“There oughta be a law against dames with claws.”
Straight out of Poverty Row, what Detour (1945) lacks in budget, it makes up for in style. Written by Martin Goldsmith (The Twilight Zone) and starring Tom Neal and the inimitable Ann Savage, Detour is to film noir what The Public Enemy (1931) is to the gangster flick: it isn’t the first in its genre but it’s certainly one of the most definitive and influential. In A Pictorial History of Crime Films (1975), author Ian Cameron calls Detour “well in the running to being the cheapest really good talkie to come out of Hollywood.”
There’s no Public Enemy-style grapefruit in Detour but if there was, it would undoubtedly be Ann Savage smashing the breakfast fruit into Tom Neal’s face and not the other way around. As Vera, the unhinged hitchhiker whom our wide-eyed protagonist Al Roberts (Neal) has the misfortune of picking up, Savage is the most dangerous of all film noir dames: the femme who puts the “fatal” in femme fatale.
Warning: This review contains spoilers.
We meet Al Roberts sipping stale coffee alone in a crummy diner; wearing a crumpled fedora, his spirits as saggy as his suit. A chatty customer (Pat Gleason) drops a nickle in the jukebox and the 1926 hit I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me fills the room. After almost coming to blows with Gleason over the song choice, Al relays his sad story to the audience. He wasn’t always a bad-tempered bum in a greasy spoon – there was a time, not so long ago, when he was young and in love; a talented pianist with dreams. The movie flashes back to the Break o’ Dawn Club in New York City, where Al and his lovely girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) perform for the champagne guzzling clientele. I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me is Sue’s signature song but the glamorous blonde has bigger dreams than getting pawed by creeps in a speakeasy: when Al proposes marriage, she reveals that she’s moving to Hollywood instead, to pursue her career. Heartbroken and angry, Al stays behind. After nights of performing alone and collecting germ-ridden ten-spots from the club’s drunken clientele, Al breaks down and calls Sue who tearfully reveals that the only gig she’s been able to score in Hollywood is a job slinging hash in a diner. Al proposes marriage again and promises to meet Sue in Hollywood where they can pursue their dreams together. Thumbing rides, he gets picked up by blustery bookie Charles Haskell Jr. (Edmund MacDonald). When Al inquires about the fresh wounds on Haskell’s hands, Charles explains:
“I was tussling with the most dangerous animal in the world – a woman.”
“You give a lift to a tomato, you expect her to be nice,” Haskell shrugs before popping a handful of white pills into his mouth. (Note: To “be nice” to a man in 1930s/1940s movie-speak means to have sex with him). Haskell is tired so Al agrees to take the wheel while he sleeps. It begins to rain and Al pulls over so that he can put the car’s top up. As Al opens the passenger door, Haskell’s unconscious body falls to the ground; his head hitting a rock, he dies instantly.
“Up until then I’d done things my way but from then on something else stepped in and shunted me off to a different destination than the one I had picked for myself.”
Knowing that no cop in the world would believe that Haskell’s death was accidental, Al trades clothes with him, dumps his body in the woods, pockets his wallet and takes off in his car with plans to lose the incriminating automobile before he gets to Hollywood. After spending a sleepless night in a sleazy motel (the room’s window blinds casting prison-bar like shadows on our guilt-ridden anti-hero), Al fills up at a nearby gas station. Spotting a young woman hitching by the side of the road, he offers her a lift. And this is where things begin to get interesting.
Vera’s tight black skirt hugs her femme fatale curves in all the right places but her buttoned up sweater and sensible flat shoes hint that this is not the sultry tomato whom we usually encounter in film noir. For one thing, she actually looks like she’s been hitchhiking all day.
“Man, she looked as if she’d just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world”
Dead-eyed and hair askew, Vera quickly falls asleep in the passenger seat. Assessing her looks, Al silently declares her a natural beauty – “a beauty that’s almost homely because it’s so real.” He’s just beginning to feel sorry for “the poor kid” when Vera suddenly wakes up and, her neck whipping forward like a rattlesnake, shouts “Where did you leave his body?!” Yes, she is the dangerous dame with the claws that Haskell had been “tussling” with. No friend of Haskell’s or “the coppers”, Vera won’t turn Al in – as long as he sells the car and gives “100 percent” of the profits to her. “I’m relieved,” Al says in agreement, “I thought for a moment you were gonna take it all.” “I don’t wanna be a hog,” Vera replies.
“If this were fiction, I would fall in love with Vera, marry her and make a respectable woman of her.”
In a cheap hotel room, Vera unsuccessfully attempts a passive-aggressive cat-and-mouse seduction of Al. Sharing a bottle of whisky, Vera chastises the glum Al: “There’s plenty of people dyin’ this minute that would give anything to trade places with you. I know what I’m talking about.” Al notes her bad cough and references “Camille”. “Wasn’t that the dame that died of consumption?” Vera asks. “Wouldn’t it be a break for you if I did kick off?” Al assures her that he doesn’t want to see anybody die. “Not even me?” she asks, her needy vulnerability briefly cracking her tough veneer. “Especially not you,” he responds. “One person died on me, if you did…well that’s all I need.” When she states that Al doesn’t like her, he replies “Like you? I love you!” and it takes but a moment for Vera – and the audience – to realize that he’s being sarcastic.
Later, Vera comes up with a more fruitful scheme which involves Al posing as Haskell in order to obtain his inheritance. Al refuses to play along and Vera threatens to call the cops and turn him in as Haskell’s killer. The phone cord tangled carelessly around her neck, she drunkenly locks herself in the bedroom and collapses onto the bed.
“I’m gonna get even with ya…”
On the other side of the door and believing that she’s on the phone with the police, a distressed Al tugs at the phone cord. “I’m going to break the phone!” The room suddenly goes silent – Vera is dead, strangled by the telephone cord.
Who would believe that her death was an accident?
That Vera’s death comes as a result of the telephone – the 20th century’s preferred mode of communication – is symbolic of her inability to establish a human connection. During the entirety of the film, Vera seems stuck in a bell jar; her pin-up body belies her neediness, her crass nature hides her vulnerability. We are not used to seeing a beautiful woman behave so desperately; society declares that women are supposed to be wanted, they aren’t supposed to want. In a cruel twist of irony, Vera’s need for love makes her act in unlovely ways which render her unlovable.
While Vera’s tragic failure at human connection is due to internal factors, Al’s are decidedly external: due to bad luck and outside circumstances. After he leaves Vera, he walks alone along the empty wasteland of gravel and pavement, the dreams of marrying Sue and pursuing a music career long gone:
“I know someday a car will stop to pick me up that I never thumbed. Yes, fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”
It’s a difficult truth that can take decades to come to terms with: bad things can happen to good people. As Jesus Christ taught in his sermon on the mountain, God “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). The innocent can be falsely persecuted. Life isn’t fair.
And no matter how talented a singer you are, you can still wind up slinging hash in Hollywood.
Written by Heather Babcock, 2020