angeles to visit his girlfriend.


"Detour" is a standout noir, made in 1945 for pennies, and starring Tom Neal, whose art was later imitated in his life when he was charged with murder. Neal is effective as a man who seems on the surface to be a victim of bad luck and poor judgment. Real bad luck and real poor judgment.

Trying to get from New York to LA by hitchhiking so that he can be with his girlfriend, Al, a talented pianist, is picked up by a guy named Haskell, who, at some point during the ride, dies of we don't know what - probably heart failure. The guy kept taking pills of some sort - my guess is it's digitalis because if it were speed, he wouldn't have fallen asleep.

At any rate, his death leaves Al with a dead body and a car. Feeling no one will believe his story, he hides the body, changes clothes with the victim, takes Haskell's driver's license and money, and leaves. First mistake. Surely an autopsy would have confirmed the man died of heart failure, number one; and number two, Al in his narration makes reference to the body falling out of the car when he opened the door, indicating that there would then be a bump on the head and he'd then be accused of hitting him. Uh, Al, I doubt it - the ground was wet and the guy was DEAD. But instead of driving to the nearest police station and explaining what happened, Al takes off.

Later on, he picks up a hitchhiker named Vera. It turns out that she knows he isn't Haskell and uses her knowledge to get him to do what she wants to get more money. If it was downhill in the beginning, now the situation becomes a sheer drop.

There is speculation by viewers that Al is a big fat liar and that his narration, which makes him look like a victim of chance, is skewed, that the facts don't fit his story and that his girlfriend Sue didn't exist. That is a very interesting way to look at this film, and that conjecture may be true. On the other hand, Al may just be a loser and the victim of bizarre circumstances.

The whole film, and I saw a very grainy print of it, has a bizarre atmosphere. In the New York section, as Sue and Al walk through the streets, there's a fog machine going nuts, giving rise to the conjecture that Sue and Al's romance with her are just in his imagination. The character of Vera is frightening and pathological; one minute she wants to be treated like a woman by being complimented, and she comes on to Al, and the next, she's threatening him and acting like a shrew. More inconsistencies.

The hard-looking Ann Savage is savage indeed in the role, which is by necessity a quite exaggerated portrayal. Handsome Tom Neal does a good job as Al, and his role includes a substantial narration throughout.

Is this narration what really happened, or is it what he is planning to tell the police if caught? We don't know. The ending was tacked on at the last minute and frankly doesn't feel right. I like the idea of the ambiguity of the original ending, which matches the ambiguity of the story. The viewer does see this ending, but then it is followed up by another minute of film apparently demanded by the censors.

With Neal's subsequent real-life violent actions and his ultimately being accused of murdering his wife, this film takes on some really macabre aspects. "Detour" will always remain perhaps the most unusual noir ever produced: made for no money, the strange circumstances of the story, a character who may or may not be lying to the audience, and a leading man who perhaps took his role too seriously. A striking film.

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