14 March 2004 | dxia
A Haunting Film Noir
One recurrent thought passes through my mind as I watch "Detour." It is that I do not believe a single moment of its story-telling. It isn't because of the incredible coincidences or the bitter irony but because of the simple goodness of the main character. Characters in film noir are not role models or good people placed into bad circumstances. They are bad people who believe that they're good.
The characters in "Double Indemnity," "Body Heat," or "The Talented Mr. Ripley" do not think of themselves as bad people. They believe they are forced into their crimes by the world, which is the essential difference between crime movies and noir. As pointed out by Roger Ebert: "the bad guys in crime movies know they're bad and want to be, while a noir hero thinks he's a good guy who has been ambushed by life."
"Detour" is told through the central character, Al Roberts, who recalls his story as one made through impossible coincidences and horrible luck. But there is something not right about his story. The audience can pick out the incongruities and flaws as soon as they're told. Was Charles Haskell's death really the result of bad luck or simply a murderer trying to convince himself that it was? We wonder if it is possible that a person as innocent as Al says he is can be forced into such immoral activities. However, the explanation is quite clear. Al is retelling the story not as a true confession but as a man reviewing his defense to the police.
Watching the movie, I was reminded of Tanazaki's "The Key," a novel in which the main character deliberately lies to the audience as a way of reaching the story's conclusion. We do not see a real conclusion to "Detour," but we sense that the police will find the same flaws in Al's story as we do. And that is not a fatal form of story-telling but a way of looking into the mind of a true noir character and seeing the darker depths of his soul. That is why film noir is so haunting and why this movie is so definitive in its genre.