(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Detour is the Glengarry Glen Ross of film-noir. If you’re ever in a self-pitying mood and feel bad about your life, pop this baby on and be glad you’re not Al Roberts.
Al (Tom Neal) is hitchhiking from New York to L.A. because his girl Sue (Claudia Drake) has moved out there to pursue her dream of becoming a Hollywood starlet. After hitching a number of rides that don’t get him very far, Al’s luck changes when he catches a driver named Haskell (Edmund Macdonald) who is heading straight out to L.A.
Yeah, Al’s luck changes, all right — because at one point, Al is driving the car while he thinks Haskell is sleeping, only to find that Haskell has dropped dead on him. When Haskell’s death finally sinks in, Al ditches Haskell’s body and takes Haskell’s clothes, wallet, and car, rationalizing that if he got the cops involved, they’d think he had killed Haskell.
Much to my surprise, I found that Roger Ebert had reviewed this movie, and Ebert opined that Al’s rationalization was just his way of justifying the robbing of Haskell that he’d really wanted to do all along. I disagree. If Al had wanted to kill Haskell, he could have done so anywhere along the ride. And in 1945, long before cell phones were invented, Al might have had to wait a long time for a cop to come around, by which time Al could conceivably have killed Haskell. So Al’s plan, while admittedly screwy, doesn’t seem too far-out for that of a drifter.
But then a little later, Al stops a gas station to add water to the car’s radiator, and he sees Vera (Ann Savage), a nearby hitchhiker. In the most self-flagellating move of the entire movie, Al, who should be keeping to himself at this point, tells Vera he’ll give her a ride. And wouldn’t you know it, Vera turns out to be the one person on the entire planet who knew that Al’s car belonged to a guy named Haskell. You don’t think she’s going to make something big of this, now, do you?
Detour is surely one of the most pervasively weird movies I’ve ever seen, even by noir standards. It’s narrated by Al — brother, is it narrated by Al. He comments on the action and then comments on his own commentary even more than Woody Allen does in Annie Hall. And even if you accept, as I do, that Al’s taking over Haskell’s identity is a reasonable idea, Al still makes one wrongheaded movie after another. Once Vera starts working her devilish wiles on this doormat, he hasn’t got a chance.
And yet, within the movie’s own feverish logic, all of this makes sense. Alfred Hitchcock delighted in movies about innocent men wrongly accused of a crime. In Detour, Al is far from innocent, and far from wrongly accused. He might not be guilty of the crime for which he thinks he’ll be framed, but with his heightened sense of masochism, he’s just aching to be guilty of something.