Detour (1945), Why Al Roberts is not an Unreliable Narrator

Roger Ebert’s review introduces Detour perfectly:

“Detour” is a movie so filled with imperfections that it would not earn the director a passing grade in film school. This movie from Hollywood’s poverty row, shot in six days, filled with technical errors and ham-handed narrative, starring a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer, should have faded from sight soon after it was released in 1945. And yet it lives on, haunting and creepy, an embodiment of the guilty soul of film noir. No one who has seen it has easily forgotten it.

Edgar Ulmer’s Detour is a cult classic. It’s a B movie. It’s a film noir. It’s the film noir with (one of) the highest profit margins of them all.

From the start, Detour has been surrounded by unreliable stories. Ulmer said he filmed it within a week on a 20.000 or 30.000 dollar budget. These statements are not entirely correct: the filming took at least three times as long and the budget went well over 100.000 dollars. Ulmer is known to not always tell the truth: he had lied about the European films he supposedly worked on. It has been questioned if Ulmer even directed the movie, because Lew Landers’ name popped up on the payroll, earning more than Ulmer. Detour is based on the 1938 book by Martin Goldsmith who wrote the screenplay, but Ulmer meddled in the screenplay too and it’s not exactly clear if Goldsmith knew about the changes Ulmer made.

However, Tom Neal, the actor playing protagonist Al Roberts, made the aura around Detour much crazier. He would later be convicted for manslaughter after he – according to himself – accidentally murdered his wife. The scenario of Detour was copied into his real life.

Is the story of Detour reliable?

The story

Detour is the story of Al Roberts, narrated by him in a flashback while drinking coffee in a diner. Al is a pianist who works in New York’s Break o’Dawn club. His girl, a singer, works there too but she wants to go to Hollywood to try her luck. Al doesn’t believe much in finding fame and fortune but, after a little while, he decides to follow her to Hollywood. His budget forces him to hitchhike and he rides with Charlie Haskell, a rich man with an even richer father. Haskell takes a lot of pills. When Al is driving Haskell falls asleep and as it starts to rain he tries to wake him up and opens the door. Haskell falls out of the car, on a rock, and is dead.

Al is convinced people will accuse him of murder and he ditches the dead body. He decides his best course of action is to switch identities. He continues his way in Haskell’s clothes and hopes the dumped body will be seen as his. The next day he picks up a hitchhiker named Vera. Vera knows Al is not Haskell because she hitched with Haskell earlier. She wants in on the money that Haskell had on him and what his car will bring up, otherwise, she will tell the police on Al. When they are selling the car Vera reads in the newspaper that Haskell’s father is dying and is searching for his son. She wants Al to pretend he is Haskell to collect the inheritance. They sit together in a hotel room (she does not allow him to leave), reading the papers about Haskell Sr.’s situation. Al says he really doesn’t want to do it. Vera says she’ll call the police to turn him in for murder. She goes to the other room with the phone. Al pulls the cord and unknowingly kills Vera.

“Fate or some mysterious force,” Al tells us, “can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

Can we trust Al?

Andrew Britton’s Accusation

Critic Andrew Britton’s view on Al Roberts is one of the most known and (one of) the first who questioned Al’s reliability as a narrator. In his essay on Detour, he reasons we can’t trust Al Roberts. Britton quotes Shakespear to introduce his type of unreliableness:

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty the disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as if we were villains of necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforc’d obedience of planetary influence: and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star!

Shakespeare King Lear

Britton connects this quote to Ulmer’s tendency to use fate in his storylines. His protagonists seem to let life happen to them, and the same applies to Al in Detour. When Haskell dies Al says: ‘From then on something else stepped in and shunted me off to a different destination than the one I’d picked for myself.’ A couple of scenes later when he picks up Vera he says: ‘Just my luck picking her up on the road.’ Britton quotes more of Al’s pouting and whining about fate and life, and concludes that when in the end Al is picked up by the police, at least he has the comfort of knowing that things would have worked out much better if he had been left to his own devices, this is all to blame on fate.

Vera tells Al: ‘You got yourself into this thing.’ Britton agrees with Vera. According to Britton Al’s commentary is profoundly self-deceived and systematically unreliable. In Al’s narrative we only glimpse traces of the history he felt compelled to rewrite. Britton points out that film noir was heavily influenced by the ideas of psychoanalysis. According to psychoanalysis, to be able to deal with your dark sides and tendencies you tell yourself different stories about what you actually did or what actually happened. We revise and repress.

