So what, exactly, is the public domain? In a nutshell, it's where all of those works, be they books, sound recordings, movies, television shows or whatever, which are no longer or perhaps never were copyrighted, now reside. It is a vast treasure chest filled with all of the creative gems and nuggets of our combined cultural heritage. Most importantly of all, though, it is a treasure chest which is owned by all of us. That means that all of the treasures that it holds are ours to republish, rework, take from or add to in order to make our own as we wish. One of those gems is the one I'd like to share with you today, a shining diamond with a heart of blackest coal, a film noir gem called Detour.
There are a lot of differing opinions on just exactly what constitutes a film noir. For some it's simply a phrase used to describe any crime or police drama from the early '40s to the late '50s. The police procedural He Walked By Night, which was the predecessor for the TV show Dragnet, is a fine example of this. For others, film noir is all about the lighting and the camera angles. We've all seen the prototypical noir shot of the character with his face shaded by the blinds on his window or the bars of his cell so that only his eyes shine out from the darkness. Some would argue that the presence of a femme fatale is vital — that woman who inevitably leads our protagonist farther down the road to ruin. A good example of this type of noir character is Barbara Stanwyck's character Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity who leads Fred MacMurray's Walter Neff down a path that leads inevitably to murder. For me, however, while a good noir may contain all of those elements, in the end it is all about what I call the "inevitable downward spiral."
There are basically two types of protagonists in a true noir. One is the good person who makes a bad choice that inevitably leads him down the path of ruin. The other is the person who starts out bad yet can't seem to resist making things worse for himself. In either case, once the events have been set in motion, it seems there is an invisible guiding hand of fate that steps in and makes sure that once our lead is on the path to destruction there is no escape.
Produced in 1945 with a budget of only $20,000 and shot in six days, Detour is a showcase for all of the noir tropes. Even before the plot truly gets started, we see our protagonist, Al Roberts (played with an ever-increasing sense of desperation by Tom Neal), sitting in a roadside cafe, and as he begins to reminisce about what has brought him to the point we find him at, the lights seem to dim themselves until we are completely focused on the man's haunted eyes. In narration and flashback he tells us of his job as a piano player at a nightclub where he was in love with the songstress Sue Harvey. Unfortunately, as they are walking home one night, just as he is ready for the two of them to settle down and try to make a life together, Sue tells Al that she is feeling the call of Hollywood and wants to go there to try to make a name for herself as an actress. Though she does love him, she feels that this is something that she has to try, even if it means leaving him behind until one of them has had their big break. Despondent, Al continues playing the piano, but he really has no direction in his life until he makes a fateful decision. Calling Sue to make sure that she still wants him to join her, he decides to hitchhike from New York to California to be with his love.
Though the going is slow, Al makes good progress, moving across the country until he is somewhere in Arkansas. There he is picked up by a man named Charles Haskell Jr., who not only promises to take him all the way to Los Angeles, but stops at a diner and treats our near-starving protagonist to the first real meal he has had since being on the road. All Haskell asks in return for his generosity is someone to talk to along the way and someone to share the driving so that he can make an appointment in L.A..
Since Al is more of a listener than a talker, he learns quite a bit about the man, including the fact that he is a bookie who was recently wiped out in Miami and is headed to California to make enough money to return to Florida the next year with enough of a stake to make him a player again. He also learns that earlier in his travels, Haskell had an encounter with a woman who was also hitchhiking but who wound up turning on him and attacking him, leaving him with three large scars on his hand.
After they have been traveling together for some time, Al takes over the driving, and Haskell falls asleep. Soon the rain begins to fall, and Roberts tries to wake his benefactor to see if they shouldn't put up the top on the convertible, but he cannot awaken him. Pulling over to the side of the road, Al opens the passenger door and Haskell falls from the car, dead. However, in doing so, he hits his head on the pavement, making it appear that he has been bludgeoned.
In a panic, Al, knowing that if the police were to find him in this situation there is no way that they would believe his story, but would instead think that he killed the man for his money, decides that the best thing to do is to take on the dead man's identity and attempt to bluff his way to California. Exchanging clothes with the dead man and taking his keys and wallet while at the same time abandoning anything that might identify him as anyone other than Haskell, Al drags the body out of sight, hoping that when it is found, the police will actually think it is Al Roberts who has died and not suspect any connection to Charles Haskell.
His plan goes along pretty well, though there are moments of panic such as when he must stop at a border crossing into California. It is only when he decides to give a ride to a young woman named Vera (played with a truly fearsome intensity by the aptly named Ann Savage) that things begin to spiral even further out of control. Vera, you see, turns out to be the same woman whom Haskell had picked up before, the one who gave him the scars on the back of his hand. She, therefore, immediately knows that the man now claiming to be Haskell is an impostor and begins to blackmail him. From there it is only a matter of time until the downward noir spiral brings Al to the point where he must contemplate committing an actual murder.
Some will claim that the end of Al's story is simply fate catching up to him. Others will see it as circumstance and coincidence run out of control. For me, however, Al Roberts' path is simply a fine example of the inevitability of the downward spiral that constitutes a true film noir. Perhaps it is best summed up by Al Roberts himself when he says, "That's life. Whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you."
Here's a short clip from the film which not only gives a good feel for the mood and atmosphere of the movie, but shows Al's true first step on the downward spiral:
And now, here's the skinny for this film:
Release Date: 1945
Running Time: 68min
Black and White
Starring: Tom Neal, Ann Savage
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Produced by: Leon Fromkess
Distributed by: Producers Releasing Corporation
Since it is part of the public domain, Detour is available in numerous places to watch or download for free, including the Internet Archive. It is also available for purchase on DVD from Amazon.
Until next time, happy treasure hunting.Powered by Sidelines