While watching Detour (Ulmer, 1945), I began to consider the interplay between narrative and history that takes place within the film. 1945 marks the surrender of Japan and the official end of World War II, and I argue that this film works through the experience of war and the fate of the returning soldier. Something I found intriguing was the film’s internal timeline of events. Al (Tom Neal) narrates the story through flashback, but there is ambiguity surrounding when exactly the events took place. He informs the audience in the first flashback that playing piano in a nightclub was “pretty good work for those days”, and later explains his failed hitchhiking attempts to Haskell (Edmund McDonald), saying, “not many people stop for a guy these days. Can’t blame them; maybe they’re afraid of a stick-up or something”. I take this unnamed time, where work is scarce and people are desperate, to be a thinly veiled allusion to the Depression, sometime between 1929 and the late 1930s. By setting the action of the film before the war and pre-1945 provides a space in which to examine contemporary issues in the safety of “before-now”.
There are, however, indirect reminders of World War II scattered through the film. For instance, a pack of cigarettes printed with a “Buy War Bonds” logo is visible during the scene in which Vera (Anna Savage) and Al get drunk together. In “Mass Production o the Senses” Hansen writes: “the reflexive dimension of Hollywood films in relation to modernity may take cognitive, discursive, and narrative forms, but it is crucially anchored in sensory experience and sensational affect- in processes of mimetic identification that are more often than not partial and excessive in relation to narrative comprehension” (Hansen, 336). Haskell, with the scratches on his wrist and the large scar, where “infection set in”, is an imperfect body, representative of the broken body of war. He explains that the wound was caused by a “Franco-Prussian saber” in a boyhood accident, a detail that seemed bizarre and laughable when I first viewed this movie. This fact, however, introduces a German-element into a story of scarring and disease, but quite pointedly uses a war that took place in the 1870s and did not involve the United States. The distance provides the viewer a chance to reflect on his own experience of war, but through the buffer of historical and cultural distance. The scar becomes even more important when Al reasons he is unable to impersonate Haskell and claim the inheritance because his body is not marred in the same way. The desperate Vera, focused on collecting the money, says she will give him the scar herself. The threat that she poses as the aggressor is extinguished through her accidental death at Al’s hands.
I find it remarkable that the film features two accidental death scenes, and I think they speak to the experience of returning soldiers. The theme of the accidental or innocent killer reminds me of the solider who kills under orders or for his country. Al’s psychological distress and guilt reflect the feelings of the soldier whose actions were justified by war. The film again creates a safe space for reflection by toying with the timeline in the final scene of the film. The audience knows Al is headed “East” from “West”, so it seems as if he either spent years in California after Vera’s death, or that the present-day diner scene takes place before the audience’s time of 1945. This film cleverly allows its audience to work-though the experience of war in the safety of the cinema.