Britton thinks Al is revising and repressing as he narrates the story. To find out what’s truly going we need to look at contradictions, silences, and anomalies. According to Britton, we all ought to be aware of Al’s unreliable narrator-ship on the following grounds:

1 Al’s relationship with Sue

According to Britton, there is a discrepancy between what Al tells us about his relationship with Sue, and what we’ve seen from their last evening together. Al is clearly delusional about his love for Sue. Al calls love the most wonderful thing in the world, and he wants to get their marriage license next week, but according to Britton he only wants to because he let go of his ambition to become a concert pianist. Al decided to become an embittered failure because fate decided against him being successful. Regarding Sue, he doesn’t even want to discuss her plans and dreams. While she wants to act in both of their best interest, he just sulks and walks away on their last evening together. He follows her to Hollywood only after he fantasizes about her shooting for the top. He does not really love Sue, he only tells himself (and us) that he does.

2 Al’s reaction to Haskell’s death

Haskell has been portrayed in the movie as a sick man, who needs a lot of pills and dies of natural causes. Al didn’t kill Haskell. Britton finds it suspicious that Al thinks that the police would arrest him or accuse him of murder. What about Haskell’s use of medication, he’s obviously not well. Al tells himself the police would arrest him so he wouldn’t have to face his actual motive: greed. Al is a parasite.

3 Al picking up Vera

After the death of Haskell, Al continues his way in Haskell’s car and he wears Haskell’s clothes. Not the ideal situation to pick up a hitchhiker. Britton points out that Al picking up Vera is not a logical thing to do, and the movie doesn’t give many hints on the why. Al’s narration shows he doesn’t want to face the fact he’s sexually interested in Vera and was hoping for some success with her. His mixed rationalizations about how he describes her attractiveness point in this direction. Al tells Vera he needs some city in which he can be swallowed up. He doesn’t mention Hollywood, he doesn’t mention Sue. Al’s affection for Sue depends on the financial prospects of the moment.

The Defense of Al Roberts

Before looking at the three moments Britton declares as proof of Al’s unreliable narratorship, let’s return first to Shakespeare. Al doesn’t fit Shakespeare’s description of people placing the blame for their very own actions, their own misdemeanors, in the hands of another. Al is someone who doesn’t act much. He is not stealing, he is not gambling, he is not killing. Things happen to him, and he chooses how to respond to them based on the least amount of problems he expects. It is the moment he actually enforces something he wants; the moment Vera believes he is not going to act as Haskell, that things fall to pieces. Vera wants to call the police. He then wants to stop her, in other words, he acts again and kills her. Accidentally. We, the audience, know for sure he killed her accidentally since we (unlike Al) could look into the room with the camera. Al is not blaming fate for killing Vera, he blames fate for having met her, as he blames fate for having met Haskell. And which strangers you meet is something random. You might call that fate.

1 What about Al’s relationship with Sue?

In the book and the original screenplay, we are presented with two viewpoints: Al and Sue. The screenplay has been written by Goldsmith (some of the dialogue is literally transposed from the book), but Ulmer decided very late in the process to entirely change the set-up and show only Al’s viewpoint. He did this after much of it, if not all, was already filmed. Goldsmith didn’t seem to have been involved in this change. In the book, Sue and Al are quite similar in the ambivalence of their feelings towards each other, but Sue is by far the most opportunistic.

To be fair, this ‘knowledge’ about their relationship shall not be taken into account. Let’s closely watch what happens in the opening scenes with Al and Sue.

Al starts his flashback after he hears the song I can’t believe you’re in love with me on the diner’s jukebox. He used to play this song, with Sue singing, a lot in the Break o’Dawn club. He says it was a little like working in heaven because she was there.

After the customers are gone, he plays and she tells him he should play in Carnegie Hall. He says he’ll be there as a janitor. They walk home, and she’s describing the club as a fleabag. A drunk tried to paw her. He reminds her next week they’ll be getting their license (while standing in front of a working horse) and they’ll be a team. Fog surrounds them. She doesn’t want to get married. Not now, not in the bush league, not until they make it big. Then she tells him she’ll be going on Sunday. She wants to make it as a singer in Hollywood. Al thinks that’s crazy, millions go out there to try, and what about him? She says loves him, but there’s plenty of time to get married when the circumstances improve. He might even follow her! Al takes it in, sulks, and says so long. Sue asks, aren’t you gonna kiss me? He replies “sure why not”, and gives her a little kiss without much passion.

Britton states that Al doesn’t even want to discuss Sue’s plans, but he doesn’t get a chance. She simply tells him she’s going on upcoming Sunday, even though they had planned to get their license next week. It is true that he thinks her plan is ridiculous, millions are going there each year, and this opinion is not unrealistic.

