Detour(s) by K. A. Laity

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God, it’s easy to kill a person!’

The noir classic Detour (1945) impressed most of my students with the wildest femme fatale they saw all semester. Ann Savage, to borrow a line from Peter and Dud, Savage by name plays a part completely Savage by nature. Her Vera completely terrifies the itinerant musician Al (played by Tom Neal) as well as scarring for life the bookie Charles Haskell, Jr. (Edmund MacDonald). Al just wants to get to Los Angeles for a reunion with his gal Sue, but when Haskell unexpectedly kicks the bucket and Al gets mistaken for him things begin to go south. When a passing moment of kindness leads him to pick up a hitch-hiker, Savage’s Vera knows he’s not Haskell and blackmails the hapless schmoe into a scheme to make her rich. If they don’t kill each other first.

The film is told in flashbacks from Al’s point of view, from his first shambolic appearance to the improbable end. Filmed on the cheap, Edgar G. Ulmer gets the most mileage out of smoke, mirrors, cheap sets, and budget dialogue. If you remember nothing else, I guarantee you Ann Savage’s turn as Vera will be seared on your eyeballs. Also the strange plot holes (more about that shortly) which begin to make you wonder how much of the story has been (inexpertly) revised by Al.

The 1992 remake in some ways is even stranger. Weirdly riffing on the relationship of fathers and sons, Tom Neal’s part is reprised by his son, who shares a striking resemblance with his dad, but not the sense of aggrieved every man. It starts out in black and white and like van Sant’s Psycho mostly reproduces the original film. It’s got its fans but I’ve not made my way through it yet. It has interesting moments: the first flashback is when the film changes to colour. Some of the added material has to do with Sue’s life in Los Angeles.

The ending of the film is changed to be more in line with the original novel—that’s right, there is a source novel. Martin H. Goldsmith’s 1939 novel of the same name tells more or less the same story. This Detour had a very different fate from the movie. I tracked down a copy of the 2013 Black Curtain edition which is frills-free even of original publication information and mostly typo free, except for one persistent repeated one. The font is big to give it a novel-length page count (145) but it’s really more of a novella.

I’m always interested in the ways novels get adapted to film. What’s interesting about the novel is how much more noir it feels than the film and how awful all the characters are—and none of them are on to themselves except maybe Vera. She doesn’t get a chance to speak for herself. Chapters alternate between Al and Sue. Al is originally Alexander Roth, changed to the generic Al Roberts in the film. Roth surely chosen for the point of someone waxing wroth, as Groucho might say.

Everybody in this novel is very angry, too. Alex is a lot more of a jerk than the hapless innocent the film makes him. Picked up hitching, he’s asked where he’s from but says Detroit instead of New York. ‘I don’t know why I said that; there was really no call to lie. Maybe I was so accustomed to lying it had become a habit, I don’ know. But that’s me all over. For the life of me, I can’t figure myself out.’ He is indeed in pursuit of his Sue, whom he idealises ridiculously, in the same way he disparages women in general. ‘If there is any worse spot than for a man to find himself a slave to a woman’s whims I’d like to know about it.’ Of course this is when he’s dealing with Vera, but as he concludes, ‘All women are dangerous.’

‘What makes it so tough is you never can be sure what a woman will do. At one moment she’s calm and everything is velvet; then in a flash, it all explodes sky-high and she’s got it in for you. And when she’s got it in for you, brother, look out. There are never any halfway measures. A woman loves or she hates. Pity and all the feelings in between she’s never heard of.’ Alex pities himself more than anybody else, even when he’s murdering someone.

While there’s still some uncertainty about Haskell’s death, there’s no lame attempt to make Vera’s death accidental as with the ridiculous scene in the film. His loathing just wells up. ‘She was the type of woman I have always despised: the kind who knows all the answers and makes no bones about being hard-boiled. Even though I know just how women are underneath, I still prefer them to have that phony sweetness in their manner.’ Alex prefers lies.

The big difference in the novel is Sue. The second chapter catches up with her in California—right after a date rape. She’s full of tears and recriminations, mostly aimed at herself. ‘When a man gets finished, he’s through; his appetite’s been satisfied, except now he wants a plate of ham and eggs. We girls are quite another story. We have emotions and what not. We feel things. Any woman will know what I’m talking about. So I felt terrible.’ 

Singer Sue goes to Hollywood to break into the films but ends up waiting tables. In the film she gets a moment of that on the phone with Al. In the novel we see a lot more of her life. She really has an ambition to get into the pictures, but is hesitating to give in to the casting couch. Her weary dissection of Hollywood’s shabby reality still can’t dim her dream. Sue hopes the B-actor Raoul will give her leg up instead of getting a leg over.

Angry with herself, she finally gets even more angry at Raoul’s obliviousness. He thinks he gave her a swell time and asks for another date. At first she tries to find the easiest way to slip out of any commitment, but his cocksure attitude – flourishing his fountain pen to write in his address book – tips her anger over the edge and she tells him he’s been a terrible lover. ‘There was a jubilance in me for the first time in ages. I watched him flinch and I knew I had struck home, into the most vulnerable spot in the man’s armour.’ She is pleased he’s so deflated and talks of it as a way to ‘avenge poor Alex’ too. 

It would give more sympathy to her character if Goldsmith didn’t make plain that she is everything that Alex thinks of women: duplicitous, vengeful, cruel and above all, an actor. When Haskell’s death is reported as Alex’s, Sue performs grief styles she has seen in films, trying to convince herself she feels something other than relief. All it really does is boost her confidence that she can make it in Hollywood after all.

And Alex? ‘I wasn’t sorry she was dead; just sorry it was me who killed her.’ Nothing is as he claims, except maybe this. The original film had to soften the ending a bit. The remake is closer to the book. The twists and turns match Alex’s own thoughts: ‘God or fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or on me for no good reason at all.’ Not getting caught; it’s the same as not being guilty for him as long as he can keep wondering about that fateful day Haskell picked him up on the road. ‘Well, sometimes I want to curse and sometimes I want to cry.’

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