Rewriting Memory: Half-Truths and Murky Justice in 'Detour'
Some Noirvember Thoughts on a Favorite Film
That’s life. Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you.
Edgar G. Ulmer’s low-budget masterpiece Detour is a marvel of Poverty Row filmmaking; a gem of a cult film that is nasty, bleak, and brutal even by film noir standards. It serves as a Rorschach test for viewers, offering at least two vastly different interpretations of the narrative that both arrive at the same cynical conclusion. “Justice” and “truth” are words without meaning, and fate cares as little about right and wrong as it cares what happens to those trying to muddle their way through a world where morality is just a murky, tortuous source of punishment.
The story follows Al Roberts (Tom Neal), a down-on-his-luck pianist hitchhiking his way from New York to California to try to reunite with his sweetheart Sue Harvey (Claudia Drake), a singer who left him to pursue fame and fortune in Hollywood. Once he finally makes it to Arizona, Roberts gets picked up by Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald), a bookie who offers to take Roberts all the way to his destination. Haskell tells Roberts all about his business dealings and alludes to a female hitchhiker whom he attempted to sexually assault but then left on the side of the road when she fought back. The two men take turns driving, and when Roberts pulls over to put up the convertible’s top in a rainstorm, Haskell dies under ambiguous circumstances. Roberts then assumes Haskell’s identity and continues his journey to California, picking up a hitchhiker named Vera (Ann Savage) who also manages to die under ambiguous circumstances.
Roberts narrates the entire film from within a framing shot at a diner in Nevada, telling the viewer that he knows his story sounds implausible and bemoaning his rotten luck. It’s never clear whom exactly Roberts is talking to, but at times he imagines his audience as a group of jurors who are all too eager to convict him, especially once he goes into further detail about the increasingly wild and woeful route his life takes over the course of his journey.
Taken at face value, the plot of Detour is the ultimate noir account of the cruel vagaries of fate. Life will do everything in its power to make sure nothing goes your way. As Roberts says at the end of the film, “Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” Invoking the film’s title, Roberts points to every seemingly innocuous decision he made on his trip to California as the source of all his troubles. If only he hadn’t gotten in Haskell’s car…if only he hadn’t picked up Vera…life would be completely different.
The only difference between joy and misery is a random twist of fate and, based on fate’s sense of humor, joy seems to be off the menu. There is no hope and no justice in the world; you can mind your own business and still end up on the hook for two murders you didn’t commit. Everything that can go wrong for Roberts does go wrong — he’s broke, his girl leaves him, two strangers die in his presence in bizarre accidents, and the police are surely on his tail despite his supposed innocence — all because every road he took from New York turned out to be the wrong one.
It is entirely possible that Roberts is a mournful victim of circumstance, hounded his entire life by bad luck. However, the much likelier explanation (and, ironically, the less depressing one) is that Roberts is the ultimate unreliable narrator, a man who kills for money and convenience and tries to ingratiate himself with the audience to avoid paying for his crimes, rewriting his own history in an attempt to escape his nagging guilt. His hangdog voiceover emphasizes that he’s just like the audience, a good guy who simply can’t catch a break. But the increasingly unlikely circumstances of his tale of woe — and the sly manipulations that always manage to depict Roberts as an innocent victim of fate — paint a portrait of a killer who counts on the malleability of the truth to make his actions seem more palatable.
In Roberts’ version of events, the only version the viewer sees, Haskell and Vera are both terrible people whom no one in the world will miss. Haskell is an attempted rapist and a con man who posed as a hymnal salesman in order to swindle money out of his wealthy father. If this appeal to the audience’s Christian values is an invention of the narrator to try to gain sympathy, it’s almost laughable in its brazenness…except for the fact that Roberts utterly sells the lie. It’s difficult not to believe his story even when it tests the limits of credulity, because he seems so desperate to believe it himself.
The framing scenes show a haunted man who is resigned to the certainty that the noose will eventually tighten around his neck. Neal’s performance is so beaten down and self-pitying that the audience wants to trust him. Therein lies another wrinkle to the film’s concept of justice: if the definition of the word changes depending on who’s telling the story, is there any meaning to it at all?
Roberts tests the viewer’s suspension of disbelief further with his description of Vera. Ferocious and feral, she sees right through Roberts. Vera reveals that she was the hitchhiker whom Haskell assaulted and dumped on the side of the road, so she knows for a fact that Roberts isn’t who he says he is. Convinced that Roberts killed Haskell for his money, Vera blackmails Roberts, who submits to her demands out of fear of the police not believing his story. From his point of view, Vera is barely human. She’s utterly devoid of warmth or empathy. She is vicious, snarling, cold, and cruel. Roberts is once again cursed by fate: “It was just my luck picking her up on the road. It couldn’t have been Helen or Mary or Evelyn or Ruth. It had to be the very last person I should ever have met.”
Ann Savage’s legendary performance is fierce and mercurial; her Vera is all clawed nails and flashing eyes and a guttural monotone barbed with threats and insults. “The cops are no friends of mine,” she tells Roberts, implying some sordid past that she dare not even mention. In fact, as their accursed drive into California continues, Vera becomes the criminal mastermind of the pair, convincing Roberts to try to sell Haskell’s car and then pressuring him to continue to pose as Haskell in hopes of coming into a large inheritance. Vera’s over-the-top avarice and ferocity would make her a parody of a femme fatale if she weren’t so terrifying. She relishes the power she holds over Roberts, gleefully reminding him that she can turn him in to the police whenever she wants and sulking when Roberts turns down her offer for sex. He has a girl waiting for him in Hollywood, after all, a good girl whom he’s just trying to get to despite the bumps in the road that life keeps throwing at him.
If his strength and morality in the face of temptation aren’t enough to convince the audience (and himself) of his innocence, Roberts even hedges his bets in his own story, emphasizing that Haskell and Vera were both seriously ill anyway. When Vera and Roberts discuss the possibility of both of them being executed for murder, Vera doesn’t seem to care, saying, “I’m on my way anyhow. All they’d be doing would be rushing it.” Even if he did kill them, our wheedling narrator seems to be saying, could it really have been murder if the victims were already at death’s door? Were the choices he was forced to make really so bad?
Trapped by the corpses he can’t seem to shake, Roberts learns from a newspaper at the Nevada diner that the police have found Vera’s body and identified Haskell as the main suspect in her murder. For the moment, at least, he’s gotten away with two murders scot-free. In what could be a revelation of inescapable dread, or simply a feint at a conscience, he imagines his own inevitable arrest as he pictures himself walking resignedly into a waiting police car. No matter how much guilt he tries to explain away, though, Roberts is headed back down the road as a free man with a lot of money in his pocket and two dead bodies behind him.
One of the many remarkable things about Detour is the fact that the parallel lines of the two opposite interpretations of the plot manage, impossibly, to converge. Whether Roberts is an innocent plaything in the hands of a vicious destiny, or a calculating murderer who twists the truth to suit his own needs, there is no sense of justice that the viewer can discern, no victory for moral rectitude or law and order. Roberts’ self-pitying declarations are true no matter how you view his narrative. Roberts is either fortune’s ultimate fool, being tormented by an unending string of bad luck, or he is the instrument by which Haskell and Vera meet their grisly fates. Either way, in the universe sketched out by Detour, nothing is clean or sacred. Life will stick out a foot to trip you, no matter who you are or what you do. The concept of justice is just as murky as the concept of the truth, and the only constants in life are unfairness and the lies we tell ourselves to survive it.