“She was young,” narrates the driver. “Not more than 24. Man, she looked like she’d just been thrown off the crummiest freight train in the world.” That’s a line from the pulp classic Detour, released by the Poverty Row outfit PRC in 1945. Sad sack Al Roberts is describing the hitchhiker he just picked up, a woman with drastic brows and windblown hair. During her half-hour of screen time, she’s going to pose as his wife and die by his hand. Her name is Vera.
I loved Detour when I was 17. I mused about it as a fledgling critic: “Roberts certainly isn’t a hero—the closest he comes to performing a virtuous action is seeking a normal married life with [his girlfriend] Sue—but he isn’t much of an anti-hero either. He’s almost a neutral force in the film and in his own life.” By that time I’d read Roger Ebert’s essay on it, from his first Great Movies collection. He dubs the film’s stars, Tom Neal and Ann Savage, “a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer.” Vera, he writes, is “a venomous castrator,” and Al and Vera between them embody “two pure types: the submissive man and the female hellion.” At 17, I saw myself in Al’s cosmic impotence. I lived in a body clenched with dysphoria.
Back then, the fact that Vera (like Savage) was 24 meant nothing to me. She was an older woman. Now I find it startling that this iconic femme fatale is only a few years out of her teens. As an ostensibly male viewer, I only saw her beauty and her spite; now I see that she’s bruised, worn out, and despondent. Riding cross-country with strange men, why wouldn’t she be prickly? She never lays out a back story, but drops hints here and there. “The cops are no friends of mine,” remarks this hard-bitten nihilist whose fantasies evoke years of hunger and hustle. “No more worrying about the rent!” she cries. “No sweating, scheming, wondering where your next meal’s coming from!” She’s an alcoholic with a terminal cough. Hardly a pure type.
Edgar G. Ulmer, a Jewish émigré from Austria, directed Detour during the last days of World War II. As with many genre films set on the home front, the war itself goes unmentioned, its horrors transmuted into a pall of Death. (Vera herself is like the fatal women in the films Val Lewton was producing at RKO.) In the decades since, the film’s become a cult object. Its spartan aesthetic invites the viewer to linger, like I did as a teen, like I’m doing now, and Savage’s Vera—with her glower and her bitter quips—has always been the key. She is the detour. Her counterfeit marriage to Al diverts him away from Sue. But he’s her detour, too. Without him, she wouldn’t be dead at 24. A femme is only fatale relative to the men around her. Alone, she’s a tragedy.