Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Thoughts on "Detour"

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This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.


Detour has all of the elements that make up a great film noir movie: the action unfolds entirely through narration, the movie is dark in tone, and the movie skillfully uses shadows and darkness to create meaning (mostly because they couldn’t afford lights, but that’s another matter). The protagonist was a good man undone by forces he could not control. There is the good woman and the spidery femme fatale.

Like I hinted to, the film is not perfect. The acting is only passable, the editing is poor, and the lighting is at times, atrociously bad. I remember an early scene in the movie where Al Roberts (Tom Neal), the main character, is walking outside and narrating, and from what I could tell it was not lit at all. However, in a sense, its shortcomings are also what give this movie its strange kind of charm. Roberts finds himself trapped in a kind of seedy and gritty underworld and the film succeeds because this underworld seems genuine. A bigger budget would only have made this world seem more artificial and destroy the very things the film had going for itself.

A lot has been said about the fact that since the whole story is told through Robert’s narration you can’t know for sure how things really happened. However, I feel it is futile to think about that too much, because we can only make judgments about what information the movie chooses to tell us. Also, if the movie’s message was really about how Robert is exaggerating his story because he is bitter, then this point would have somehow been hinted to. This is clearly not the case, so I feel we should take the information as is and accept what he says as truth.

I am somewhat confused as to why the Hollywood code forced the additional scene where Robert gets into a cop car at the end of the film. Technically, Robert is not guilty of any crime so why did they feel that he had to be punished? I suppose they felt that dragging a body to the side of the road rather than facing the music was a wrong choice. Personally, I would probably make the same choice if I was sure I would be wrongly convicted unless I covered things up. And, I’ll take it one step further and say that this movie is so good because everyone can see how tempting it would be to make the same choice as Roberts.

Vera (Ann Savage) is one of the great femme fatale characters. The movie portrays her as a woman who is so ugly on the inside that it can’t help but be seen on the surface. Robert thinks to himself when he first meets her, “She looked as if she just fell off the worst freight train in the world.” Also, I think it is significant that when Vera falls asleep Robert starts to feel differently about her. He says she doesn’t look so bad when she’s asleep. Meaning, it is not her physical appearance that makes Vera so unattractive to Robert, but it is the spider woman within her. Also, I enjoyed the fact that Vera wasn’t portrayed as some evil entity with no depth. When Vera gets drunk and continually submits Robert to sexual advances, it is clear that the spider woman personality is a defense mechanism that she has created for herself, because she suffers from low self-worth. She has put herself in a continuous loop in which she is doomed to never break free of. Guys reject her because they see she is a spider woman, and she becomes more of a spider woman because guys keep rejecting her.


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