Britton thinks Sue wants to go there for both of them. I’m not sure why he thinks that. Nothing in the scene points toward that. She clearly says “I want to go”. The sentence “sure I love you, but” is something we know is not a declaration of love, but a condition for love: I will only marry you once you make it good, once you play in Carnegie Hall, or something similar.

In the very next scene, we see Al going after Sue. He got his daily tip, spent it to call her, and told her he’ll come too. She tells him she works as a hash slinger and he tells her to keep trying to audition. He is leaving the little safety he has and hits the road. He has not had any fantasy about her making it big yet, nor does it look likely she will. (He gets that fantasy after he got a break; a free meal and a ride all the way to Hollywood. At that rare moment of good fortune he fantasizes about Sue making it as a singer.) So far her adventure worked out exactly as he expected but he goes after her anyway. Al hitchhikes and he talks about money: money makes more trouble in the world than anything else, men slave for it, commit crimes for it, die for it.

2 What about Al’s reaction to Haskell’s death?

Al drives, and Haskell appears to be sleeping. It starts to rain. Al tries to wake Haskell up but fails. He wants to close the top of the car and opens the door as he goes to Haskell’s side. He then falls out of the car and hits his head on a rock. (First, the rock is shown, and then we see Haskell falling into it.) Al knows he’s dead. It’s ambiguous if he was already dead, or if the rock did it. Haskell did pop pills, but it’s not known that he was obviously sick as Britton thinks. There is definitely room for doubting a death of natural causes once you see a dead man on the ground next to his car with his head smashed into a rock.

3 What about Al and Vera

It’s hard to believe that Al stopped for Vera to get into her pants though. He looks at her, observes she’s a natural beauty, wonders about her, but then immediately thinks it’s none of his business. After Vera reveals that she knows he’s not Haskell and they move around as a couple, she offers him twice a hand, an offering to get some more intimacy going but he refuses. He secretly tries to call Sue.

The Closing Argument against Britton

Britton loves Vera. He agrees with her. She sees Al as he sees Al. Al is someone who put himself into this mess and he’s a greedy parasite.

Vera tells Al she’s sick. If Al would tell the cops she was in the plan with Haskell all along and she would get the rope, it would only speed up the process. Al could have fallen out of the car himself, but he didn’t. He’s still here. Why not pretend to be the son of a dead man, as the son is already dead anyway, and be finally financially free?

She doesn’t understand why Al is so weak, and I think Britton doesn’t understand either. Al keeps talking about how he’ll get caught. How even Ceasar was brought down by greed. Al is convinced they would never get away with it. As he said in the beginning, money is a source of evil, people want to commit crimes for it, and want to die for it (as do Haskell and Sue) and he doesn’t want to die.

Al is not an unreliable narrator. Al thinks if the chances are against you, you’ll most likely not are going to win.

And, in real life, most of the time Al is right.

But, it’s not what we want to hear. We want to see protagonists that try against all odds, that run into a fight forty to one and win. Britton might think Al should try, but Britton’s moral opinion doesn’t make Al unreliable.

Detour‘s 68 minutes are filled with doom. Detour‘s message seems to be that life doesn’t always work out, especially so for the people born on the wrong side of the tracks.

The thing that makes Detour so fun and memorable is to see the male protagonist so sulky. If we picture the opening scene reversed; Al being the woman, and Sue being the man, it would have been a totally different movie. A passive woman, wanting to get married and be happy with what she has, is something that’s usually perceived as good. That would be, to use Al’s words, ‘an ordinary healthy girl’. The man who wants to find fame and fortune would make ‘an ordinary healthy boy’. Together that couple would have an ‘ordinary healthy romance’.

In Detour Al didn’t get anywhere. He tried to follow her but is much worse off than before. He should’ve stayed home. As he knew. But, fate might have found him home too. That’s his relief.


4 thoughts on “Detour (1945), Why Al Roberts is not an Unreliable Narrator

  1. It seems to be a great analysis you made of this classic Film Noir. I’ve only read the intro by Roger Ebert and that’s a perfect shortcut for “Detour” indeed. 😉
    I’ll comme back later to explore in details the rest of the review. I need to refresf my memory of the film too.
    Anyway, it’s impressive.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Quite a detailed look into things! I remember when I wrote up my notes on this I looked a bit at what Britton had to say and wasn’t sure it was necessary to go down that road. Sort of just beating on Al, who’s a soft target. I like your conclusion.

    Liked by 2 people

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